Tongue Twisters are great, such fun as you try to bend your tongue around difficult rhymes and verses. Possibly one of the most famous tongue twisters of all time is about a woman who sells sea shells and it’s likely you’ve heard it, but you might not know that the ‘She’ in the tongue twister was a real woman, and she changed the face of science forever!
The original rhyme was written in 1908 by Terry Sullivan and it goes like this (do it out loud for extra fun!):
She sells seashells on the seashore
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure
So if she sells seashells on the seashore
Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.
The original ‘she’ was in fact a real person, Mary Anning who was born on 21st May 1799 in Lyme Regis in Dorset, a place now known as the Jurassic Coast for its abundance of fossils. Anning was the first of 10 children who would grow up in abject poverty and received scant education.
During this time it was popular to collect shells and fossils and wealthy families would display these in cases in their homes, often brought from abroad. Known for its unusual fossils, Lyme Regis was a popular place to collect these curios and Anning’s family regularly collected fossils from the beach to make more money for the family.
To put the events into perspective, it would take until 1809 before Darwin joined our mortal coil and quite a bit longer before he started working on evolutionary theories, so these curios were just that, curious items with little understanding.
By the last 1820s, Anning had quite the reputation for fossil hunter. In 1823 she found her first complete Plesiosaurus and in 1828 her ptesosaurs, the first discovered flying dinosaur was displayed at the British museum. At this stage, Anning was in her 20s and was building fair knowledge in the items she was retrieving from the coast. Her knowledge on the genus of each skeleton she discovered was unparalleled and aged 27 had accrued enough knowledge and money to open a glass fronted shop, Anning’s Fossil Depot.
As a working class woman, Anning was considered to be an outsider in the scientific community, born in a time when women could not vote, hold office, and rarely worked in the science field, the credit for much of her knowledge and many of her accomplishments were taken by scientists, but there’s no denying with what we know today that Mary Anning was one of the foremothers of palaeontology and is credited with discovering the first Ichthyosaur, Plesiosaurus, fossil fish, pterosaur, and many invertebrates and trace fossils.
So the next time you hear ‘She sells seashells on the seashore’, remember that ‘she’ was quite a mighty woman who moved the scientific look at fossils along in leaps and bounds. Oh, and she was a religious dissenter!
If you’d like to know more about Mary Anning, we have some recommended reads for all ages below.