Inventing Dinosaurs, Part 1 & 2 (Listen)

Dragons? Sea serpents? Giants? What manner of antediluvian beast left its bones in the cliffs and quarries of Victorian England? The answer came from a girl selling curiosities to the tourists; a professor of "undergroundology" at Oxford University; a luckless country doctor; an over-imaginative artist and an all-powerful master of Victorian science. Seth Feldman unearths the skeletons in paleontology's past.

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dinosaurs-owen.jpgSir Richard Owen and Dinornis skeleton.

Ever since humans became humans, they have been stumbling over large and very old bones. Were they the remains of dragons? Sea serpents? Giants? Worse yet, could they still be around? In England during the first half of the 19th century, a rather eclectic group of people began to answer those questions. There was Mary Anning, a young girl selling fossil "curiosities" to tourists in the seaside town of Lyme Regis. The Reverend and Professor William Buckland, taught what he called "undergroundology" at Oxford University. Gideon Mantell was a luckless country doctor whose obsession with fossils made him the best known paleontologist of his day. Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins became the first sculptor to create life sized models of extinct prehistoric animals, including dinosaurs. And then there was Richard Owen, the scientific genius who ruled British biology with an iron fist - and who, along the way, coined the term "dinosaur."

None of these people would have gotten very far without the great French Naturalist, Georges Cuvier. In 1799, Cuvier published his Researches into Bone Fossils, a book with two big ideas. The first was extinction. Species disappear. That dragon, sea serpent or giant you are imagining are no longer with us. Cuvier's second idea was that living and extinct animals living share a basic structure that allows you to compare them to one another. If you had a thigh bone that looked exactly like an elephant's thigh bone, but was one and a half times bigger - you knew that once there were some very large elephants. The same was true of those very large reptile bones. Cuvier's method was called Comparative Anatomy.

Painting of Mary Anning on the cliffs of Lyme Regis.

While scientists - or natural philosophers asthey called themselves - were absorbing Cuvier's ideas, the very young Mary Anning was busy keeping her family out of the poor house by selling fossils to tourists. Anning had the eye for finding fossils in the chalk cliffs around Lyme Regis. Spectacular fossils: two large marine reptiles, the Ichthyosaur and the Plesiosaur; and the Pterosaur, a huge flying reptile. These were animals that astounded the public and made the reputations of gentleman scientists. As a woman, Anning was excluded from their scientific societies. But she taught herself to read the scientific papers. By the time of her death in 1847, she had become known throughout Europe not only for her fossil finds but also as an eminent paleontologist in her own right.

Megalosauras bucklandii, an engraving from Notice on the Megalosaurus or Great Fossil Lizard of Stonesfield, 1824

Meanwhile, Anning's gentlemen scientist colleagues were making some finds of their own. In 1824, William Buckland, the professor of "undergroundology," deduced that a large jaw bone from a quarry near his home had belonged to a giant land reptile. The creature came to be known as the Megalosauras bucklandii or "Buckland's great lizard." At the same time, Gideon Mantell, a country doctor in Sussex, found a giant tooth that bore a striking resemblance the smaller teeth of a modern day iguana to the smaller teeth of a modern day iguana. Mantell called his animal, the Iguanodon and guessed (correctly) that it was even larger than Buckland's Megalosauras.

These were the first descriptions of animals we now call dinosaurs. But the word "dinosaur" - and the precise anatomical description that went with it - didn't appear until 1842. They were the work of Richard Owen, "the English Cuvier." Owen rose to the very top of Victorian science because of his brilliance as a comparative anatomist, his political savvy and, when necessary, his utter ruthlessness in eliminating anyone who stood in his way - most particularly Gideon Mantell.

Looking at the three giant land reptiles known to him, Owen found decided similarities in their unusual mammal like lower spines. They were still lizards. But sophisticated lizards. Owen called this new sub-order of animals, dinosauria, a word he translated as "fearfully great lizards."

Waterhouse Hawkins Iguanodon statues. Completed in 1854, they still stand today in the Crystal Palace Park, London.

By the 1850's Owen had established himself as England's foremost authority on dinosaurs. So it came as no surprise that he served as the scientific advisor to Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins when Hawkins was hired to sculpt a garden full of the animals discovered by Anning, Buckland and Mantell. His huge concrete beasts still stand today where Hawkins put them - in the London suburb of Sydenham. For all these years they have been a monument not so much to Owen's science but to Hawkins' artistic vision. These anatomically incorrect Victorian dinosaurs were monumental public art - that look very little like dinosaurs as we know them today.

Hawkins' monsters were the culmination of nearly forty years of public talk and scientific speculation about these prehistoric animals. This dinomania paved the way for understanding Darwin's theory of evolution. When Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859, his readers already knew that animals could change over time - over very long times - into very different animals.

Dinosaur sculpture by Hall Train. Courtesy of Hall Train.

The invention of dinosaurs continues today in the work of paleontologists like Christopher McGowan, Janet Waddington and Gerry De Iullis, whose thrill in the discovery of fossils and whose expertise in comparative anatomy harkens back to the beginnings of their science. Dinosaurs are still being invented amid a flood of new theories about their lives and extinction. And they are being invented quite literally by dinosaur sculptors like Hall Train. His prehistoric animals, designed according to the latest scientific knowledge, stand, walk and even fly through the 21st century.

- Seth Feldman


Reading List

Anholt, Laurence. Stone Girl, Bone Girl: The Story of Mary Anning. Illustrated by Shelia Moxley. New York: Orchard Books, 1998.

Atkins, Jeannine. Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon. Pictures by Michael Dooling. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.

Brown, Don
. Rare Treasure: Mary Anning and Her Remarkable Discoveries. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999.

Cadbury, Deborah
. Terrible Lizard: The First Dinosaur Hunters and the Birth of a New Science. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2000.

Darwin, Charles. Charles Darwin: Evolution and Natural Selection. Edited with an introductory essay by James Loewenberg. Boston: Beacon Press, 1959.

McGowan, Christopher. The Dragon Seekers. How An Extraordinary Circle of Fossilists Discovered the Dinosaurs and Paved the Way for Darwin. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Perseus Publishing, 2001.

Rudwick, Martin. Scenes from Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Rupke, Nicolaas A. Richard Owen: Victorian Naturalist. Yale University Press, 1994.

Watson, Jane Werner. Dinosaurs. Pictures by William de J. Rutherford. Racine, Wisconsin: Western Publishing Company, 1959.

Related Websites

Strange Science: Dinosaurs and Dragons

Fossils and Mary Anning

The Dorset Page: Mary Anning

American Museum of Natural History Dinosaur Page

Zoom Dinsoaurs
(Complete Listing of Dinosaurs and Related Mesozoic

Biography of Richard Owen

The Berkeley Evolution Page

The Victorian Web
(portal for all things Victorian)

Paper Dinosaurs: 1824 -1969
- an exhibition of original printed materials related to the history of dinosaur discovery from the Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering and Technology.

Hall Train Studios - Making the Past Present

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