The Victorian Age of Dinosaurs


The early to middle eighteen hundreds were an exciting time in the new science of geology.

Mining Engineer William Smith had noticed that the fossils found in each layer of rock were a handy guide to identifying that layer of rock each layer had its own unique collection of flora and fauna. He collected information about the rocks he found as he travelled the country working on the burgeoning canal system. By 1815 he had amassed enough information to make the first geological map of Britain.



At this time Catastrophism was the prevailing theory used to reconcile scientific evidence with the biblical account of the creation. The new evidence unearthed by the geologists began to tell a different story. Layers of rock, previously though to be laid down in the biblical flood raised puzzling questions about their origins. Why were there fossils of seas shells on mountain tops? Why were fossils of animals native to tropical lands found in temperate regions? Why were layers filled with sea life fossils capped with layers with land animals and then with sea life fossils above that? The evidence began to show that untold time  had passed in the creation of the earth.


Sir Charles LyellIn 1830 geologist Charles Lyell challenged catastrophism with the publication of his book Principles of Geology which presented evidence  in favour of the new theory, gradualism. These were heady times for the everyone associated with geology with many gentleman scientists looking for evidence to support their research.




Mary_Anning_paintingMary Anning, Fossil collector and hero of both nursery rhyme and tongue twister was born in 1799 in Lyme Regis on the south coast of the UK. She collected fossils from an early age selling the curios to tourists to help supplement her family’s meagre income. At that time no one know what these strange and beautiful objects were. Ranging from curled ammonites to pointed belamnites which were originally thought to be discharged lightning bolts, through to the teeth and bones of what were thought to be crocodiles, no one could explain what they were or how they had got there.  All this was about to change and over the course of her life Mary Anning’s skills and observations contributed massively to the new fields of geology and palaeontology.

The contributions Mary Anning made to the the study of ancient worlds are all the more impressive given the disadvantages of her background.  In a time when social standing was all, she was tripley handicapped. Not only was she a woman and poor but most shockingly her family were not even Anglican! She belonged to a religious group called the Dissenters. In-spite of this the finds she made at the beaches of Lyme Regis and the astute observations she made of her specimens ensured a steady stream of Gentleman Scientists were regular visitors to Lyme Regis.

anning_sketch_plesiosaurMary Anning discovered and identified the first Plesiosaur skeleton, found the first pterosaur outside of germany and contributed to the realisation that coprolites were in fact fossilised faeces. Over the years Anning was able to lift her family a little way out of the poverty that they had been used to. She opened a fossil shop in the town featuring as its main display a fossil ichthyosaur. Geologists from all round europe visited looking for items for their collections.

plesiosaurAfter a long, protracted illness she died in 1847 of breast cancer. Many of her finds are still on display in the Natural History Museum in London. In 2010 – 163 years after her death, The Royal Society included Mary Anning in their list of ten women who have most influenced the history of science.


“We want no better guide than Moses!”

In the early 1816 William Buckland published a comparative study of the strata of Britain and Europe. It began to look as if the layers of rock enveloping the earth formed the book of geology. By studying these layers the undergroundologists or geologists as they came to be known could read the history of the globe.

CuvierIn Paris at this time George Cuvier was developing a new approach to comparative anatomy. The spoils for the napoleonic wars were being sent back to Paris from museums and collections across Europe. Cuvier studied the fossils applying his knowledge of existing creatures. He began to see that the skeleton, even the teeth of ancient creatures provided clues about their life and their relation to other creatures from other times. William Buckland wanted to apply the work of Cuvier to the finds of Mary Anning and the geological discovered he had made himself. Studying Mary Annings ‘crocodile’ skeleton he soon concluded that the creature had the teeth of a reptile but the spine of a fish and gave it the name Ichthyosaur or Fish Lizard. Buckland published a paper about his work, not even mentioning Mary Anning.

Anning was still courted by gentleman geologists and was often seen walking along the shore line searching for fossils with them.

Gideon Mantell

mantellInspired by the discoveries of Mary Anning, Gideon Mantell, a doctor and amateur geologist set out to find fossils in his own neighbourhood of Sussex. His is a story of intense highs and desperate lows. A lowly doctor struggling to find acceptance in a class ridden society where most of his fellow players were rich ‘gentlemen’.

Gideon Mantell was a very able, hardworking and likeable fellow. A doctor, in the age of leeches, he was an accomplished obstetrician. He spent his spare hours studying the local geology aiming to record a history of the local strata. He paid quarry men in the area for any interesting fossils they may find and soon built up a sizeable collection. Yet without a patron, it was difficult for him to make headway.

His collection increased steadily in size and at first he thought that the many bone fragments he found must be of the only know fossilised bones, Mary Anning’s Ichthyosaur. Gradually though as he began to find leaves and tree trunks in the same rocky deposit and he began to suspect he had found something new. When he finally saw detailed sketches of the Ichthyosaur he realised his suspicions were correct. What he had collected was something completely new. From the form of the tooth he had found and the size and shape of the bones, Mantell concluded that what he had found was in fact a giant herbivorous lizard. Something never seen before.

In Oxford at this time Cuvier was meeting with Buckland. They too had giant, unexplained bones but theirs appeared to be from a land dwelling carnivore estimated to be some forty feet long.

The prehistoric lands were beginning to fill with monsters.

Buckland held back from publication of his research worried about how the church would react. Instead he set about searching for proof of the flood.

Mantell continued his studies of the local fossils and completed his book Fossils of the Sussex Weild. He had high hopes that at last he would find a patron and at last be able to work of his studies full time. Shortly after his publication he took his book and presented it at the geological society in Covent Garden. His efforts were rebuffed. The experts there wrongly suggested that Mantell had the dates of the fossil bearing rocks wrong and that what he had found were in fact the skeletons of much younger mammals.

Mantell felt the rebuff keenly. He returned home and redoubled his efforts to survey and accurately date the rocks. He successfully gathered overwhelming evidence of the rocks antiquity presenting it in a letter to the geological society. However, such was Mantell’s standing that the letter wasn’t even read out at the meeting. It was a further three years before Mantell’s work was published. Mantell, worn down by rejection, struggled on with his work and his efforts to find a patron. Meanwhile Mantell’s life both at home and professionally became increasingly difficult. His wife disapproved of the fossils taking over the house and the doctor was loosing patients to his geological workload.

William_ConybeareTime passed and gradually the weight of evidence in support of Mantell grew. In 1824 Buckland, and geologists Wiliam Conybeare gave a presentation to the geological society with evidence for new giant reptilians. Mantell, who was present at the meeting took his chance to introduce himself and talk of his collection but still made little progress. In frustration Mantell sent drawings to the great Cuvier and asked for his opinion. This was a turning point in Mantell’s fortunes. At last the fossil teeth were recognised for what they were. The teeth of a giant land dwelling herbivorous reptile.

teethWith Cuvier’s endorsement Mantell was able to spend time in the Hunterian Museum comparing anatomical details with their collection. It turned out that the tooth bore a striking resemblance to that of an iguana only much larger. With that in mind Mantell named his beast the Iguanadon or iguana tooth. Finally Mantell felt the recognition that his incredible work deserved. He produced a new lavishly illustrated book about the fauna of prehistoric britain only to find that sales were slow and interest minimal.

At this time some geologists were beginning to think the unthinkable. What if the geological feature seen all around were not in fact created by the flood. Charles Lyell, a friend of Mantell was one of these people and he encouraged Mantell to seize the moment and go all out with the publication of his work. Mantell agreed, He converted his house into a museum and produced a paper called “The Age of Reptiles” Unfortunately, the time was not right, although it was recogised by some in the geological field, Mantell’s work stirred up a hornets nest of angry Christians. It was around this time that Mantell’s life intersected with that of Richard Owen the young ambitious anatomist.

Richard_Owen1Richard Owen started work in the Hunterian Museum and as a talented scientist started work on classifying and recording their enormous fossil collection. Through a variety of scheming and hard work Owen worked his way up through the echelons of the geological society. He worked hard to disprove the ideas of the new evolutionists and started by trying to discredit the new giant reptiles. And so it was that he set his eyes on discrediting Gideon Mantell.

It began to look as though Gideon Mantell had finally made the break into society he so deserved. He was sponsored to move to Brighton where he bought a large double fronted house where he planned to house both his museum and his family. At last Mantel and his family began to prosper. He was readily accepted into high society and was developing new work and new ideas. He was awarded honourary degrees and medals from the geological society. Unfortunately, the fame did not transfer into wealth. His medical practice declined and in a double blow Mantell had to sell his entire collection which was transferred to London in ninety carriages and his wife left him. To top off the year his beloved daughter died.

Meanwhile, Owen’s star was rising. He used his influence to mock the idea of evolution writing that there was no evidence to any forms changing over time. In 1841 he presented a paper to the geological society detailing his findings on the newly discovered ancient reptiles. Mantell, reading this some time later was distressed to see that Owen had used his position to make personal attacks on other researchers including the work of Mantell himself. Owen even suggested that the name Iguanadon should be changed. He took credit for the discoveries made by Mantell and other scientists and ridiculed their contribution to the new science. Mantell said this was “unworthy piracy and ingratitude” pointing out that Owen’s interpretation of the Iguanadon as a slow plodding four footed creature was almost certainly wrong.

It was around this time that Owen secured his name in history by coining the word Dinosaur meaning Terrible Lizard.

Just when things were looking bad for Gideon Mantell they got considerable worse. In a freak accident he was thrown from a carriage and badly damaged his spine. Virtually paralised and in terrible pain Mantell was trapped in his home. It was twelve weeks before sensation returned to his legs and even after his partial recovery his life was dominated by pain and fatigue.

evilowenOwen, meanwhile, was realising his ambition. He was granted money from the civil list and lavished with praise for his work on anatomy. He made scathing criticisms of his rivals and claimed for his own, work that they had done. Owen was not a nice man.

In 1846 Owen was nominated for the royal medal by the royal society. He used his position to try to deny recognition of the work of Gideon Mantell. Mantell struggled on against his injury and soon built up a new collection. Mantell published again and his new book was a success being reprinted for a second run. Despite the increasing pain of his back Mantell struggled on with his work on iguanadon. He was able to show that fossils that Owen had claimed as parts of other unidentified animals were in fact all parts of the Iguanadon. After long, patient and difficult work Mantell had put together an almost complete skeleton. His interpretation of the bones is still recognised as correct today. Mantell went on to identify the sauropods, another group dismissed by Owen.

Once again Mantell was proposed for a royal society medal and once again Owen did everything in his power to stop it denouncing Mantell as a mere collector.

On the third occasion supported by Buckland and Lyell, Mantell was finally awarded the royal society medal much to Owen’s fury.

spineIt was not long after this that Mantell finally sucumbed to the damage to his back and died. In a final insult to Mantell, his twisted vertebrae were sent to Owen’s museum for display. But Owen wasn’t yet satisfied. An anonymous obituary was published in the Literary Gazette. Mantell was dismissed as an inadequate scientist and the discovery of iguanadon was credited to Cuvier with some insights and corrections to Owen.

The geological community was shocked – recognising the work of Mantell and decrying the obit as the obvious work of Owen.

Iguanodon_Crystal_PalaceAfter Mantell’s death Owen was given the job of creating a full size model of iguanadon. Ignoring Mantell’s correct insights, Owen created a squat four footed beast which can still be seen in the Crystal Palace Gardens.

After the hiccough of the Mantell obituary Owen went from strength to strength. He oversaw the creation of the Natural History Museum in London and was feted by all in the first dino-mania.

It was Charles Darwin that finally knocked him off his perch. Owen met his match in the form of Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog. Huxley dismantled Owen’s argument that there were brain structures in man that weren’t in any other animals. Owen had claimed that these were the seat of the soul. By 1862 Owen’s reputation was irreparably damaged and he was removed from the royal society.

The Natural History Museum, the last monument to Owen’s acheivements delivered the final blow. In 2008, the great statue of Owen that had stood at the top of the first flight of stairs overlooking the great dinosaur hall was removed…


…and replaced by Darwin

This text was originally delivered at West Cumbria Skeptics in the Pub 3rd Oct 2013.