He discovered the fossil bones of the prehistoric Iguanodon

Gideon Mantel by Samuel Stepney, published in ‘Thoughts on a Pebble’ (1837)


Shakespeare’s England usually sits very firmly in the everyday world of the seventeenth century, but I’ve always believed this doesn’t preclude me from exploring tantalising snippets of history from both before and after my beloved sixteen hundreds. So this post is on Gideon Mantell (1790-1852), father, doctor, and dinosaur expert. As a resident of Sussex, I’ve often walked past the house which once belonged to him, and this week I thought it was time, at last, to discover who he really was.

Gideon was born on 3rd February 1790, at the family home in Lewes, East Sussex. His father Thomas was a shoemaker, and his mother, Sarah Austen, came originally from a family in Kent. Gideon’s father had radical political opinions. As a strident Whig and Methodist, his views were unacceptable at the local grammar school, and so Gideon was educated by John Button in Sussex and his uncle in Wiltshire. By 1805, at the age of fifteen, Gideon had become apprenticed to the Lewes surgeon James Moore, and after a six-month spell at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, he became Moore’s business partner. In 1816, Mantell married Mary Ann Woodhouse of London, the daughter of one of his earliest patients, and he was soon successful enough to buy out James Moore’s interest in the Lewes medical practice and support a growing family.

Gideon contributed to a number of journals and publications as his medical career progressed, but he developed an increasing fascination for geology and palaeontology; interests he had been fostering since childhood. Spending many hours exploring the rolling countryside of Sussex, Gideon published his first book, The Fossils of the South Downs, in 1822. By 1825, having surveyed Tilgate Forest near Cuckfield, Mantell announced the exciting discovery of Iguanodon. His early evidence for the existence of dinosaurs (incidentally a word not yet coined in 1825) consisted primarily of extant teeth he had collected, but it was sufficient to establish the identity of a gigantic extinct herbivore, and Mantell was subsequently invited to become a member of the Royal Society.

In 1827, Gideon published Illustrations of the Geology of Sussex, a booked devoted to vertebrate fossils, it is ‘the earliest book of any to deal primarily with dinosaur remains’ (Dean). In 1833, he combined his writings from both his previous books with a paper written for the Geological Society, and published a new book entitled Geology of the South-East of England, in which he confirms his discovery of a second type of dinosaur, the heavily-armoured Hylaeosaurus. This discovery confirmed that dinosaurs walked on the ground and were not amphibians; a theory previously held by scientists.

Mantell’s work and reputation grew exponentially in these years, and he began to associate with members of the aristocracy, particularly the third earl of Egremont, who made him a whopping grant of £1000. Such was his fame and popularity, Mantell located to the more fashionable nearby resort of Brighton, which the king visited every winter. Gideon attempted to open a medical practice in Brighton which failed, but he did create a geological museum to house his fossils. In 1834, Benjamin Silliman of Yale managed to secure Gideon an honorary LLD, and despite his distinction being literary, rather than medical, he adopted the title Dr Mantell henceforth.


The Weekly True Sun (London) 1838


In 1834, Mantell acquired his most famous paleontological specimen, the Maidstone Iguanodon, which had been located for him by two of his friends. It was one of only two almost complete dinosaur fossils known at the time, and it became the chief attraction in Mantell’s Brighton museum. Despite this however, Mantell’s finances were failing, and he was forced to purchase a medical practice in Clapham. Unable to afford to maintain his collection, he sold his fossils to the British Museum in 1838 for £4000. The following year, his wife and elder son left him, and in 1840, his favourite daughter, Hannah, died of tuberculosis.


Maidstone Iguanodon


Initially and naturally devastated by his accumulated losses, Gideon nevertheless maintained his interest in palaeontology, and his book Wonders of Geology (1838), as well as his Medals of Creation (1844, which opposed evolution), and Thoughts on Animalcules (1846, on microscopy) sold well and were popular. His last books on geology, A Pictorial Atlas of Fossil Remains (1850) and Petrifactions and their Teachings (1851), included contributions on recently extinct New Zealand birds by his son Walter.

From 1841 onwards, Gideon was plagued with a painful spinal disease and he eventually died in his Chester Square home in London on 10th November 1852, possibly from an overdose of opium taken to counteract his back-pain. He was buried in Norwood cemetery with his daughter, Hannah.

The word dinosaur came into use in 1842, coined by a comparative anatomist named Richard Owen, who was envious of Mantell’s discoveries. For posterity it should be noted that it was Mantell, and not Owen, who first emphasised that there had been an age of reptiles preceding the age of mammals. Besides Iguanodon and Hylaeosaurus, Mantell’s dinosaur discoveries included Megalosaurus, Cetiosaurus, Regnosaurus, Pelorosaurus, and the later-named Hypsilophodon. He also discovered dozens of other prehistoric creatures: new fossil fishes, further vertebrates, and a very large number of invertebrates, together with microspecies and plants.


Plaque outside Mantell’s home in Lewes


Source: “Mantell, Gideon Algernon (1790–1852),” Dennis R. Dean in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004); online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, October (2006)

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