Since the launch of Science Gossip on March 4, 2015, we’ve had an overwhelming response from contributors! Over 3,000 people have added over 140,000 classifications to the pages of Victorian periodicals available through the project.

Riding Crocodile

“On Riding on the Back of a Crocodile.” Magazine of Natural History. v. 2 (1829).

One of our favorite outcomes have been the incredible insights and discoveries Science Gossip contributors have shared with us. For instance, @SiobhanLeachman shared on Twitter her discovery that you can find live bats and frogs when you dig coal shafts! Or how about jules’ discovery of an 1829 article about riding on the back of crocodiles?!

There are countless more discoveries to be made in these fascinating historic natural history articles. Sometimes, it is by combining information across multiple Victorian journals that we can uncover the most impactful stories. Case in point? The amazing contributions of fossil collector and naturalist Mary Anning, whose discoveries (sometimes credited to her, sometimes not) are documented within 19th journals, including some contained within the Science Gossip project: the Magazine of Natural History and the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London.

Mary Anning: The Woman Naturalist

Mary Anning

Portrait of Mary Anning with her dog Tray and the Golden Cap outcrop in the background, Natural History Museum, London. This painting was owned by her brother Joseph, and presented to the museum in 1935 by Miss Annette Anning.

Mary Anning was born on May 21, 1799, in the seaside community of Lyme Regis, in the south of England. From the outset, she had an eventful life; she was named after an older sister who perished in a house fire, and at the age of 14 months, young Mary was the sole survivor of a lightening strike that claimed three members of her community. Her father, Richard, was a cabinetmaker, but also a fossil collector who sold his finds to the visitors of Lyme Regis beaches. When he died in 1810, the Anning family fell into debt. It was in 1811 that Mary’s older brother Joseph found the skull of a “crocodile” in the cliffs near their home, prompting Mary to investigate further. Nearly one year later, she had located the complete skeleton and hired help to free the fossil from the cliff. This specimen is usually considered the first Ichthyosaurus to be found (although reexamination of the historical record shows that other specimens were discovered earlier), and its description and image were published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1814. Noticeably absent from this paper is any credit due to Mary Anning or her brother.


Image of Mary Anning’s Plesiosaur from Transactions of the Geological Society of London. ser. 2 vol. 1.

Mary sold the famous Ichthyosaur skeleton for a handsome sum, following in her father’s footsteps and quickly becoming the family breadwinner. In December 1823, Mary’s next major discovery came to light; it was the nearly complete Plesiosaurus described in the Transactions of the Geological Society of London; once again, Mary Anning is not credited by name in the paper.


Image of Mary Anning’s Pterosaur from Transactions of the Geological Society of London. ser. 2 vol. 3.

It is around this time that Mary Anning became an object of fascination to the scientific community. Visitors came to Lyme Regis to meet her, including scientists and collectors from around Europe and the United States. The next decade continued to be a productive one, as she found the first Pterosaur ever discovered in Great Britain; the flying reptile captured the public imagination and her fame spread outside of scientific circles, possibly because she was named in the paper. She also unearthed more complete Plesiosaur and Ichthyosaur specimens, correctly identified coprolites as fossil feces, discovered a remarkable fossil fish named Squaloraja, a creature illustrating the link between sharks and rays, and found specimens of the invertebrate Belemnosepia with intact fossil ink sacs, containing viable ink that could be used for drawing. By the late 1820s, Mary’s work was recognized and her new discoveries often published by William Buckland, the great geologist who described the bones of the giant reptile he dubbed Megalosaurus, which we now recognize as the first published description of a dinosaur.

Mary’s fame continued to grow, and she continued to operate her fossil shop in Lyme Regis, selling significant specimens to scientists, collectors, and museums. In 1838, she was recognized by the British Association for the Advancement of Science with a special yearly stipend of £25. In 1846, the Geological Society of London arranged further funds for her welfare. Sadly, in 1847, Mary Anning died of breast cancer at the age of 47. She was honored with an obituary published in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, a particularly remarkable tribute given that the Society was not open to women at this time.

Anning Letter

Mary Anning’s letter to the Magazine of Natural History. n.s. vol. 3, 1839.

Despite Mary’s significant contributions to science, there is only one item known to be authored by her in the published literature, a letter she wrote to the Magazine of Natural History, published in 1839.

As the world celebrates Women’s History Month in March, we salute one of history’s often-overlooked early women in science. Piecing together Mary Anning’s contributions to the field through Victorian journals demonstrates the important historical, not to mention scientific, value of these periodicals.

What discoveries will you uncover as you page through the books on Science Gossip? With your help, we may be able to uncover new insights into unknown authors and illustrators – like Anning. There’s a vast treasure trove of information just waiting to be unearthed!

Rebecca Morin
Head of Research & Instruction, Tufts University Hirsh Health Sciences Library
With Contributions By:
Grace Costantino
Outreach and Communication Manager, Biodiversity Heritage Library

Piecing Together the Story of a Female Naturalist through Victorian Journals

Citizen Science Now and Then

Science Gossip investigates the making and communication of science in both the Victorian period and today. This project is born from a collaboration between an Arts and Humanities Research Council project in the UK, called ‘Constructing Scientific Communities: Citizen Science in the 19th and 21st Centuries’ (ConSciCom) and the Missouri Botanical Garden who are providing content from the Biodiversity Heritage Library (

The BHL has digitized millions of pages of historic literature on biodiversity from the 1400s to today. Hidden within these pages is a treasure trove of illustrations that you can help identify and classify. The data you create by tagging illustrations and adding artist and engraver information will have a direct impact on the research of historians who are trying to understand why, how often and who made images depicting a whole range of natural science topics during the Victorian period.

In this post, Dr. Geoffrey Belknap, historian of Victorian Science, explains the links between scientific investigation in the past, and the work of Citizen Scientists today:

Victorian Periodicals are endless fun. They are loaded with odd stories and illustrations made by people whose contributions are not widely recognized, but whose work was important nonetheless. Unlike books, periodicals were usually bought, read and then discarded, unless they were purchased by a library and preserved for posterity like those in the BHL collections. While many of the volumes I study are held in public libraries, sometimes they reveal traces of past readers. One day, while perusing a periodical, I encountered a fern specimen pressed between the pages of two issues. It was placed there by an as yet unknown (and likely never to be known) collector. For a historian of periodicals, this is treasure indeed!

2014-07-17 13.28.50Periodicals are notoriously bad at retaining traces of their readers – or, in this case, users. The placement of the fern on a page – incidentally entitled “A Thing of Beauty” – acts as a reminder for me in my research. These texts and the past that they represent are three-dimensional: they held knowledge in terms of articles and illustrations, but readers could add to this by using the pages of periodicals to their own ends.

The periodical containing the fern is called Hardwicke’s Science Gossip: an illustrated medium of interchange and gossip for students and lovers of nature, and–as you’ll have guessed–it is the inspiration for this project. The aim of Science Gossip, then as now, is to bring together a range of people eager to engage with scientific discovery and research. The most enticing aspects of Science Gossip, for both Victorian and modern readers, are the illustrations dotted across almost every page of the journal. What a reader could see on any given page ranged from Diatoms to imagined 17th-century apes, and everything in between.


The illustrations constituted an essential part of Science Gossip’s appeal, which in turn encouraged a wide range of contributors. Over a 15-year period – beginning in 1865 when the periodical was founded – Science Gossip published work by over 550 individual authors. Finding out more about the social, economic and scientific position of these authors will be a central part of my research over the next three years. One of the challenges I face is that the authors for Science Gossip are largely unknown. Help me and my collaborators at Zooniverse and the BHL unlock these illustrative treasures.   Let us know who created them, their subject matter and any particular species and other information they portray. Your work will help us understand what constituted a nineteenth-century citizen scientist, and indeed a twenty-first century citizen scientist!

This is the first Zooniverse project where citizen scientists are both the researchers and subject of the research. Citizen scientists of today can have a direct impact on how we understand historical and modern notions of what it means to do science.

Geoffrey Belknap, Postdoctoral Research Assistant for Constructing Scientific Communities and historian of Victorian Science, Visual Culture and Periodical History

Trish Rose-Sandler, Data Analyst, BHL and Data Projects Coordinator, Missouri Botanical Garden

Victoria Van Hyning, Digital Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow, Zooniverse