The Tragic Fate of the Man Who Discovered Dinosaurs

Gideon MantellTo most people born after 1920, the existence of dinosaurs is a given. Folks in our modern age don’t even question the fact that 300 million or so years ago, huge reptile-like beasts roamed around in a world devoid of humans. That Tyrannosaurus Rex and Brontosaurus once existed is as natural to us as the sun coming up, or rain falling from clouds.

Stop for a moment, though, and consider how downright bizarre the whole concept would have sounded to someone born in, say 1720. The only information most people at that time had about ancient animals came from the Bible or the works of classic Greek or Roman writers. And all those sources mention lions, tigers, bears and many other types of animals still very much in existence. It seemed logical to assume that if tigers existed in the time of the Old Testament, they’d always existed. If you could travel back to the 18th century and tell them that at one point, long in the past, gigantic, lizard-like creatures dozens of feet long roamed the earth, they’d probably burn you at the stake for witchcraft… and I can’t say that I’d blame them.

There was one thing that troubled people back then though, and that was the existence of fossils. At the time, most of the fossils people were familiar with were of ancient sea creatures like fish or bivalves. And what bothered the 18th century mind was why those fossils would turn up in the middle of the English countryside or high atop mountains deep in the heart of France.

Several schools of thought developed as “gentlemen scientists” investigated the matter further. Those investigations continued quietly on for some time, but the entire world seemed to turn upside down in 1811, when an uneducated young girl named Mary Anning found the remains of an ichthyosaur in Dorset, on the English coast. But rather than clearly making the case for the existence of dinosaurs, Annin’s fossil only made things even murkier. Since the fossil resembled a gigantic crocodile, the question wasn’t “what was this prehistoric beast?” but rather “what are the bones of a huge crocodile doing in England?”

It would take a humble country doctor from Sussex named Gideon Algernon Mantell to figure out that these fossils weren’t the bones of some mutated or out-of-place animal, but those of a truly ancient species. Which is quite remarkable, if you think about it. Many fossils do look like odd stones or strange sticks. And even today it’s pretty easy for an amateur to mistake the bones of a bear that died 100 years ago for a dinosaur that died 300 million years ago.

Mantell was a doctor who dedicated almost all of his spare time to tracking down and cataloging fossils. By 1820, he was finding huge bones, bones so big that he was inspired to write a book about them called The Fossils of South Downs. Just before finishing the book, however, he made his “great leap forward” in thinking. He had taken his wife with him on a house call, and Mrs. Mantell took a stroll down a nearby lane to pass the time while his husband attended to his patient. She spotted some odd-looking rocks in a pile of rubble and, thinking they might be fossils, brought them back for Gideon. He reckoned them to be teeth (correct), and that they came from an herbivore reptile (correct) from the Cretaceous period (correct) that was dozens of feet long (also correct). This was a bold thing to say, mainly because it had never been said before.

And this is where Mantell’s luck goes straight to hell. Because his findings would be highly controversial, Mantell was advised to hold off on publishing a paper about it by fossil hunter and friend William Buckland. Buckland advised Mantell to gather more evidence and shore up his conclusions before sending the paper to the Royal Society. This gave Mantell time to send the teeth to famed French anatomist Georges Cuvier, who quickly pronounced the teeth as having come from a hippopotamus. (Cuvier claimed to have said this after a long night of drinking; he apologized the next day and then claimed the teeth were of “unknown origin”. Unfortunately, news of Cuvier’s retraction never made it to England, where Mantell was seen as a laughingstock.)

Things only got worse for Mantell. It seems that the real reason that William Buckland had begged Mantell to use caution wasn’t so that Mantell could gather more information, but to give Buckland time to publish his own paper in which he totally scooped Mantell by describing his own finding: the Megalosaurus. So now, Mantell wasn’t only a laughingstock, he was a laughingstock that had been beaten to the punch by a fellow researcher.

But things just kept getting worse for poor Gideon. By this point he was so addicted to fossil hunting that he’d neglected his medical practice and was rapidly running out of money. Since his house was jammed full of fossils, he decided to turn it into a museum. Sadly, he quickly learned that charging people admission to see the fossils would ruin his standing as both a “gentleman” and a scientist. But since the museum was already set up, he opted to open the museum anyway and just not charge people. This would preserve his social standing… but the dozens of visitors that came each day disrupted his home and took even more time away from his already neglected medical practice. Mantell was soon broke, and had to sell off most of his precious fossils to pay the bills. Although his wife loved him, she just couldn’t take it any more, so shortly after the fossil sale she left him, taking the children with her.

Mantell’s story would be sad enough if it ended here, but it doesn’t. Broke and alone, Mantell moved to London, where he encountered the wrath of Richard Owen.

Owen would go down in history as one of England’s best biologists and her first paleontologist. Owen did some remarkable work, but he was also known for being absolutely ruthless. He wasn’t above adding his name in authorship for other people’s work, or even removing the names of authors he didn’t like. He claimed to have held jobs that he hadn’t, stole specimens from other researchers then claimed that he didn’t, and got into several arguments with high-profile scientists over work they did, but Owen claimed as his own. Although a genius on many levels, Owen was highly unethical, and is the only person that Charles Darwin was said to hate. And for some reason, he decided to take his wrath out on Gideon Mantell.

This was made easy by the next tragedy to befall Mantell: while crossing Clapham Common in a carriage, Mantell somehow fell off and became entangled in the reins. He was dragged at full speed by the horses, which broke his spine in several places and left him permanently crippled. With Mantell unable to fight back, Owen went to work on Mantell’s reputation. He used his influence with the Royal Society to make sure that Mantell’s later work went unpublished. He systematically went though Mantell’s body of work and claimed credit for dozens of species that Mantell had discovered. In short, Owen did everything he could to make it as though Mantell had never existed.

Poor Gideon just couldn’t take it any more, and on November 10, 1852, he killed himself with an overdose of opium. But Owen wasn’t finished with him yet. Almost everyone in the science community was convinced that Owen was the author of a lukewarm and condescending obituary of Mantell in local newspapers. Not content with this little stunt, Owen had Mantell’s deformed spine removed and sent to the Royal College of Surgeons… which he himself ran.

Owen’s bad deeds eventually caught up with him. He convinced the Royal Society (of which he was the chairman) to give him its highest honor, the Royal Medal. He was either vain or stupid enough to choose for the honor some research originally done by a man named Chanling Pearce. Pearce objected, a ruckus was raised, and although Owen was allowed to keep his medal, his reputation was shattered. He was soon kicked out of the Zoological and Royal societies as well as the Royal College of Surgeons.

But Mantell would suffer one last indignity. His spine, which had been on display for nearly 100 years at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, was destroyed by a German bomb in World War II. Today Mantell is celebrated for his genius… but thanks to Richard Owen and one Nazi bomb, he almost ceased to exist completely.

6 Replies to “The Tragic Fate of the Man Who Discovered Dinosaurs”

  1. Just about every culture on earth knew about “dinosaurs” for centuries before Martell. They called them “dragons.”

  2. I’m from New Zealand and got stuck in snow yesterday driving home through the mountains. Spent 13 hours in my wagon under three feet of snow. Have always been fascinated by Charles Darwin. After clearing a mound of snow from my door window I was gazing at the wonderous scenery thinking about him, evolution, species and the whole ‘isn’t nature amazing’ thing. Somehow my mind wandered to dinasours. I realised I had no idea who the first person to discover, identify or bring about the common knowledge we have today was. Googled it and found your article. Fantastic. Thank-you
    I’m a writer. It would make a fantastic play/film script. Has all the ingredients? Is this something you’ve ever thought of? Would you be offended if I pursued this? No worries if it’s a pet project. Cheers for your article.


  3. My daughter was curious why the Bible didn’t say that God made dinasaurs. We googled when the existance of dinasaurs was discovered and found your article. She was sad because of the unhappy ending. We agree that the story would make a great film/play or even an opera. Thanks for providing such an interesting answer to when dinasours were discovered!!

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