Saturday, 25 August 2012

The Frightful Fate of the Dinosaur Doctor

            There is a story, almost certainly apocryphal, that in 1822, while her husband, Dr Gideon Mantell, was making a housecall, Mrs Mary Mantell took herself off for a walk down a nearby country lane where she spotted a strange, curved, brown stone in amongst a pile of pebbles intended for filling potholes in the road. As Dr Mantell was a fanatical amateur geologist, she picked it up and showed it to him later, and after a careful examination, he identified it as the tooth of a large, herbivorous reptile that he thought, maybe, came from the Mesozoic era. Over the next three years Mantell consulted several experts, hoping to confirm his identification, but met with universal dismissal. He sent the tooth to George Cuvier, the foremost comparative anatomist in Europe, who judged it to be the tooth of a rhinoceros, but the following morning Cuvier revised his opinion, declaring it to be ‘something quite different’ (although this revision did not reach Mantell, who was ridiculed by his English peers for his attribution). After all, who did this upstart Mantell think he was? 

Gideon Algernon Mantell

Gideon Algernon Mantell had been born at Lewes, Sussex on February 3rd 1790, the fifth of seven children born to Thomas Mantell, a shoemaker. From an early age he was fascinated by the fossils and rocks he found in the Sussex countryside, and began collecting them, a habit that he retained throughout his life. At fifteen he was apprenticed to a local surgeon, James Moore, and learned the business of a country doctor, before receiving formal medical training in London, gaining a diploma as a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1811. He returned to Lewes and went into partnership with Moore, tripling the income of the practice through his dedicated work, before setting himself up in his own practice in 1816. In addition to his busy medical duties, he studied geology and identified fossils he dug from local pits and quarries, and wrote his first book, The Fossils of the South Downs (1822). 

Title Page - G A Mantell The Fossils of the South Downs 1822

From his researches, Mantell was able to show that the fossil bones he was excavating from the Sussex chalk belonged to terrestrial and freshwater animals, whilst only marine remains had previously been found, and he placed them in the Cretaceous period of the late Mesozoic era. The persistent Mantell sent further specimens to Cuvier, who confirmed that Mantell’s theories were indeed correct, allowing him to present his findings to those same members of the Geological Society of London who had previously dismissed him as the non-university son of an illiterate shoemaker. When he was carrying out further research at the Hunterian Museum, Mantell fell into conversation with another researcher who was doing work on South American reptiles and who noticed the similarities between Mantell’s fossil teeth and those of iguanas. 


This led him to call his discovery the Iguanodon – although it had no relationship with the iguana – and in 1825, Mantell presented a paper to the Royal Society (maybe as a snub to the less-prestigious Geological Society) entitled Notice on the Iguanodon, a Newly Discovered Fossil Reptile, from the Sandstone of Tilgate Forest, in Sussex. The paper catapulted Mantell to immediate fame and prestige - he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and made an Honorary Member of the Institute of Paris, and the King ordered copies of his books, although many found them too expensive (his Illustrations of the Geology of Sussex sold only fifty copies, leaving Mantell £300 out of pocket), leading him to write cheaper volumes aimed at a middle-class audience. 

Title page - G A Mantell The Medals of Creation 1844

His success caused Mantell to move from rural Lewes to Brighton, where he opened his collection of fossils to the public – although, as a gentleman, he was disinclined to charge an entry fee. His free museum took over his home, leaving him only one room for his surgery and none for his family, who moved out. The hundreds of visitors ate into his time (in his journal, he records parties of upward of 150 people at a time) - his medical practice failed, and in 1838 he was forced to offer the collection for sale to the British Museum for £5,000 in order to cover his debts (he settled for £4,000 in 1839 – in his journal he wrote plaintively, “And so passes away the labour of 25 years!!! G. A. MANTELL. But I will begin de novo!”). 

Mary Ann, his wife, left him in 1839, taking the four children with him (his son, Walter, emigrated to New Zealand later in the same year, and in the following year his daughter, Hannah, died of tuberculosis). Mantell moved to Clapham Common, London, and started another medical practice, and increasingly found himself at odds with Richard Owen. Owen had a reputation as being as great a comparative anatomist as the legendary Cuvier, and was at the very heart of the scientific, and palaeological, establishment. 

In 1841, Owen had coined the word ‘Dinosauria’, from which we get ‘dinosaur’ – meaning ‘terrible lizard’ (although, as Bill Bryson noted in his A Short History of Nearly Everything, not all dinosaurs were terrible – “some were no bigger than rabbits” and although they were reptiles, they certainly were not lizards). Owen had thought Iguanodon to be a heavy quadruped, Mantell proved it to be bipedal; Owen had identified some vertebrae as coming from several species of Iguanodon, Mantell proved them to be from just one. 

Owen Riding his Hobby - Frederick Waddy

And then, one day in 1841, Mantell was driving his carriage across Clapham Common when he fell from the seat and became entangled in the reins. The frightened horses panicked and galloped off, dragging Mantell under the wheels, where he suffered horrific spinal injuries. Although crippled, he continued to work, both as a doctor and geologist, but his constant pain severely restricted his activities. Owen took this opportunity to rewrite history – he claimed that Cuvier and himself had discovered the iguanodon, he renamed dinosaurs discovered by Mantell and then claimed that he had discovered them, and used his influence at the Royal Society to have Mantell’s research papers rejected, all of which caused Mantell to note it was “… a pity a man so talented should be so dastardly and envious.” 

In 1852, Mantell took an analgesic dose of opium, which may have been within the normal safe limit but was too much for the enfeebled Mantell and he died from an unintentional overdose. An anonymous obituary appeared shortly afterwards in the Literary Gazette, which denigrated Mantell’s achievements and claimed his scientific work was no more than mediocre at best – although anonymous, the style of the obituary quickly identified it as coming from Owen’s pen. Adding insult to injury, after the post-mortem, a section of Mantell’s deformed spine (he had suffered from scoliosis) was removed and pickled, and passed into the care of the Director of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons – who just happened to be Richard Owen.

Mantell's spine

1 comment:

  1. I lived near Tilgate for years, and my grandparents, and never knew all this! More needs to be out there about him. He deserves more recognition.