Highlighting Histories: Women in Science – Mary Mantell

Published by Leonie on behalf of Learning Volunteer & Women in Science Tour Guide Alex Holding

As a taster for the free NHM Women in Science Tours, Learning Volunteers will be sharing blogs on some pioneering women of science.  We can learn more about them, their work and share some information about the Museum’s displays and cutting-edge science.  Our first venture is Mary Mantell.

Mary Mantell was an active amateur fossil hunter in the nineteenth century. Arguably, she is less well known than her namesake Mary Anning.  Mantell’s reputation is also eclipsed by that of her husband Gideon Mantell, a medical doctor, renowned amateur geologist, and palaeontologist.

Portrait of Mary Mantell

Mary was born Mary Ann Woodhouse in April 1795, and married Gideon Mantell in 1816. She was an enthusiastic and successful fossil hunter and accompanied her husband on his field trips.

During one of their fossil hunting forays in 1822, Mary discovered fossilised pieces of teeth in a pile of rocks in a quarry at Cuckfield, Sussex.  Some sources credit this discovery to her husband Gideon. The fossils were later identified as parts of teeth from the dinosaur Iguanodon.

One of the Iguanodon teeth found by Mary Mantell

Although initially a conundrum, the tooth turned out to be part of a very important discovery: the dinosaurs.  The word ‘Dinosaur’ was not coined until 20 years later in 1842 by Richard Owen.  The teeth were tentatively identified by the naturalist George Cuvier as coming from a rhinoceros.  Later it was proposed that it came from a giant herbivorous reptile that would have lived during the Early Cretaceous period, between 140- 110 million years ago.

Another of Mary’s skills was as a scientific illustrator. She was responsible for the 42 plates of her husband’s first book Fossils of the South Downs, (1822) and provided over 364 fine lithographs for the publication. She is credited in the book as follows: ‘Engravings executed by Mrs Mantell’. Women amateur scientists in the nineteenth century were rarely acknowledged in scientific publications for their work.  Her efforts both in identifying fossilised bones and as a scientific illustrator were praised by her contemporaries.

Mary Mantell’s illustration of the Iguanodon tooth
Fossils of the South Downs plate 3 by Mary Mantell

Mary’s later life

Mary’s story has a sad ending. The Mantells were not wealthy, and it was probable that this and the birth of five children and the death of one of them, put strains on their relationship.  Or perhaps it was his obsession with his work.  The marriage and also their fossil hunting collaboration came to an end with separation and divorce in 1849. Women had few legal rights and couldn’t take anything away from the marriage including the children, so they continued to live with their father after the divorce.

Mary’s legacy lives on in the Natural History Museum with her discovered iguanodon teeth being on display in the Treasures gallery

Following a carriage accident, Gideon Mantell became an opium addict, as the drug was not an unusual treatment for pain in the nineteenth century, and he used it following bouts of serious illness. He died in 1852 of an opium overdose. Mary lived on independently until her death in 1869.

If you enjoyed this blog, you may like to come on a free Highlighting Histories: Women in Science Tour at the NHM where you can discover the fascinating work of women scientists past and present. 

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