Mantell, Gideon Algernon

views updated May 18 2018


(b. Lewes, Sussex, England, 3 February 1790; d. London, England, 10 November 1852)


The son of a shoemaker in Lewes, Mantell studied medicine in London and in 1811 returned to Lewes, where he became a busy and successful surgeon. Geology was, however, an overmastering passion, and while at Lewes he made great discoveries and amassed an important collection. In 1833 he moved to Brighton, where his practice became largely eclipsed by his interest in geology. His house with his collection of fossils was turned into a public museum, and his distracted wife and children were forced to seek shelter elsewhere. In 1838 he sold the “Mantellian collection” for £5,000 to the British Museum and bought a practice at Clapham, moving to London in 1844. A prolific writer of books and memoirs (as well as letters and verse), he had enormous energy and enthusiasm but in later life suffered from a painful spinal disease. He was a conspicuous member of the Geological Society of London, of which he became a vice-president in 1848. In 1835 he was the second recipient of its high honor, the Wollaston Medal (the first was William Smith). Mantell was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1825 and he received a Royal Medal in 1849.

Mantell’s first and most important book was The Fossils of the South Downs, or Illustrations of the Geology of Sussex (1822), a large quarto volume with forty-two lithographic plates. It in now known chiefly for the large number of fossils (nearly all invertebrates) from the Cretaceous and Tertiary strata, but particularly from the Chalk, that Mantell described and illustrated. Many were new species, named by him and now familiar. The most notable fossil here fully described for the first time and named by him is the sponge Ventriculites. He wrote various papers on other Chalk fossils, particularly on belemnites and the microscopic organisms found in flint nodules. Mantell included a colored geological map that is on a larger scale and is more detailed and accurate than existing maps of the district (the parts of the general maps of England and Wales by William Smith, 1815, and Greenough, 1819), although the succession of the Cretaceous strata below the Chalk was not satisfactorily settled until 1824, by W. H. Fitton and T. Webster.

An important advance in the knowledge of the geology of northwestern Europe was the recognition of the freshwater origin of the Wealden series of the Cretaceous together with the uppermost series of the Jurassic (Purbeckian). This suggestion was first made by Conybeare in Outlines of the Geology of England and Wales (1822), in which he looks forward to support by the forthcoming “work of Mr. Mantell on the fossils of Sussex.” Mantell, however, following a warning by George Sowerby on some of his fossil shells from the Wealden, deprecates rather than confirms the inference of a freshwater origin. In a letter to Webster of November 1822 Fitton gave his opinion that the whole of the Purbeck-Wealden series was freshwater, and he published this opinion in Annals of Philosophy (1824). Thus, it cannot be said that Mantell was the first to establish the freshwater origin of the Wealden beds, as has been stated, although the evidence he had already obtained (1822), and particularly the evidence he later obtained, did in fact support it, as he came to realize.

Mantell is best known for his discovery of the first dinosaur ever to be described properly—a momentous event. During the second and third decades of the nineteenth century remains of aquatic saurians had been found and described in Britain by several leading geologists, particularly by Conybeare and Buckland, and in France by Cuvier, the founder of vertebrate paleontology. But the existence of the great land saurians (named Dinosauria by Richard Owen in 1842) had not even been suspected. Their enormous diversity is now known in great detail, and the extent of their dominance of life during the entire Mesozoic is fully realized. Fossils that were clearly teeth but unlike any known fossil teeth were found in 1822 by Mantell (it was Mrs. Mantell who first noticed them in a pile of stones along the roadside) together with some loosely scattered bones. In 1825 he was shown teeth of the modern lizard iguana, and he saw that his fossil teeth were similar but much larger. Mantell described the fossil teeth in a paper to the Royal Society in that year and called the large herbivorous reptile to which they must have belonged Iguanodon. Although bones that could definitely be shown to have belonged to the same animal had not been found, such associations came to light in 1835 in various parts of the Wealden formation of southern England. The fossils were studied by Richard Owen, and Iguanodon was reconstructed in a life-size model (together with models of other dinosaurs) in the grounds of the Crystal Palace in south London in 1854. By a curious mistake the reptile was reconstructed with a horned nose, but the bone thus placed was later found to be a large spike at the end of this biped’s “thumb.”

In 1832 Mantell discovered the first strongly armored group of dinosaurs. He described this fossil, which he named Hylaeosaurus, in The Geology of the South-east of England (1833). Like the Iguanodon, Hylaeosaurus, was discovered in the Tilgate Forest region of northern Sussex. Meanwhile, Buckland in 1824 had described the remains of the large carnivorous dinosaur Megalosaurus from the Jurassic near Oxford. Thus the first three dinosaurs to be known, the Iguanodon, the Megalosaurus, and the Hylaeosaurus, each belonged to a quite distinct group, later called Ornithopoda, Theropoda, and Ankylosauria, respectively. Although Mantell may be said to have been essentially an amateur collector and expounder—although a very expert and extraordinarily industrious one—he was professionally qualified to examine and report on matters of vertebrate paleontology by reason of his anatomical knowledge as a surgeon.


I. Original Works. Mantell’s papers are listed in Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, IV, 219–220. His chief works are The Fossils of the South Downs, or Illustrations of the Geology of Sussex (London, 1822); “On the Teeth of the Iguanodon, a Newly-discovered Fossil Herbivorous Reptile,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 115 (1825), 179–186; Illustrations of the Geology of Sussex (London, 1827); The Geology of the South-east of England (London, 1833); The Wonders ofGeology (London, 1838); The Medals of Creation (London, 1844); and Geological Excursions Round the Isle of Wight and the Adjoining Coast of Dorsetshire (London, 1847).

II. Secondary Literature. Obituary notices include Lord Rosse, in Proceedings of the Royal Society, 6 (1852), 252–256; Gentleman’s Magazine, n. s. 38 (1852), 644–647, Unsigned; W. Hophins, in Proceedings of the Geological Society, 9 (1853) xxii–xxv; B. Silliman, American Journal of Science, 15 (1853), 147–149); A Reminiscence of G. A. Mantell. By a Member of the Council of the Clapham Museum. To Which is Appended an Obituary by Professor Silliman (London, 1853); and T. R. Jones, notice prefaced to his edition (7th) of Mantell’s Wonders of Geology (London, 1857).

See also M. A. Lower, The Worthies of Sussex (Lewes, 1865); W. Topley, The Geology of the Weald, Memoirs of the Geological Survey of England and Wales (1875), passim; T. G. Bonney, in Dictionary of National Biography, XXXVI (1893), 99–100; H. B. Woodward, The History of the Geological Society of London (London, 1908); 122; S. Spokes, Gideon Algernon Mantell (London, 1927); E. C. Curwen, ed., The Journal of Gideon Mantell, Surgeon and Geologist (Oxford, 1940); E. H. Colbert, Dinosaurs: Their Discovery and Their World (London, 1962), 33–35; W. A. S. Sarjeant, “The Xanthidia,” in Mercian Geologist,2 (1967) 249; E. H. Colbert, Men and Dinosaurs (London, 1970), passim; W. E. Swinton, The Dinosaurs (London, 1970), 28–34, 201–208; A. D. Morris, “Gideon Algernon Mantell (1790–1852),” in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 65 (1971), 215–221; and L. G. Wilson, Charles Lyell: the Years to 1841 (New Hanve-London, 1972), passim.

John Challinor

Mantell, Gideon Algernon

views updated May 08 2018

Mantell, Gideon Algernon (1790–1852) A Sussex surgeon, whose hobby was the study of fossils from the Chalk and Weald, on which he became an expert. Mantell discovered iguanodon and other fossil dinosaurs which, with the remainder of his collection, were donated to the British Museum (Natural History). He also published a number of popular works on geology.