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Dinosaur Crazy

The Road to Chilecito

by James A. Jensen
Launceston, Tasmania: Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery 183 pp., $20.00 Australian (paper)

Dinosaurs of Darkness

by Thomas H. Rich and Patricia Vickers-Rich
Indiana University Press, 222 pp., $35.00

The year 1677 saw Dr. Robert Plot, Professor of Chymistry and first Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, struggling with a perplexing mystery. Quarry workers at Cornwell (near what is now Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire) had unearthed an object that to modern eyes looks like the end of a bone from a Flintstones cartoon. Plot correctly identified it as “a real bone, now petrified” but its size was incredible—“in compass, near the capita femoris,…two foot,” he marveled. It “must have been the bone of some elephant, brought hither during the government of the Romans in Britain,” concluded the good doctor, who, thankfully for posterity, illustrated the now lost specimen.

Later comparisons revealed that the bone was decidedly unlike those of elephants, and for nearly a century it languished in obscurity. Then in 1758 Carl von Linné published his Systema Naturae, establishing the modern method of classification based on binomial nomenclature, whereby every living and fossil thing is given a binomen—a unique, universally recognized double name. Homo sapiens had begun the task of classifying the world, and within five years Plot’s bone had been incorporated into the new system. The job was done by one Richard Brookes, an Oxford researcher who was so unsure of the identity of the relic that he bestowed a purely descriptive binomen. His appellation Scrotum humanum implied the existence of a very big human being indeed, yet evidently caused no unseemly laughter.

In those infant days of science the very nature of fossils was obscure. A French school of philosophy championed by Jean-Baptist Robinet held that they were a sort of prototype, an attempt by nature to reproduce in stone the organs of humankind. To Robinet, the Scrotum humanum was a rare treasure. Oversize it may have been, but so firm was Robinet’s belief in his theory that it permitted him to make out details in the bony mass, such as the musculature of the testes and even the vestiges of a urethra.

Deborah Cadbury’s Terrible Lizard opens at the dawn of an age when the study of fossils was assuming a more scientific aspect. Although Cadbury makes reference to Plot’s bone, which was the first dinosaur fossil to receive a detailed description, her story proper commences in the England of Jane Austen and concludes in the era of Charles Dickens, when dinosaurs make a debut of sorts in Bleak House (1852). “And would it not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill,” Dickens mused. Cadbury sets herself the task of explaining how this curious Victorian image of dinosaurs came to be, and along the way to reveal something of the human story behind the discoveries.

Cadbury is a writer of great talent and, as one might surmise from her day job as a TV science producer with the BBC, she can tell a story skillfully. Regrettably her grasp of the history of paleontology is slight, resulting in some errors and lost opportunities. The deficiency is felt most keenly in her treatment of the Reverend William Buckland, reader in mineralogy at Oxford and a pioneer in the study of dinosaurs.

Buckland was a true eccentric of the kind that seemed to flourish in natural history circles during the Victorian Age. Cadbury leads us to his lair at Corpus Christi College through the eyes of a contemporary, “…up a narrow staircase [to] a long corridor-like room filled with rocks, shells and bones in dire confusion. In a sort of sanctum at the end was my friend in his black gown, looking like a necromancer, sitting on a rickety chair covered with some fossils….” Unfortunately Cadbury confuses the reverend with his son Frank (it was the latter who owned a trained bear that was dressed in college clothes and attended formal occasions), which is perhaps forgivable since they were a pigeon pair. Truly lamentable, however, is the omission of the Reverend Buckland’s greatest eccentricities. Mention is made of his zoophagy (the eating of assorted creatures, including leopards, crocodiles, and dormice), but we must turn to Lynn Barber’s 1980 book The Heyday of Natural History, 1820–1870,* for the extraordinary details. William Buckland claimed to have eaten part of the heart of Louis XIV, which had been preserved by Lord Harcourt at Nuneham, and even to have risked supping on holy secretions. The latter encounter took place on the Continent in a cathedral where spots of ever-liquefying “martyr’s blood” appeared on the flagstones each morning. The Anglican churchman combined genuflection with a discreet lick and pronounced the precious liquid to be bat’s urine.

The genial Buckland rose high in the Anglican Church, eventually becoming dean of Westminster. His death was as strange as his life. As he worked at his desk (which was covered entirely with petrified reptile droppings), surrounded by fossils, free-range guinea pigs, and jackals (which did not always get along), his eccentricities multiplied. Finally his gestures, which had always been rather unruly, became uncouth and he took to beating himself about the head and scratching so compulsively as to produce alarm in his family. Mrs. Buckland found that he was “afraid of trying his legs,” and eventually the moribund William was carried off to an asylum for the insane, where he died in 1856. In view of what we now know about Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease and related “mad cow” diseases, the great zoophagist’s end is perhaps not so surprising.

William Buckland achieved lasting fame in paleontological circles when, in 1824, he and the Reverend William Conybeare described the partial skeleton of a huge reptile held in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum. The pair named it Megalosaurus, meaning “great lizard,” concluding that the ancient beast had attained a length of forty feet. Buckland was the first person ever to name a dinosaur, Cadbury reports, and it’s a claim that is widely recognized even today. But science is rarely so tidy. After lying in modest obscurity for over two centuries, the Scrotum humanum was resurrected to challenge Buckland’s immortality.

The bone’s significance was first brought to light in the late 1960s when Dr. Barry Cox, a paleontologist at the British Museum of Natural History, and his colleague H. Ball recognized the relic as belonging to none other than Buckland’s Megalosaurus. Soon researchers were arguing that Cox and Ball’s identification meant that Brookes’s Scrotum humanum should supplant Buckland’s Megalosaurus. Objections based on decorum were raised, but were hard to sustain in light of malapropisms such as Mastodon (meaning breast-tooth), which were well accepted. In 1993 the Scrotum humanum‘s challenge was quashed, at least for the time being, when the venerable name was disqualified as technically violating the taxonomic code.

Most of Cadbury’s original research is centered on one of Buckland’s contemporaries, Dr. Gideon Mantell, an ambitious medical doctor whose fate it was to become obsessed with fossils. As a young doctor Mantell worked tirelessly for his patients and by the 1830s his family was modestly affluent. Increasingly, however, his time became devoted to the pursuit of fossils, and his life reached a turning point with the discovery and naming of the first herbivorous dinosaur to be recognized, the Iguanodon. Mantell coined the name to reflect the superficial resemblance of its teeth to those of the iguana. The comparison was an unfortunate one, leading Mantell to speculate that the dinosaur resembled a huge lizard, perhaps one hundred feet long. His vision of the creature erred in other ways, for among the partial remains he uncovered was a bony spike which he thought fitted onto Iguanodon‘s snout. Eventually it was found to be the creature’s thumb.

Mantell’s tragedy was to be passionate in his pursuit of fossils but mistaken in his worth as a paleontologist and his ability to make a living as one. In 1833 he gave up his flourishing medical practice in Sussex and leased a mansion in Brighton, which he hoped to turn into a paleontological museum. The mansion was festooned with spires, towers, and turrets, and had views of the palace from the front windows; its upkeep required the then princely sum of 350 pounds per year. Despite a magnificent opening, the public did not come and no patron could be found to contribute the thousands needed to establish Mantell in the manner to which he had become accustomed.

The doctor’s grand illusion lasted just four years before fiscal reality brought it crashing down. And yet Mantell’s obsession with fossils only intensified. He became distant from most of his family and seemed indifferent to the suffering brought about by their economic position. In 1839 it became too much for his wife and two oldest children, who left him alone with Hannah, seventeen, and Reginald, twelve. Hannah suffered from a chronic hip infection and within months of the family breakup she was bedridden and suffering unbearably. That autumn, when the sore hemorrhaged, there was nothing that her father could do to save her. Gideon Mantell’s “angel” had been taken from him in the same year that he lost wife, heir, elder daughter, and beloved collection. He would never recover.

Cadbury paints a saint-like picture of Gideon Mantell, seeing in him a potentially great scientist who fell foul of aristocratic prejudice and the machinations of his nemesis, the anatomist Richard Owen. Such contours add momentary drama to her tale, but for the thoughtful reader a two-dimensional view of a complex man is the lasting effect. A far greater disservice, however, is performed to Richard Owen, whom Cadbury sets up as Mantell’s arch rival.

T.H. Huxley wrote of him, “It is astonishing with what an intense hatred Owen is regarded by most of his contemporaries.” This was due in part to his obvious ambition, which inclined him to claim the work of others as his own, but his public persona was little better, for he showed disdainful arrogance to his social inferiors, and as an anatomist he carried the whiff of death. Everyone who met the towering professor noticed his eyes, which were as large, unblinking, and penetrating as those of a dead fish. Like its owner’s scalpel, the glittering stare seemed capable of cutting to the bone.

It is not difficult to portray a person like Owen as a reptile in human form, and Cadbury does a thorough job with a caricature so cold-blooded and merciless that his natural place seems to be among the prehistoric monsters he studied. In everything he does, Cadbury sees Owen scheming to bring down Mantell.

While Owen’s universally acknowledged brilliance as an anatomist earns a nod from Cadbury, she cannot accept that it was competence rather than social scheming that brought him successes such as Royal Society grants to study dinosaurs. Similarly, his careful reassessment of Mantell’s Iguanadon fossils is not seen as an advance in paleontology that corrected many of Mantell’s misconceptions but as an assault upon the man himself. Perhaps predictably, when in 1842 Owen coined the visionary name “dinosaur” (meaning “terrible lizard”) and defined the group on the basis of the anatomy of their pelvic bones, Cadbury does not view it a great day for science. Instead, she writes that in creating the name, “Richard Owen sealed the fate of Gideon Mantell.”

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    Doubleday, 1980.

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