An absorbing account of the pioneer 19th-century British geologists and fossil collectors.
Our hero is Gideon Mantell, of a noble family long fallen on hard times. The son of a shoemaker, Mantell was smitten with fossils at an early age. Without resources but recognized as a prodigy, he was apprenticed to a surgeon and became a doctor in London. For the rest of his life he would balance his unenthusiastic practice of medicine with a passionate devotion to fossils. Enter one Mary Anning, who supported her family by gathering fossil “trinkets” from the dangerous coastal cliffs of Dorset to sell to tourists. Her keen eye led to her recognition as a prime “fossilist” among geologists and collectors, including Mantell. One of her major finds was the fossil remains of a giant sea lizard; little by little, other huge reptilian bones were unearthed by Mary and others, but not without controversy. Mantell waited years before the eminent Baron Cuvier in Paris agreed that he had found the remains of a huge herbivorous land reptile (reversing his earlier opinion that the fossil was mammalian). But the plot thickened with the appearance of the wicked Richard Owen, who rose to pinnacles of power within the Royal Society and the Geological Society, became a social lion, and was an intimate of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. At every step of the way he did his best to discredit and ridicule Mantell, at the same time claiming some of Mantell’s fossils as his own. His comeuppance (and the recognition of Mantell’s true worth) was the result of both his egregious behavior and his being on the wrong (creationist) side of the evolutionary debate as the scientific tide turned to Darwinian theory. “He lied for God and for malice,” an Oxford don declared. “A bad case.”
A scholarly account infused with a rare drama and suspense: read it not only for the science, but to learn what happened to all these wonderful characters.