Since the End of the 17th century to the beginning of the 19th, several discoveries of dinosaur remains were reported for first time, mostly from England, France and North America. In 1677, Robert Plot, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford and first curator of the Ashmolean Museum published his ‘Natural History of Oxfordshire’ where described and illustrated a distal fragment of a large femur that he interpreted as the remains of a giant man, like those mentioned in the Bible, or of some other animal. In 1677, Richard Brookes, described it again, and named “Scrotum humanum“, but the label was not considered a proper Linnaean name and was not used in posterior literature. Now is considered a nomen oblitum (forgotten name).
When in 1818 George Cuvier went to England, William Buckland, Professor of Geology at the University of Oxford and dean of Christ Church, showed him the vertebrae of a large fossil animal collected at the Stonesfield quarry. Cuvier wrote: “Professor Buckland had made this great discovery years before, and I saw its pieces at his house in Oxford in 1818. I even drew some of them.”
Later, in 1824, William Buckland published the first report of a large carnivore animal: the Megalosaurus (the large femur found by Plot, belongs to this animal). He had a piece of a lower jaw, some vertebrae, and fragments of pelvis, scapula and hind limbs, probably not all from the same individual and estimated that the animal had 12 m (almost 40 feet) long.
Megalosaurus became so popular that is mentioned in Charles Dickens’ novel Bleak House: “As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.” It was the first appearance of a dinosaur in popular literature.
One year after the discovery of the Megalosaurus, the Iguanodon entered in the books of History. Gideon Mantell proposed the name for this fossil found in Tilgate Forest, Sussex. He could describe a relative complete skeleton by buying a large block extracted from a quarry in Maidstone, but Mantell represented the Iguanodon with a horn on its nose, that now we know is actually one of the Iguanodon’s thumbs. Later, in 1833, Mantell described the Hylaeosaurus.
After those pioneering work Richard Owen, one of the best anatomist of his age and the first director of the British Museum, coined the term Dinosauria. It was in a paper published in 1841 for the Eleventh Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
Owen used his influence with Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, to propose the financing of the three-dimensional reconstruction of the first known dinosaurs: Megalosaurus, Iguanodon and Hylaeosaurus, for the closure of the first international exposition in modern European history: the Crystal Palace exhibition, that would be placed in Sydenham Park, south of London, instead of the original site in London’s Hyde Park.
Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, sculptor and natural history artist, was commissioned to make the full-size replicas of the dinosaurs and other extinct reptiles for Sydenham Park.
Owen conceived the dinosaurs as a special group of fossil reptiles with some advanced characteristic that in some ways were similar to those of mammals, and that conception is clearly exposed on the reconstructions of Megalosaurus and Iguanodon as large quadrupeds resembling a rhinoceros. Owen also supposed that dinosaurs had four-chambered hearts and warm blood like mammals.
On New Year’s Eve of 1853 a banquet was held inside the reconstruction of the Iguanodon, which had not yet been completed, and under the portraits of Cuvier, Buckland, Mantell and Owen the twenty privileged guests to this unusual inauguration proposed a toast to the glory of the dinosaurs and Queen Victoria.
On 30 November 1936 the Crystal Palace burned to the ground but Hawkin’s models can still be seen today in Sydenham Park.
Jose Luis Sanz, Starring T. rex!: Dinosaur Mythology and Popular Culture, Indiana University Press, 2002.
Philippe Taquet, Dinosaur Impressions: Postcards from a Paleontologist, Cambridge University Press, 1999.