Elizabeth Philpot : Collector of Curious Creatures

If I’m going to talk about Mary Anning, then I must also talk about her close friend and mentor, Elizabeth Philpot.

Philpot is easily as important to the early discipline of palaeontology as Anning, and easily as neglected. It’s this neglect that leaves her as little more than a footnote, still, as time passes more usually comes out about these great women, and as I find new information I will update this post.

But let’s not dwell on what we don’t know, instead let’s share what is known!

Elizabeth Philpot was born in 1780 in England, moving in 1805 to Lyme with her sisters Mary and Margarete. They cohabited in a house bought for them by their brother. The three sisters became famous for their extensive fossil collection which they kept on display in their home, and later in a Museum built by their nephew in Lyme.

Though all three sisters were responsible for the collection, it was Elizabeth who maintained correspondences with well know palaeontologists like  William BucklandWilliam Conybeare, and Henry De la Beche. She was also very knowledgeable of the science of geology and impressed its importance on a young Anning as the two became friends and partners in fossil hunting.

In 1843 Philpot and Anning worked alongside Swiss palaeontologist Louis Agassiz as he recovered and studied fossil fish. He became so impressed with their knowledge of the fossils that he wrote favorably of them in his paper on the topic and named a fossil fish species, Eugnathus philpotae, after Philpot.

Probably one of the best known inventions for Philpot was Fossil Ink. In 1826 Anning discovered a belemnite fossil with a chamber containing what looked like dried ink. She showed it to Philpot who worked to revive it using water. She then took the fossilized ink and used it to illustrate a drawing of an ichthyosaur held in her collection. This apparently sparked a new fad with other artists, using the ink in their own drawings.

Sadly, not much else is known about Elizabeth or her sisters. She has been fictionalized in  Tracy Chevalier‘s historical novel entitled Remarkable Creatures, but there is little in the history books on the Philpot sisters. Still, what is known shows that she was easily as influential to the early development of palaeontology as Anning, if for no other reason then being a mentor to the young Anning. As I said before, when I find more information on her, I will work to fill this entry out better. Until then we must be content with the Wiki entry on her, which is pretty much the only information I could find. If you know of anything else, please feel free to send it to me via email.

For more in this series check out Mother’s of the Field.


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