Ten Years of Science History: Dinosaur Pioneer

233 years ago on February 3, one of the very first dinosaur enthusiasts, Gideon Mantell, was born. Passion for geology was even more important for him than relations with his family. About a man who devoted his life to ancient fossils – in our material from the cycle “Ten Years of the History of Science”.

Gideon was born in 1790 in Lewes, Sussex, the son of a shoemaker who at that time already had 4 children. From childhood, he explored the world around him with interest: living in a cottage on St. Mary’s Lane, in the vicinity he found ammonites, sea urchin shells. Gideon’s father, Thomas Mantell, although a member of the local council that managed the affairs of the city, was a non-conformist – a follower of the Methodist Church, a Protestant denomination that finally separated from the Church of England in the 18th century. Because of this, his children could not study in local free gymnasiums. So, Mantell’s path to education was unusual: he studied at a girls’ school, and an elderly woman hired for this taught him the basics of reading and writing. He changed several teachers before, at age 15, with the help of a local Whig party leader,


For 5 years, Gideon served as an apprentice, and all this time Moore fed and clothed his ward. At first, Mantell only cleaned medicine bottles. As he studied, he learned how to make pills and perform simple operations, such as pulling teeth from patients. In addition, he maintained Moore’s accounts and delivered medicines to him. He also spent his free time usefully – he studied anatomy on his own, and later outlined his knowledge in Anatomy of Bones and Blood Circulation.

After the death of his father in 1807, Mantell went to London for several years to continue his studies. In 1811, he received a diploma of a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, and after – a certificate allowing him to perform obstetric operations.

On his return to Lewes, he partnered with Moore. During this period, an amazing story happened to Gideon – he saved a woman from the death penalty, who was accused of poisoning her husband with arsenic. The doctor was able to prove that the examination on which the investigation relied was unreliable. In 1827 he published a treatise on the subject, Observations on the Medical Evidence necessary to prove the Presence of Arsenic in the Human Body in cases of supposed Poisoning by that Mineral”). In addition, epidemics of typhoid fever and smallpox gave Mantell a lot of trouble: every day he saw about 50 patients, because of which, it happened, he did not sleep for several days in a row.


Despite the workload, Mantell devoted a lot of time to his favorite pastime since childhood – geology. He was inspired by the discovery of Mary Anning, an amateur paleontologist, who discovered in the rocks of Lyme Regis the skeleton of a fossilized animal later identified as an ichthyosaur. Mantell collected samples of Cretaceous deposits, first near Lewis, and then in the Weald, an area in southern England, which includes parts of the counties of Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire. Often, fascinated by the finds, he worked until early morning, trying to identify fossil specimens.

In 1813 Mantell began to correspond with James Sowerby (1757-1822), a famous English botanist and botanical illustrator. Sowerby was involved in cataloging fossil shells. Mantell sent him many fossilized specimens, for which the grateful Sowerby named one of the species of mollusks in honor of Gideon – Ammonites mantelli.


Also in 1813, Mantell was elected a member of the London Linnean Society. A year later, the researcher will read before him his work “Description of a fossil alcyonaria from the Cretaceous deposits near Lewes” (alcyonaria – soft corals), which in 1815 will be published in Transactions. Thus came the first of a long series of publications by Mantell.



Illustration from the Mantell report

Wikimedia Commons


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