1854 was the date of the unveiling of model dinosaurs in the park in South London where the Crystal Palace had recently been moved from Hyde Park. Gideon Mantell however had died in 1852. So what is the link?
In August 1852 Mantell was approached by the directors of the Crystal Palace Company to oversee the development of a geological display telling the story of the discoveries he had overseen for so long. The minutes showed they wished to “make enquiry of Dr Mantell as to what degree of completeness the collection could attain for a sum of 3,000 or 4,000 pounds”. Mantell was however in acute pain, and in fact dying, and so he declined the offer. “Very good for nothing… in fact I am all used up” he wrote. On 10 November he died, possibly from an overdose of the opiates he took to achieve some relief.
His previous antagonistic relationship with rival Richard Owen then worked its ways out. This has been documented in the book by Deborah Cadbury The Dinosaur Hunters: the True Story of Scientific Rivalry and the Discovery of the Prehistoric World
Owen despite having been unmasked as the author of an obituary dismissing Mantell’s contribution to the knowledge of the time went on to not only inherit Mantell’s deformed spine for his collection at the Hunterian Museum but also to take over the development of the dinosaur park at Sidenham. Owen ignored Mantell’s, in fact correct, interpretation of the Iguanodon as having shorter fore limbs and designed a squat four legged scaly monster Igunaodon model.
On New Years Eve 1853 Owen hosted a celebratory meal inside a cast from this model and used it to promote the venture, as described here Dinner in the Iguanodon .
The famous “Dinner in the Iguanodon Model” was immortalised in this picture, published in Illustrated London News, 7 January 1854, p. 22.The names of Mantell, Buckland and Cuvier can be glimpsed high on the wall but Owen took the place at the head of the table.
To explore this debate and the respective roles of all of the men and women discoverers of our earliest land and sea creatures a piece of street art will be coming to Lewes in the summer. Not only was Lewes Mantell’s birthplace but also the location of where he lived when he discovered and identified the original Iguanodon fossils. This event will be on Sunday 25 September 2016 and will be brought to life by the Iguanodon Restaurant street theatre shows presented by Emerald Ant CIC
If you would like to help plan this event, can help with fundraising or help develop the fossil festival programme to accompany this please email debby.matthews[at]yahoo.co.uk