Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Gideon Mantell - geologist

Extensive new extracts from the diaries of Gideon Mantell, a 19th century surgeon who was obsessed with geology, have been made freely available online for the first time. Mantell is credited with instigating the scientific study and understanding of dinosaurs. Having lived in nearby Lewes all his life, he moved to Brighton hoping to attract rich patients among those drawn to the Royal Pavilion and its society, but he found the aristocracy more interested in his fossil collection.

Mantell was born in Lewes, Sussex, in 1790, the son of a shoemaker. Partly educated by an uncle, at age 15 he was apprenticed to a surgeon, James Moore, and then trained for a few months at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London. He joined Moore’s practice as a partner, and eventually took it over. In 1816, he married Mary Ann Woodhouse, and they had four children who survived into adulthood.

Mantell spent much time exploring the Weald of Sussex, studying its geology and looking for fossils. In 1822, he published The Fossils of the South Downs, which proved to be the first of a dozen or so books he was to write on geology and palaeontology. In the mid-1820s, he announced the discovery of Iguanodon, an extinct gigantic herbivorous reptile, a genus of, what later would be commonly called, dinosaurs. The fossils were exhibited in his own home. A few years later he discovered a second kind of dinosaur, and confirmed they were land, not amphibian, reptiles.

In 1833, Mantell moved to Brighton and took up a fashionable residence near the Royal Pavilion. Soon, he was besieged with visitors, not wanting his medical skills, but anxoius to view his fossil collection. Before long the house was turned into a public museum; and then in 1838 the collection was bought by the British Museum. That same year Mantell bought a practice in Clapham Common, which soon became a success and allowed him frequent trips to London to attend institutional meetings. He moved again in 1844 to Pimlico, and remained there until his death in 1852. Wikipedia has further biographical information, as does Strangescience.net, and Dinohunters.com.

Mantell was a keen diarist, but when he died the diary manuscripts went to his son in New Zealand, where they were given to the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington. A copy was acquired by the archaeologist Dr Eliot Curwen; and his son E Cecil Curwen then edited it for publication by Oxford University Press in 1940 as The Journal of Gideon Mantell, Surgeon and Geologist.

Now, 70 years later, for the first time, Brighton Royal Pavilion and Museums has made available on its website the parts of Mantell’s journal which were not published in the Curwen edition. These were edited by John Cooper, and permission for their publication was granted by David Colquhoun of the Alexander Turnbull Library.

In his introduction to the new online texts, Cooper explains that, in 1991, when he was Keeper of Geology at the Booth Museum of Natural History in Brighton, he came across a second copy (a modern photocopy) of the typescript of Mantell’s journal, which was subsequently acquired by the Booth Museum. Though Curwen had, of course, cherry-picked the most important and interesting parts of the journal, Cooper found there was enough of interest to warrant transcribing the parts that Curwen had edited out.

At first Cooper was interested in publishing the material in book form, but, as he explains: ‘. . . no company I approached would consider publishing this document. Only one expressed an interest, but for him, it had to be the publication of Mantell’s entire journal, including that published by Curwen, effectively replacing Curwen as the main source. I might have considered this if Curwen’s book was difficult to find, but it is not. And akin to the primacy of Linnean names accorded by their first taxonomist, I did not want to usurp Curwen’s fine work, let alone tackle the huge job of typing all of its contents.’

‘But,’ he continues, ‘we are now in a new age. Publication of work on the internet is commonplace and this avenue of approach can, with a few keystrokes anywhere in the world, result in access to any document that can be made available. Placing this previously unpublished material at public disposal, provides, I trust a useful resource for colleagues and future researchers, and in this format, it remains searchable.’

Here are several extracts from Mantell’s journal - the first is taken from Curwen’s published book, but the rest are from Cooper’s online text, as found on the Brighton & Hove Museums website.

23 November 1824
‘A severe hurricane and occurring at the spring tide, the low tracts along the coast were inundated and considerable damage occasioned thereby. I drove to Brighton and arrived there between one and two, at the time the sea was raging with the greatest violence, the surf dashed over the pier and occasionally hid it from our view. So soon as the water was retired so as to allow of walking on the esplanade, we went to the Pier, which was much damaged by the waves; the railing in many places washed away, and the platform destroyed, so as to render access to the Pier-head difficult and dangerous: however we ventured to the farthest end although every now and then a sea dashed over us, and completely drenched us, but the awful grandeur of the scene more than compensated for the inconvenience of our situation.’

31 July 1827
‘Tuesday - Drove with my dear boy to Brighton Races; visited a menagerie: took tea with Mr Chassereau and returned home early. Dr Hopkins and his lady, from London, visited us yesterday.’

2 May 1833
‘Received a copy of my Geology of the S. East of England from the publishers and am much pleased with the style in which it is brought out. Received on Sunday a beautiful present of polished fossil woods from Dr Henry of Manchester. Yesterday sent a parcel to London - wrote to Earl of Egremont, on behalf of poor Archer the artist, whose painting of the King’s visit to Lewes, is still on his hands; to the great honor! of the loyal and liberal inhabitants of Lewes! What a precious set!’

18 February 1837
‘Lecture at the Old Ship, on the South Downs - pretty good company. On my own account, because the Council were unwilling to take the chance of loss!!! During the last fortnight received a splendid collection of Elephantine and remains from Capt. Cautley, Sub-Himalayah mountains, discoursed on them last Tuesday at the Conversazione - about 6 members of the Institution present.’

4 March 1839
‘August Received the sum of £4000 from the trustees of the British Museum for my collection. And so passes away the labor of 25 years!!! G. A. MANTELL. But I will begin de novo!’

6 August 1849
‘To the Zoological Gardens in Regent’s Park in the afternoon. The “Reptile House” recently erected, contains many highly interesting specimens. The Rattle Snakes are thriving: a healthy looking Cyclara - Beautiful Lacertae and Hylaeviridae. The bower birds of Australia have begun a bower - but a very shabby one.’

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