One of the most famous figures in Sussex history is the doctor and geologist Gideon Algernon Mantell (1790-1852).
He was born and bred in Lewes, and from an early age developed an interest and passion for the many different types of fossils that could be found in the chalk quarries in the nearby countryside. Geology then was a very young science and being a geologist could not be described as a profession. So Mantell studied medicine and became what we would today call a general practitioner, but then was known as a Surgeon. He practised from his house in Castle Place, Lewes from 1816 and at the same time began to build what became his ‘Mantellian Museum’.
His most famous discoveries were the fossil teeth of an animal that he called the Iguanodon which he realised was an extinct, colossal, herbivorous reptile, and until then totally unknown to science. It was in 1842 that Iguanodon was first recognised as a new type of animal – a dinosaur. Mantell’s further history includes a move to Brighton from 1833 to 1838, and then to Clapham and finally Pimlico.
A new resource
There are many books and publications about him, his own extensive publications and his associates, but the most authoritative is by Dennis Dean in 1999, reference below. In 1818 Mantell began to keep a Journal – as he called it – “a sketch of passing events”. The original copies of the Journal – together with all the remaining archives of Mantell are kept in the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, New Zealand, where one of his sons had emigrated. In 1940, E. Cecil Curwen published about half of this extensive record of Mantell’s often turbulent life and times. The unpublished parts have remained somewhat elusive until now. A recently published document in pdf format makes available for the first time all those parts of Mantell’s Journal which could not easily be consulted.
Although Curwen published perhaps the most interesting parts of his Journal, the rest contains many hundreds of references to important people and significant events and is a reservoir of information for historians. We wish to thank David Colquhoun of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington , New Zealand, for his kind consent to this online publication.
- Dean, Dennis R. Gideon Mantell and the discovery of dinosaurs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-521-42048-2
- Cadbury, Deborah. Terrible Lizard: the first dinosaur hunters and the birth of a new science. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2000. ISBN 0-8050-6772-8
- McGowan, Christopher. The Dragon Seekers: how an extraordinary circle of fossilists discovered the dinosaurs and paved the way for Darwin. Cambridge: Perseus Publishing, 2001. ISBN 0-7382-0282-7
- Gideon Mantell in the Brighton Press [PDF]
John Cooper, Volunteer and Training Manager and former Keeper of Geology