Wizard Of The Weald
by Hanna Lindon
Renowned fossil hunter Gideon Mantell put Sussex on the palaeontological map. Hanna Lindon looks back at his remarkable life.
When Gideon Mantell first began collecting fossils in the early 19th century, nobody had yet coined the word ‘dinosaur’. There were endless explanations for the huge bone fragments that had been uncovered across the country, but a race of gigantic prehistoric reptiles wasn’t among them.
Mantell was set to help change all of that. Born on February 3rd 1790, in a Lewes street then called St Mary’s Lane but later renamed Station Street, he was the fifth child of shoemaker and radical Whig Thomas Mantell. By the age of 13 he was already passionately interested in history and archaeology, collecting ammonite fossils and bringing back pieces of pot and stone from the ruins of Lewes Priory.
With the science of geology still in its infancy, Mantell was obliged to get a proper job. He trained as a surgeon and midwife, returning to Lewes in 1811 to establish a busy country medical practice. Doctoring filled most of his time. According to his biographer, Dennis Dean, he “attended between two and three hundred cases of midwifery every year and was often up for six or seven nights in a row, his only sleep being an occasional nap in his clothes.”
When he did manage to snatch a few moments from his medical work, Mantell could be found collecting or documenting fossils. His most celebrated discovery came relatively early on in his career. Legend has it that his wife, Mary Ann Mantell, spotted a gigantic tooth by the roadside while she was accompanying her husband on a medical visit. Mantell was convinced that he had discovered a new type of herbivorous reptile, which he dubbed the Iguanadon. It was only the second dinosaur to be identified and named, and its discovery cemented the doctor’s reputation as one of the era’s foremost scientific minds.
Mantell’s contribution to palaeontology didn’t stop there. He discovered seven dinosaurs in total and published twelve books about fossils. The incredible finds he collected from Cuckfield, Tilgate Forest and other Wealden sites earned him the nickname Wizard of the Weald. It may have been Mantell’s arch-rival Richard Owen who actually coined the term dinosaur, but Dean argues, “no other individual contributed so much to our early knowledge of prehistoric saurians.”
Sadly, Mantell’s life took a downturn after he moved his family from Lewes to Brighton. An attempt to open a fossil museum drained his finances, his daughter died, he separated from his wife and was crippled in a carriage accident. He finally died from an opium overdose in 1852 – but nowadays his achievements are celebrated in exhibitions spanning the world, from Cuckfield Museum to New Zealand’s Alexander Turnbull Library. Mantell’s legacy as a palaeontological wizard and all round Sussex legend lives on.