Prominent figures of the 1800s who gave rise to vertebrate palaeontology

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Megan Jacobs (UK)

For centuries, the creatures of the past, from the terrifying theropod dinosaurs to the tiny early mammals, have captured the imaginations of millions. However, the people who put those beasts into the limelight are rarely acknowledged for their work and, in many cases, remain unknown. So here is a short account of some of the first prominent names in the world of vertebrate palaeontology, their contributions to the field, and an insight into the often eccentric behaviour that came with it.

Georges Cuvier (1769-1832)

Fig. 1. Georges Cuvier.

Georges Cuvier was a French naturalist and zoologist, and is regarded as the ‘’father of palaeontology’’. He was one of the finest minds in history, founding vertebrate palaeontology as a scientific discipline. For example, in 1800, he identified Pterodactylus as the first known pterosaur from a print published by Alessandro Collini. Shortly after, he described the first mosasaur, a giant marine reptile that was brought to France by Napoleon after he conquered the Netherlands.

Going against his old Christian (Catholic) upbringing, Cuvier believed the Earth was immensely old and, during its history, underwent abrupt changes that Cuvier called ‘revolutions’, in which large numbers of species were wiped out. This was the first recognition that extinctions were facts. Cuvier also rightly speculated that there had been a time where reptiles had been the dominant animals on the planet. Indeed, the decades after his death yielded spectacular finds that confirmed his theory.

After a study comparing modern elephant species, he worked on fossil mammoths of Europe and Siberia, soon realising they were completely different to any living species. He then went on to document the past existence of other large Pleistocene mammals, such as the Irish Elk and the giant ground sloth.

All of these facts, consistent among themselves, and not opposed by any report, seem to me to prove the existence of a world previous to ours, destroyed by some kind of catastrophe’’ (George Cuvier, 1796).

Cuvier’s work in comparative anatomy lead him to classify animals into four separate groups (vertebrates, molluscs, articulates and radiates), then introduce fossils into zoological classification. Along with his ideas on extinctions and catastrophism, he set the science of palaeontology on a firm foundation.

William Buckland (1784-1856)

Fig. 2. William Buckland.

William Buckland was a British fossil hunter, clergyman and Oxford don, reading geology and mineralogy. He was famous for collecting fossils in a large blue bag, which he carried with him most of the time. Academically, he is best known for scientifically describing the first dinosaur in 1824 – the theropod Megalosaurus. He also worked alongside Mary Anning to reveal that the ‘bezoar stones’ were in fact fossilised faeces, for which the name coprolite was coined (see below).

Buckland was a rather eccentric man, preferring to perform fieldwork in his academic gown. His lectures were noted for their dramatic delivery, often imitating the movements of dinosaurs under discussion. He occasionally gave presentations on horseback.

He tended to let his passion for scientific observation and experimentation over-run, filling his home with mineral and animal specimens. It is also claimed he ate his way through the animal kingdom. His unfortunate dinner guests noted that the most distasteful items served were mole, bluebottle flies, panther, crocodile and mice.

Buckland is also said to have eaten the heart of the French king, Louis XIV, exclaiming “I have eaten many strange things, but have never eaten the heart of a king before”.

Buckland died in 1856 from tuberculosis. An elegy written in 1820 intended for Buckland goes:

Where shall we our great Professor inter

That in peace may rest his bones?

If we hew him a rocky sepulchre

He’ll rise and break the stones

And examine each stratum that lies around

For he’s quite in his element underground

Just below ground level in his reserved grave plot was found a layer of Jurassic limestone. Explosives had to be used to break it apart. This may have been the last jest by the great professor.

Gideon Mantell (1790-1852)

Fig. 3. Gideon Mantell.

Gideon Mantell was born of humble background in Lewes in Sussex. As a teenager, he became interested in the fossils of the South Downs, exploring pits and quarries in the surrounding area. In 1811, he became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons and received a certificate from the Lying-in Charity for Married Women that allowed him to act as a midwife, and returned to Lewes to open his own practice. In his little free time and inspired by the specimens Mary Anning was finding at Lyme Regis, Mantell began to collect fossils from Sussex in the Wealden and Chalk.

In 1819, he acquired fossils from a quarry near Cuckfield and, by 1820, had uncovered large bones and several large teeth, all bigger than those discovered by William Buckland. By 1825, Mantell realised that he had discovered something completely new to science, publishing a scientific description of Iguanodon, a large ornithischian dinosaur. Years later, he had enough evidence to show that Iguanodon’s forelimbs were much shorter than its hind limbs, proving Sir Richard Owen’s mammal-like theory wrong.

In 1841, he was the victim of a carriage accident, leaving him with a debilitating spinal injury. However, this did not stop him writing a large number books, papers and memoirs, including books on the dinosaurs and geology of the Isle of Wight, and the fossils of the South Downs.

Mantell died in 1852, upon which his long-time nemesis, Richard Owen (see below), had a section of Mantell’s spine removed, pickled and stored at the Royal College of Surgeons until 1969, when it was destroyed due to lack of space.

At the time of his death, Mantell was credited with discovering four out of the five genera of dinosaurs then known. The ornithopod, Mantellisaurus atherfieldensis (originally, Iguanodon atherfieldensis), was renamed in his honour.

Mary Anning (1799-1847)

Fig. 4. Mary Anning.

Mary Anning lived in Lyme Regis in Dorset. She started collecting fossils from the Lower Jurassic cliffs as a child with her father, Richard Anning. The fossils were sold to tourists, which supplemented the family’s meagre income during a time of financial struggle for the working class of Britain.

Mary was only 12 years old when she dug up her first major find a 1.2m ichthyosaur skull. A few months later, she found the rest of the skeleton. This was sold for the wholesome sum of £23 and later ended up in the British Museum. She went on to discover many important specimens, such as the first complete Plesiosaurus, the first British pterosaur (Dimorphodon), and many more, including ammonites, sharks, bony fishes and reptiles.

As a working-class woman, Mary was never accepted into the scientific community, despite her vast knowledge of the local geology and Jurassic fossils. All scientific descriptions of her specimens were published by gentleman geologists, who often neglected to acknowledge her efforts. Her only published scientific literature was a letter in the magazine of natural history questioning a claim for a new genus of Hybodus shark (Anning, 1839).

However, her knowledge was not overlooked by William Buckland, who often visited Lyme Regis and was seen frequently with Mary on the beaches looking for fossils. Working together, they realised the s0-called bezoar stones, strange conical objects, were in fact the fossilised faeces (coprolites) of ichthyosaurs.

On 9th March 1847, Mary died of breast cancer aged 47. Her work and discoveries were not forgotten and her specimens became key pieces of evidence for extinctions. Mary is thought to be the inspiration for Terry Sullivan’s 1908 tongue twister, “She sells seashells on the seashore”.

Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892)

Fig. 5. Sir Richard Owen.

Sir Richard Owen was a pioneering comparative anatomist, biologist and palaeontologist. He had a very successful scientific career, naming and describing a large number of species, including many dinosaurs. He is best known for coining the name Dinosauria – terrible lizard in 1842. To Owen, terrible meant awesome or fearfully great. His other noted works include a monograph on Archaeopteryx (1863) and a four volume history of British fossil reptiles, written between 1849 and 1884.

Owen was passionate to share the latest specimens and theories with the public, which drove a successful campaign in 1881, for the natural history specimens in the British Museum to be given a new home – the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London. In 1851, he helped create the life-sized models exhibited at Crystal Palace, together with English sculptor and natural history artist, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. It was inside the Iguanodon on New Year’s Eve 1853, that Owen famously hosted a dinner for 21 prominent men of science.

To improve his anatomy work, Owen seized every opportunity to dissect fresh subjects. He was granted first refusal on any freshly dead animal at London Zoo. His wife once arrived home to find the carcass of a newly deceased rhinoceros in her front hallway. His work in comparative anatomy was so well regarded that he was dubbed the ‘British Cuvier’ by William Buckland. However, Owen did not entirely welcome this comparison, as his ambition was to outshine Cuvier.

Over time, Owen developed a bad reputation. He was accused of stealing other scientists’ specimens and undermining people by writing anonymous (bad) reviews of their work, and not always giving credit where credit was due. Richard Broke Freeman described Owen in his book Charles Darwin: A companion as ‘’the most distinguished vertebrate zoologist and palaeontologist … but a most deceitful and odious man.”

He famously clashed with the Victorian scientist, Charles Darwin. He agreed with Darwin that evolution occurred, but thought it had to me more complex than Darwin had outlined and was unable to exclude God from the process. Owen is believed to have written an anonymous article in which he praises his own work and tries to claim Darwin was not as great as he thought he was.

Despite all the issues, he was undoubtedly one of the greatest scientific figures of the time, and continued working until retiring aged 79.

Reverend William Fox (1813-1881)

Fig. 6. Reverend William Fox.

Reverend William Fox was born in Cumberland and moved to the Isle of Wight in the south of England in 1862. He was assigned curate of the parish church in Brighstone. During his years as curate, he became a prolific collector of dinosaur and other fossil remains, from the cliff exposures of Brighstone and Brook, which were only a short walk from his lodgings in Myrtle Cottage in Brighstone. His time spent at the coast did not go unnoticed by his peers and superiors in the church, with it being said “always bones first, and the parish next”.

Fox lacked any formal scientific training. However, he was astute, discussing his findings with palaeontologists, including the likes of Richard Owen. In 1867, he resigned his post in the parish, but continued to live in the area to carry on collecting. He is quoted in a letter to Owen as saying, “I cannot leave this place while I have any money left to live on, I take such deep [sic] in hunting for old dragons”.

In 1881, Fox passed away and his collection of over 500 specimens was acquired by the Natural History Museum in London. He has been credited with finding several species, most described by his friend Richard Owen, who named them after their finder. These include Polacanthus foxii, Hypsilophodon foxii, Iguanodon foxii and Calamosaurus foxii.

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895)

Fig. 7. Thomas Henry Huxley.

Thomas Henry Huxley was a British scientist and a friend of Charles Darwin. He had very little formal training and was virtually self-taught. However, he became one of the finest comparative anatomists of the latter nineteenth century. After comparing Archaeopteryx with Compsognathus, he concluded that birds evolved from small carnivorous dinosaurs, a theory that is widely accepted today.

Huxley was known as Darwin’s “bulldog”, for his fanatical and aggressive promotion of Darwin’s theory of evolution, motivated by a rage against the inferior status of scientists compared with clergymen.

He is probably best known for his debate with Samuel Wilberforce, an Anglian Bishop of Oxford. It took place during the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, in front of an audience of over 700. Wilberforce supposedly asked Huxley whether he was related to an ape on his grandfather’s or his grandmother’s side. To which Huxley replied that he would prefer an ape for a grandfather to a man who misused his talents to suppress the debate.

During Huxley’s youth, there were virtually no degrees for biological sciences. However, by the end of his career, there were chairs in biological disciplines at most British universities. He also succeeded in creating the ‘X Club’, a dining club composed of like-minded people working to advance the cause of science. The club managed to get the Copley Medal awarded to Charles Darwin and also founded the academic journal, Nature, in 1869.


I would like to thank Professor David Martill for his discussions and editing of this article.

About the author

Megan Jacobs is a palaeontology student at the University of Portsmouth.

References and further reading

Anning, M., (1839), Note on the supposed frontal spine in the genus Hybodus. Magazine of Natural History, III new series, p. 605.

Cadbury, Deborah (2000) “The Dinosaur Hunters: A True Story of Scientific Rivalry and the Discovery of the Prehistoric World’’, Fourth Estate.

Dean, Dennis R. (1999), “Gideon Mantell and the Discovery of Dinosaurs’’ Cambridge University Press.

Lyons, Sherrie L (1999), ‘’Thomas Henry Huxley: the evolution of a scientist’’, Prometheus Books.

Rudwick, Martin J. S. (1997). ‘’Georges Cuvier, Fossil Bones, and Geological Catastrophes’’, University Of Chicago Press.

Torrens, Hugh (1995), “Mary Anning (1799–1847) of Lyme; ‘The Greatest Fossilist the World Ever Knew'” The British Journal for the History of Science, 25 (3): 257–284.

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