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Dinomania – a review


Reviewed by Anthony Brook

Dinomania is a most unusual and powerful theatrical performance. It begins with a flourish and remains relentlessly fast-paced for the next 80 minutes, without a pause, to a grand finale. You are transfixed by the drama unfolding before you, enacted by a small cast, in the manner and style of Ancient Greece; you are transported back in time to a time when the world was so much simpler to explain, by religious orthodoxy, until geologists came along to cause major controversies. It is a powerful dramatisation of the personalities and ideas battling for supremacy in the first half of the 19th century, a time of iconoclastic ideas and elephantine egos. In that chaotic situation, someone was going to get hurt!

Although this piece of theatre portrays the tumult caused by palaeontological discoveries of the time, it focuses on just one man, the great Sussex geological pioneer, Gideon Mantell (1790-1852), whose brave but ultimately futile effort to use his discovery of Iguanodon to join the scientific elite and Society came to nought in the end. Despite always proclaiming scientific priority over Iguanodon, and being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1825, he was still considered only ‘a country doctor and a cobbler’s son, who should leave such matters to the learned men of Society’. As is always the case, personal relationships matter enormously: although Mantell had the long-term friendship of Charles Lyell, he faced the bitter rivalry, frontal antagonism and societal dominance of Richard Owen, an oleaginous man with a razor-sharp mind, who discredited his discoveries and did his level best to appropriate his achievements. Owen coined the term dinosaur in 1841 and later established the Natural History Museum, so would seemed to have triumphed, but Mantell is still remembered as the man whose fossil discoveries in the Weald revealed fauna and flora from a Time far beyond the conceptualisation of contemporaries. ‘Deep Time’ gave plenty of time for the evolution and extinction of species, issues which had troubled ‘natural philosophers’ for many decades, leading in due course to Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859.

All the main personages of that period are portrayed, presenting evidence and arguing their case—-Ussher, Lamarck, Cuvier, Parkinson, Buckland and, of course, Owen, as well as those more directly involved in Mantell’s life—his father, Thomas, and his long-suffering wife, Mary Ann, who supports him admirably at first, but eventually finds his obsession with fossils too much to bear and walks out of the marital home, a very brave decision in those days. Mantell’s life bears all the hallmarks of a Shakespearian ‘Tragedy’–early success, reaching for the stars, downfall by bad decision-making and crushed by the turn of events.

Most of Dinomania is factually accurate, but ‘some of the scenes might not stand up to forensic historical scrutiny,’ admitted Lauren Mooney, co-writer/producer, ‘but it is intended as a creative adaptation, with a series of wider themes, such as who controls scientific progress.’ In that respect, it should be observed that Science, like History, is always open to re-interpretation as Time goes by; and that Geologists are only people with a particular ‘focussed curiosity’, subject to all the emotional frailties of humankind.

The acting was strong and powerful; the setting and props minimal; and the sound effects provided by a pianist on stage. The actors each played several roles in the course of the play, always in view and changing character by their language, voice, pose and actions: character changes were rapid, recognisable and yet convincing—a tribute the their thespian skills.  Foreknowledge of people, places and events helped but was not really necessary. It was a truly exciting theatrical experience, which left everyone in the audience overwhelmed.

Dinomania was performed at the New Diorama Theatre, Regent’s Place, London from 19 February until 23 March 2019:    A Show about scientific endeavour, bitter rivalry and terrible lizards, by the Kandinsky theatre company

More by Antony Brook on Mantell’s life and works here Momento Mori


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Mantell’s publications

Gideon Mantell produced a vast number of learned papers and books during his life time. These ranged from local history, geological findings, medical papers and his own observations. The full list can be downloaded here as THE PUBLICATIONS of GIDEON MANTELL

This has been produced by Anthony Brook compiler of various publications on Mantell and is based on the bibliography produced originally by Dennis Dean.

They cover from 1811 …


To 1852 just before he died …

Publications end

You can find a link to some of his original publications to read as pdf or online on the Links and References page

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The Dinosaur Doctor of Lewes and the Fossil that Changed the World

In 1822 a young Doctor and his wife discovered a small unassuming fossil in the Sussex countryside. Piecing together further fragments of unidentified fossils he deduced that the Earth was once inhabited by giant reptiles and that these magnificent beasts had once roamed the downs of Sussex.

He went on to discover and name the first of these creatures, the Iguanodon. By doing so he established the Age of Reptiles. Today we accept that dinosaurs ruled the planet but a hundred years ago his theories were contentious.

Although Mantell went on to achieve great acclaim in his research his life was dogged by academic rivalry, family tragedies, personal illness and finally an accident that would threaten his very being. The paleontological world owes a huge debt to Mantell but only now are we beginning to recognise his enormous contribution to science. This lecture sets out to readdress the balance and introduces the listener to a World of dinosaurs, dirty deeds and deception.

The 2019 Gideon Mantell Birthday Memorial Lecture was held on Thursday 7th February 2019 7.30pm at Lewes Town Hall upstairs lecture room off Fisher Street, Lewes. Delivered by Ray Hale, specialist in wildlife lectures and educational displays. The talk was entitled Gideon Mantell: The Dinosaur Doctor of Lewes and the Fossil that Changed the World

On the same theme ….

News of a new play in London on the life of Mantell – Dinomania

165 million years ago, an iguanodon is killed in the heart of a rainforest. Time passes, the rainforest becomes the South Downs, and every part of the iguanodon degrades and disappears – except one tooth. 197 years ago, in safe, affluent 1820s Sussex, a country doctor finds the tooth. But where does it fit in the story of an earth created by God just 6,000 years ago? Dinomania is a story of scientific endeavour, bitter rivalry and terrible lizards.

This production is supported by Arts Council England, the Royal Victoria Hall Foundation, the Unity Theatre Trust, The Dischma Charitable Trust, The Geological Society and Theatre Arts at London Metropolitan University. This production is suitable for 14+

Dinomania is at the New Diorama Theatre in London from 19 February to 23 March


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Plaque to Mantell in St Michael’s church

On Lewes High Street is St Michael’s church. This was the church where Mantell attended and had his children baptised and is just a short walk from his house and doctor practice. His son Reginald had the plaque installed to his father, dated 1857. Gideon died on 10 November 1852 (Reginald gets the date wrong by a year)

Reginald himself died not long after his father at age 30 of cholera while working on the railways in India on 30 June 1857.


The wording on the plaque are not easy to read so a transcript is here below.


The plaque is mounted at the bottom with the Mantell Coat of Arms granted to the Mantell part of the family in Kent and depicts a black cross engrailed between four black martlets on a silver shield. Gideon was reported to have had a table with this engarved on it his house at Castle Place.

Gideon himself had a plaque to his father Thomas placed in St Michael’s Church with one of his poems. It can be found at the back wall of the church.


Thomas Mantell was buried in St John sub Castro church yard, St Mary’s Lane being of that parish, together with Gideon’s mother Sarah in a solid family grave which can be visited. Read about it here


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The 2018 Lewes Fossil Festival braved the rain!

This year’s Lewes Fossil Festival was on Sunday 23 September at the Linklater Pavilion. There was a range of family activities to suit all ages and abilities; including a hunt for shark teeth, model painting, a Treasure Hunt, dino biscuit icing, a selection of short films and the chance to view and handle real dinosaur bones and fossils courtesy of the Booth Museum of Natural History in Brighton.

There was also a chance to build their own Jurassic Park dinosaurs with bits of plastic and other things we usually throw away. This produced some magnificent models.

The Future Fossils project was an interesting take on what people in the future would make of our civilisation if all that was left in the geology was bits of plastic, or their imprint.

A Geology Walk around Lewes went on during the morning of the Fossil Festival 23 September. Meeting at Mountfield Road roundabout near Lewes station Roger Cordiner took a group around Lewes illustrating the range of different building stone materials around the town, information sheets were provided.

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Dr Mantell: physician and accoucheur

house116Gideon Mantell was born 3 Feb 1790 in St Mary’s Lane, now Station Street in Lewes.  His early education has been well documented, see Mantell’s Life and Reputation for some key books on his life. At age six he attended a local Dame School, possibly in Fisher Street near by St Mary’s Lane where he was born and lived. It was said that on her death she left all her small wealth as a legacy to her young scholar.  In 1797 age 7 he moved on to John Button’s Academy opposite Cliffe Church. Here he was an exceptional student by all accounts. He stayed there until 1802 when he was sent to live with his uncle at Westbury near Swindon until 1805. There is a comprehensive description of his early education on page 24 of Gideon Mantell Momento Mori – 1 compiled by Anthony Brook of his obituary published in the Gentleman’s Magazine 38 (Dec 1852) 664-7.

At the age of 15 he was apprenticed to Dr James Moore, local doctor who lived on the High Street around the corner from his home in Lewes.

Country surgeon

This experience is described anonymously in 1845 by Mantell in his small booklet Memories of a Life of a Country Surgeon

He sets out how he experienced his apprenticeship with Dr Moore in Lewes, and after at London’s St Bartholomew’s under the famed John Abernethy. He returned to Lewes in 1812 to take up practice as local doctor to three parishes and as physician to the Royal Artilery Hospital at Ringmer. He also describes his need to carry out amputations, to attend to the soldiers following floggings and to women in childbirth.

Having received a certificate from the Lying-in Charity for Married Women at Their Own Habitation he was qualified as an accoucheur, or midwife, to women in labour. At a time when 14 women died for every 1,000 births, Mantell only lost two patients in 2,400 deliveries. In 1828 he published an article in the London Medical Gazette, vol 2 pp781-782 entitled ‘On the Secale Cornutum’, in other words on ergot of rye for use during delayed labour.

From his training in physiology and anatomy he was able to piece together and describe the ancient land dinosaur creatures he was finding from the fragments of fossilised teeth and bones found in the local Sussex clays.iguanodon-fossil-engraving-of-the-discovery-by-gideon-mantell-in-a-BA5R2M

For further reading see Papers in Volume 65, February 1972 Section of the History of Medicine Meeting June 19 1971 with the Brighton and Sussex Medico- chirurgical Society

Gideon Algernon Mantell LLD FRCS FRS(1790-1852) Surgeon and Geologist: ‘Wizard of the Weald’ [Abridged] by AD Morris MD (Eastbourne, Sussex)’

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The Building Stones of Lewes: Lewes Fossil Festival Geology Walk

On Sunday 23rd September 2018 11am – 12.30pm there will be a geology walk starting by the roundabout by Lewes Station and Mountfield Road car park and finishing at Lewes Castle. This is put on as part of the 2018 Lewes Fossil Festival and will explore the various building stones used in a range of historic buildings in Lewes.

The walk leader in Roger Cordiner author of recently published Building Stones Atlas of Sussex book, copies of which will be available at the Fossil Festival going on at the Linklater Pavilion that day (11am – 3pm). Roger himself wil be at the Linklater following the completion of his walk.

A magnifying glass would be useful to view the rocks and fossils in detail. Attendees will get a worksheet/map for the walk they can fill in as they go along. Cost is £3, please pay the walk leader.

Book here


Form available here to download Atlas


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