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Gideon Mantell

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Gideon Algernon Mantell (February 3, 1790November 10 1852) was an English obstetrician, geologist, and paleontologist. He is credited with discovering the first fossils identified as originating from a dinosaur, teeth belonging to an Iguanodon.

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Giant iguana-like teeth

Gideon Mantell was born in Lewes, Sussex. He was a dedicated and hard-working obstetrician, physician and surgeon who regularly saw dozens of patients each day -- on one occasion he attended sixty in a single day during a typhus epidemic. Although mainly occupied with running his busy country medical practice in Lewes, he spent his little free time pursuing his passion, geology, often working into the early hours of the morning. Inspired by the sensational discovery of a fossilised animal resembling a huge crocodile (later identified as an ichthyosaur) by Mary Anning at Lyme Regis in Dorset, Mantell became passionately interested in the study of the fossilised animals and plants which were being found in the area. The fossils he had collected from the region known as The Weald in Sussex were from the chalk downlands covering the county. The chalk is part of the Upper Cretaceous ("chalk") period, and the fossils it contains are marine in origin.

But by 1819, Mantell had begun acquiring fossils from a quarry at Whiteman's Green, near Cuckfield. These included the remains of terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems at a time when all the known fossil remains from Cretaceous England were marine in origin. He named the new strata the Strata of Tilgate Forest, after an historical wooded area, and it was later shown to belong to the Lower Cretaceous.

By 1820, he had started to find very large bones at Cuckfield, even larger than those discovered by William Buckland at Stonesfield in Oxfordshire. Then in 1822, shortly before finishing his first book (The Fossils of South Downs or Illustrations of the Geology of Sussex), he found several large teeth (although some historians contend that they were in fact discovered by his wife), the origin of which he could not identify.

Mantell showed the teeth to other scientists but they were dismissed as belonging to a fish or mammal, and from a more recent rock layer than the other Tilgate Forest fossils. The eminent French anatomist Georges Cuvier identified the teeth as those of a rhinoceros. Mantell was convinced that the teeth had come from the Mesozoic strata, and finally recognized that they resembled those of the iguana, but were twenty times larger. He surmised that the owner of the remains must have been at least sixty feet (eighteen meters) in length.

Recognition

He tried in vain to convince his peers that the fossils were from Mesozoic strata by carefully studying rock layers. Sir Richard Owen famously disputed Mantell's assertion by claiming that the teeth were of mammalian origins. Years later, Mantell had acquired enough fossil evidence to show that the dinosaur's forelimbs were much shorter than its hind legs, therefore ruling out any mammal. Mantell went on to demonstrate that fossil vertebrae Owen had attributed to a variety of different species all belonged to Iguanodon.

In 1825, Mantell published Notice on the Iguanodon, a Newly Discovered Fossil Reptile, from the Sandstone of Tilgate Forest, in Sussex. The paper was presented at a meeting of the Royal Society, and was met with acclaim. As a result, Mantell was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and an honorary member of the Institute of Paris. He was also awarded the Wollaston Medal by the Geological Society of London and a Royal medal by the Royal Society.

Later years

In 1833 Mantell relocated to Brighton, but his medical practice suffered and he was almost rendered destitute, but for the town's council who promptly transformed his house into a museum.

In 1839, Mary Mantell left her husband. That same year, Gideon's youngest son Walter emigrated to New Zealand.

The museum in Brighton ultimately failed as a result of Mantell's habit of waiving the entrance fee. Finally destitute, Mantell sold the entire collection.

Mantell suffered a terrible carriage accident and was left with a debilitating spinal injury. Despite being bent over with crippling deformity and in constant pain, he continued to work with fossilized reptiles, and published a number of scientific books and papers until his death.

Death and remembrance

In 1852, Mantell took an overdose of opium, the drug he used to alleviate his pain, and later lapsed into a coma. He died that afternoon. His postmortem showed that he had been suffering from scoliosis. Richard Owen, his one-time nemesis, had a section of Mantell's spine removed, pickled and stored on a shelf at the Royal College of Surgeons of England. There it sat until World War II when it was lost, presumably destroyed, during a German bombing raid.

In 2000, in commemoration of Mantell's discovery and his contribution to the science of paleontology, The Mantell Monument was unveiled at Whiteman's Green, Cuckfield. The monument has been confirmed as the location of the Iguanodon fossils Mantell first described in 1822.de:Gideon Mantell fr:Gideon Mantell

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