The battle to be ruler of the prehistoric world

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

This is a tale of intrigue and deception, of burning ambition and failed dreams. Victorian England was the perfect stamping-ground for the "gentleman" scientist, but it was a habitat in which only the most ruthless survived. The bitter clashes between the men who dominated 19th-century geology are exquisitely portrayed by Deborah Cadbury in this scholarly yet exhilarating book.

This is a tale of intrigue and deception, of burning ambition and failed dreams. Victorian England was the perfect stamping-ground for the "gentleman" scientist, but it was a habitat in which only the most ruthless survived. The bitter clashes between the men who dominated 19th-century geology are exquisitely portrayed by Deborah Cadbury in this scholarly yet exhilarating book.

The emergence of strange, monstrous fossils from Britain's quarries and sea cliffs posed thorny problems for the church-dominated academics. Did the creatures fall victim to the biblical flood, too large to be accommodated on Noah's ark? If so, why did God create such huge beasts only to have them destroyed?

Theological implications apart, the fragmentary evidence for a lost world of giant animals inspired a desperate search for the missing jigsaw pieces of this intriguing puzzle. What were these creatures, when did they live and, above all, why did they disappear?

Much of the credit for the earliest and most important fossil finds goes to Mary Anning, the impoverished daughter of a Lyme Regis cabinet-maker, and the only woman with any meaningful role in this story. Yet it was another keen amateur, a country doctor called Gideon Mantell, who was the unacknowledged star of the fossil-collecting fraternity. Mantell built an impressive collection of rocks, on which many important findings were based.

Throughout his medical career, Mantell yearned for wider recognition. He longed to become a full-time academic but lacked the financial means. Despite his amateur background, he was still able to produce learned interpretations of his fossil collection, eventually earning recognition from the Royal Society.

It was, however, an arch-rival of Mantell's who was to carve a place in history as the man who discovered the dinosaurs. Richard Owen, a well-connected surgeon, who founded the Natural History Museum, understood two important features of the "giant lizards" that set them apart from modern reptiles. One was a straight, pillar-like leg that enabled the beasts to stand bolt-upright; the other was a fused sacrum, the lower end of the spine, which imparted great strength to the backbone to support the huge, lumbering animals on land.

Owen quietly used Mantell's collections to rework a lecture he had given to the British Association for the Advancement of Science before it was published - something not strictly permitted. Some science historians believe that Owen's key findings, which led to him to name the dinosaurs, were made while he was working on his final report with the benefit of Mantell's discoveries. Anxious to set this group of fossils apart - and mark them out as his territory - Owen called them the "dinosaurs", after the Greek words deinos, meaning "fearfully great", and sauros, meaning "lizard".

As Cadbury expertly portrays, Owen was not a man who relished competition. Although he was brilliant in many ways, his great defects seem to have been megalomania and the vicious way he dispatched rivals. While Mantell was suffering from a badly twisted spine, which became terminal, Owen set about discrediting him. Eventually, Mantell's role in the discovery disappeared into obscurity, while Owen's reputation continued to rise, culminating in royal recognition complete with an imposing grace-and-favour house in Richmond Park.

Now undisputed champion of the fossil world, Owen built life-sized models of his dinosaurs in Crystal Palace. He even arranged a scientific dinner in the belly of one - a wickedly clever publicity stunt. But eventually, his duplicity was his downfall. Discredited and isolated, he was dismissed by his peers as "that damned liar".

As to the dinosaurs, it was left to another Victorian giant, Charles Darwin, to explain their place in evolution, although it has taken more than a century and half to understand why they went extinct. And the life-sized models built by Owen can still be seen in the grounds of Sydenham House, in south London, having earned a place in history as Grade I listed buildings.

Comments