Monday, February 3, 2020

Gideon Mantell - geologist

Although Gideon Algernon Mantell - born 230 years ago today - was almost 50 by the time Victoria became Queen, when reading his lively and interesting diaries from the first half of the 19th century, one has the sense of someone already living in the heart of the Victorian age. He held advanced views on science and medicine; he lived his life in the most energetic and industrious way; and he had a keen intellectual ambition married with a strong sense of social duty. However, although outwardly successful, Mantell was a man never fulfilled, never quite happy. Having moved, for example, from Lewes to the centre of Brighton to extend his medical practice to those attending the King’s court there, he soon became very frustrated for being the centre of too much attention, not due to his surgical skills but because of his remarkable collection of fossils.

Mantell was born in the historic market town of Lewes on 3 February 1790, the son of a shoemaker. Partly educated by an uncle, at age 15 he was apprenticed to a Lewes surgeon, James Moore. Following six months training 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 soon after acquired a house in Castle Place. They had four children who survived into adulthood.

Apart from his medical practice, 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 (with lithography by his wife), 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 proudly exhibited in a museum housed in his own home. A few years later he discovered a second kind of dinosaur, and confirmed they were land, not amphibian, reptiles.

Notwithstanding his growing fame as a palaeontologist, Mantell was constantly seeking to be and to be seen as a successful doctor. And for this reason, he wanted to move his practice to Brighton, where he could find higher class patients among the constant flow of aristocrats to King George’s court at the Pavilion. However, for several years he prevaricated fearing the disruption to his family. Bolstered by a large gift of money from an aristocratic patron, he finally made the move towards the end of 1833, and took up a fashionable residence at 20 The Steine.

Bizarrely, or so it must have seemed to him, his geological and scientific knowledge became far more in demand than his surgeon’s skill. He could barely cope with the influx of visitors, and before long the house was turned into a public museum; and then in 1838 the collection was purchased by the British Museum. That same year he 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, where he remained until his death in 1852. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Strange Science, Dinohunters.

For most of his adult life, from 1818 until his death, Mantell kept a diary. The manuscripts, however, went with his son Walter to New Zealand, where they were given to the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington. Many years later, a typescript copy was acquired by the archaeologist Dr Eliot Curwen (who lived on St Aubyns, Hove) which is now held by the Sussex Archaeological Society. Curwen’s son E. Cecil Curwen edited the typescript copy, and Oxford University Press published The Journal of Gideon Mantell, Surgeon and Geologist in 1940. Decades later, in 2010, John A. Cooper produced a transcript of all the unpublished parts of Mantell’s diaries, and these have been made available to the public, courtesy of David Colquhoun of the Alexander Turnbull Library, by Brighton Royal Pavilion and Museums.

In his introduction to the 1940 book, Curwen says of Mantell: ‘[He was] a man of abundant restless energy, fired with an ambition to become immortal in the realms of science; all obstacles were to him irritating frustrations which he bore down with the weight of his dominating personality, and even his domestic happiness was sacrificed to his ambition. . . The journal, however, reveals how the realisation of his ambitions brought neither joy nor peace nor any real satisfaction, for as time went on he became more and more disappointed and embittered. . . And yet Mantell was not in other respects a selfish man. He was a keen surgeon, with a great sense of fairness and a deep sympathy with the poor and down-trodden, and he would often put himself to much trouble to alleviate suffering or to right a wrong.’

Here is a selection of extracts taken from Curwen’s book and from Cooper’s document.

14 December 1822
‘Drove to Brighton: called at Stanmer Park in my way, and left a medallion of Oliver Cromwell as a present to the Earl of Chichester. Drank tea with my friend Chassereau. On my return found my dear boy Walter in a very dangerous state from inflammation of the lungs; applied three leeches which bled till he fainted.’

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.’

6 September 1830
‘Every day last week at Brighton, visiting Miss Langham. On Friday a public dinner to 4,000 children on the Steine. The King and Queen visited them: a very gratifying sight. Mrs Mantell accompanied me and saw the Royal Family.

Called on a smuggler and dealer in vertu on the East Cliffe. Bought a magnificent Cabinet drawers of Buhl and tortoiseshell; formerly belonged to Napoleon - quite a bijou - cost me £25. 15s; purchased also a beautiful little statue of a child sleeping; said to be the King of Rome. This evening wrote addresses to the King and Queen; resolutions etc. for the town meeting. I am indeed jack-of-all-trades - more fool I, for I get neither profit, credit, nor thanks! still there is pleasure in moving the public mind and guiding it unseen.’

18 September 1830
‘To Brighton every day. Miss Langham still very ill. [. . .] Last week performed the operation of trephining, or rather with Hey’s saw removed several portions of skull that had been forced into the brain - a boy 16 years old crushed by a horse, died the next morning.’

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!’

5 October 1833
‘Drove to Brighton and called on Lord Egremont, who spoke to me on the subject of my removal to Brighton, and munificently offered me a thousand pounds to assist me in the removal!’

21 December 1833
‘My family and all my servants etc. take up their abode in 20 Steyne - farewell for ever to Castle Place [Lewes].’

18 September 1834
‘Soon after tea was sent for to near Kemp Town to a young man who had just been drowned: an hour had elapsed from the time of the accident till my arrival: I inflated the lungs and assisted in removing the body to the hospital - where the surgeon put it in a warm bath for a few minutes then took it out again and placed it before a fire - then inflated the lungs! and after waiting there nearly two hours I left the place and returned home at near one o’clock very much fatigued.’

9 October 1834
‘As usual murdering my time - hosts of visitors but no patients! Rambled on the Chain Pier in the evening - very beautiful weather.’

11 October 1835
‘Very unwell from a cold: saw the Comet (Halley’s) last night with the naked eye: I had seen it through a telescope on Tuesday: how solemn is the thought that when this body of light next appears in its present situation almost every eye that now gazes on it will have closed for ever!’

1 February 1836
‘For the last fortnight, scarcely a day has passed without my time being engrossed by meetings concerning the project [Sussex] Scientific Institution [and Mantellian Museum] - I am already tired of the eternal changes of opinion which the gentlemen engaged in it, are constantly evincing. I see but too surely that I shall be made a mere stepping stone for the accomplishment of the principal object with most of them - a gossiping club.’

25 April 1836
‘My family removed to Southover and I to lodgings on the Steyne. My collection to be arranged for public exhibition for two and three-quarter years - but I am sick of the cold-blooded creatures I am surrounded by - a change of circumstances with me is but a change of troubles - I will not record them! [From this point on, and at the cost of his home life, Mantell’s house on The Steine was given over to the Institution and museum entirely.]’

29 October 1836
‘A dreadful hurricane from the SSW at about eleven AM it was terrific - houses unroofed - trees torn up by the roots: chimney-pots and chimneys blown in every direction - sea mountains high. Went to the Pier, and was present when violent oscillations began to be produced by the hurricane: the whole lines of platforms and chains were thrown into undulations, and the suspension bridges appeared like an enormous serpent writing in agony - at length one of the bridges gave way, and planks, beams, iron rods - all were hurled instantaneously into the boiling surge! The tension of the bridge being thus set at liberty, the remaining bridges gradually became motionless; the damage done to this beautiful structure cannot be much less than £1,000. Some persons were killed by the falling of chimneys and lead blown off the houses.’

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.’

24 July 1837
‘To the Devil’s Dyke - arrived there at seven - the most glorious sight imaginable - the sun breaking through a mass of clouds poured streams of living light on the landscape - the distant downs, by Steyning and to the far west were crested with mist, and the reflection of the sun’s rays, gave them a magical effect which is seen on the snow-clad Alps. This gorgeous scene continued about ten minutes and then all was wrapped in gloom. Broke the spring of my carriage - obliged to walk home.’

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!’

This is a revised and extended version of an article first published in 2011. 

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