Leonardo and the Fossil Whale

Leonardo da Vinci: Self-portrait. From WikimediaCommons.

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was the archetype of the Renaissance Man: artist, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, naturalist and geologist. A true polymath. He was born on April 15, 1452 in Vinci, a town in the lower valley of the Arno River. The majority of Leonardo’s scientific observations were in the Leicester Codex, a collection of writings from the 16th Century. Several excerpts from the Codex indicate that Leonard uses many ichnological principles that are still valid today.

The Codex Arundel is similar to the Codex Leicester. It was written between 1480 and 1518. In folio 155r, Leonardo recounted an experience in a cave in the Tuscan countryside: “Unable to resist my eager desire and wanting to see the great multitude of the various and strange shapes made by formative nature, and having wandered some distance among gloomy rocks, I came to the entrance of a great cave, in front of which I stood some time, astonished and unaware of such a thing. Bending my back into an arch I rested my tired hand on my knee and held my right hand over my downcast and contracted eyebrows, often bending first one way and then the other, to see whether I could discover anything inside, and this being forbidden by the deep darkness within, and after having remained there some time, two emo-tions arose in me, fear and desire: fear of the threatening dark cave, desire to see whether there were any wondrous thing within it”.

Reproduction of folios 155v (left corner) and 156r (right corner) of the Codex Arundel. From Collareta et al., 2020.

In the next folio, Leonardo described what appears to have been a fossil whale embedded in the walls of a cave:

“O powerful and once-living instrument of formative nature, your great strength of no avail, you must abandon your tranquil life to obey the law which God and time gave to creative nature. Of no avail are your branching, sturdy dorsal fins with which you pursue your prey, plowing your way, tempestuously tearing open the briny waves with your breast.

Oh, how many a time the terrified shoals of dolphins and big tuna fish were seen to flee before your insensate fury, as you lashed with swift, branching fins and forked tail, creating in the sea, mist and sudden tempest that buffeted and submerged ships…

O Time, swift despoiler of created things, how many kings, how many peoples have you undone? How many changes of state and circumstances have followed since thewondrous form of this fish died here in this winding and cavernous recess? Now unmade by time you lie patiently in this closed place with bones stripped and bare, serving as an armature for the mountain placed over you.”

Tuscan Pliocene fossil mysticetes: (a) ʽPelocetus sp.’ from Le Colombaie, near Volterra (original field sketch by G. Capellini, 1879); (b) Idiocetus guicciardinii from Montopoli (osteoanatomical plate reproduced after Capellini 1905). From Collareta et al., 2020.

In the folio 715r of the Codex Atlanticus, Leonardo described the same animal as ‘setoluto’, i.e. pro-vided with bristles – an observation that strongly evokes the presence of baleen, and as such, a positive identification of the ʽmarine monster’ with a baleen whale. A recent study suggests that Leonardo saw a fossil whale and recognised it as such, but the encounter was most likely along the flank of a hill, where cetacean remains from the Tuscan Pliocene are relatively common. Leonardo also made taphonomic observations on it and inferred that a considerable amount of time must have passed from the death of the whale in the marine realm to allow for its eventual discovery on land.

Leonardo’s legacy is extraordinary and his contributions to historical geology and ichnology are of special relevance. He wrote about the original horizontal arrangement of strata before Nicola Steno’s seminal work. He also provided the first organic observations on concepts such as actualism, taphonomy, and palaeocological inference. But because he never received a formal education in Latin or Mathematics, his writings were ignored by the scholars of the time. Five centuries after his death, Leonardo still surprises us.


Collareta, A., Collareta, M., Berta, A., & Bianucci, G. (2020). On Leonardo and a fossil whale: a reappraisal with implications for the early history of palaeontology, Historical Biology, DOI: 10.1080/08912963.2020.1787403.

Etheridge, Kay. “Leonardo and the Whale.” In Leonardo da Vinci – Nature and Architecture,edited by C. Moffat and S.Taglialagamba, 89-106. Leiden: Brill, 2019.

Forgotten women of Paleontology: Maria Pavlova

María Pávlova (1854-1938). From Wikimedia Commons

The first half of the 1860s was an extraordinary time in Russian history. After the Crimean War Tsar Alexander II took  steps to set the Russian Empire on the path of modernization. In 1868, Russian feminists submitted a request to the rector of the St. Petersburg University to open higher women’s course. The rector agreed, but the Minister of Education demoted the status of the courses to “public lectures”. A year later, Julia Lermontova and Sofia Kovalevskaya obtained permission to attend classes at Heidelberg University in Germany. Only in 1876, Alexander II authorized the creation of higher women’s courses with the same curricula as men’s universities. Finally, the University Courses for women opened on October 2, 1878 in St. Petersburg. Historian K. N. Bestuzhev-Rumin was appointed the first director of the courses (in his honor the courses were unofficially called “Bestuzhev’s”).

Maria Vasillievna Pavlova, nee Gortynskaia, was the first Russian woman to achieve significant national and international success in vertebrate paleontology. She was born in Ukraine in 1854. Her father was a state provincial doctor who encouraged her to study science. In 1870, she graduated from the Kiev Institute of Noble Maidens. Three years later she married a rural doctor N.N. Illich-Shishatsky. In the summer of 1880, after the death of her husband she traveled to Paris to attend classes at the Sorbonne. She studied zoology, botany, geology, and paleontology under the guidance of Albert Gaudry, receiving the grade of specialist in paleontology in 1884. She later worked in the Paris Museúm d’historie naturelle. In 1886 she married with the young geologist A.P. Pavlov and returned to Russia. At the request of her husband, Maria was allowed to put in order the paleontological collection of the Geological Cabinet of Moscow University, where she worked for more than 30 years.

M.V. Pavlova at her desk at the Paleontological Museum of Moscow State University. 1920s. From Bessudnova and Lyubina, 2019.

Her first scientific work was a description of the ammonites collected by Pavlov in the Volga region but all of her subsequent research focused on vertebrate fossils. She studied the fossil fauna of the Novaya Zemlya islands, and the “hipparion fauna” of the southwestern regions of European Russia. In 1897 she was one of only two women invited to join the Organizing Committee and presentations of the International Geological Congress (IGC) held in St. Petersburg. Between 1887-1906 the nine issues of her celebrated Studies in the Paleontological History of Hoofed Animals were published. Later she published her monograph Les éléphants fossils de la Russie, followed by her two-volume of Mammifères tertiaires de la nouvelle Russie, co-authored with Aleksei Pavlov. Maria often acquired material for her research from private individuals and exchanged casts of fossil animals with famous foreign paleontologists and museum curators.

In order to introduce paleontology to a wider audience, Maria translated into Russian Henry Neville Hutchinson’s Extinct Monsters and Melchior Neumayer’s Die Stämme des Tierreichs. In 1910, Pavlova was invited to head the department of paleontology at Moscow University. It was the first experience of systematic teaching of paleontology in Moscow. In 1925 she was elected a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences (in the same year it was renamed into the Academy of Sciences of the USSR). In 1926, the Geological Society of France awarded the Pavlovs with the gold medal  for their geological and paleontological works. She went on her last geological expedition in 1931, to the Volyn district, near Khvalynsk, a place of a mass accumulation of bones of fossil mammoths, elephants and rhinos.

She died on December 23, 1938.



Valkova, O. (2008). The Conquest of Science: Women and Science in Russia, 1860–1940. Osiris, 23(1), 136–165. doi:10.1086/591872

Bessudnova Z.A., Lyubina G.I. Main lady of russian paleontology. To the 165th anniversary of the honorary academician Maria V. Pavlova. // Вестник Российской академии наук. – 2019. – Vol. 89. – N. 6. – P. 621-628. doi: 10.31857/S0869-5873896621-628


Forgotten women of paleontology: Charlotte Murchison

‘The light of science’, a satirical cartoon by Henry T De la Beche, 1832, depicting Charlotte Murchinson

By the early nineteenth century, the study of the Earth became central to the economic and cultural life of Great Britain. Due to the informal character of the early British geology, women were free to take part in collecting fossils and mineral specimens, and they were allowed to attend lectures, although they were still barred from membership in scientific societies. Early female scientists were often born into influential families, like Mary Lyell, the daughter of the geologist Leonard Horner. Althought Barbara Hastings (1810-1858) and Etheldred Benett (1776–1845) published their works independently, the prevailing pattern was formed by women who have worked in the field but acted as assistants to father, husband, brother, or other male geologist that were no relatives. In these cases, the publication of their findings was not part of accepted females activy, and their contribution is often completely concealed under the name of someone else.

Charlotte Murchison (neé Hugonin) was born on 18 April 1788 in Hampshire, England. When she met her future husband Roderick Murchison, she was a well-educated woman with great interest in science and he was a cavalry officer in the Dragoons who was more interested in horses and dogs than in Geology. The couple married on August 29, 1815. The  first few years of their marriage they travelled extensively in the Continent. In Italy they became friends with Mary Somerville, the “Queen of Nineteenth Century Science.” In her autobiography, Mary Somerville wrote about Charlotte: “Mrs Murchison was an amiable accomplished woman, drew prettily and what was rare at the time she had studied science, especially geology and it was chiefly owing to her example that her husband turned his mind to those pursuits in which he afterwards obtained such distinction.”

Charlotte (née Hugonin), Lady Murchison by Camille Silvy, albumen print, 1860, NPG Ax50535
© National Portrait Gallery, London

In 1824 the couple moved to London where they began to attend lectures on geology and chemistry. A year later, Roderick Murchison read his first paper to the Geological Society. The same year, the couple explored the southern coast of England. In Lyme Regis, they became friends with Mary Anning, and when Mary visited London in July 1829, she stayed with the Murchisons. In a letter to Charlotte Murchison, dated October 11, 1833, Mary writes about the death of her beloved dog Tray which was killed in a landslide: “I would have answered your kind letter by the return of post, if I had been able. Perhaps you will laugh when I say that the death of my old faithful dog quite upset me, the Cliff fell upon him and killed him in a moment before my eyes, and close to my feet, it was but a moment between me and the same fate”.

In 1826, the couple traveled to the coast of Yorkshire. The fossils collected by Charlote were later described by James de Carle Sowerby in the “Mineral Conchology of Great Britain”. In 1827 Sowerby named an ammonite in her honor: Ammonites murchinsoniae. Willian Buckland also used Charlotte’s collection of fossils to illustrate his “Geology and Mineralogy Considered with References to Natural Theology.”

One of Charlotte Murchison’s illustrations for: Murchison, Roderick Impey. The Silurian system (Image: archive.org)

In 1828, Charlotte and her husband joined Charles Lyell on a long journey around Europe. In his notes Charles Lyell praised the active participation of Charlotte: “Mrs . M. is very diligent , sketching, labelling specimens & making out shells in which last she is an invaluable assistant.” Nevertheless, in the summer of 1832, Lyell refused to let women attend his lectures in Geology at Kings College London because he thought that women in a classroom would be “unacademical”. Charlotte and Mary Somerville were among the women who insisted on being allowed to attend the lectures. Some days later, in a letter to his long time friend William Whewell, Mary Somerville wrote: ‘It is decided by the Council of the University that ladies are to be admitted to the whole course, so you can see what in[va]sions we are making on the laws of learned societies, reform is nothing to it”

It was suggested that Lyell’s capitulation was related to Charlotte’s presence among the crowd. In 1834, William Whewell welcomed scientific women to the third meeting of the British Association. In an invitation addressed to Mary Somerville, he wrote: “I expect Mrs. Buckland and Mrs. Murchinson and several other ladies…”

Charlotte continued sketching the cliffs and collecting fossils but due to her health issues, she was not abble to join her husband in many of his late travels. By the 1860s Charlotte’s health has deteriorated. She died on 9 February 1869 at her home in Belgrave Square, London.



Kölbl-Ebert, Martina (1997). “Charlotte Murchison (Née Hugonin) 1788-1869”. Earth Sciences History (History of Earth Sciences Society) 16 (1): 39–43 https://doi.org/10.17704/eshi.16.1.97014235w8u4k414

Kölbl-Ebert, M. (2007). The geological travels of Charles Lyell, Charlotte Murchison and Roderick Impey Murchison in France and northern Italy (1828). Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 287(1), 109–117. doi:10.1144/sp287.9

EYLES, V. A. (1971). Roderick Murchison, Geologist and Promoter of Science. Nature, 234(5329), 387–389. doi:10.1038/234387a0

Florentino Ameghino, the father of Argentinian paleontology.

Portrait of Florentino Ameghino (1854-1911) by Luis De Servi (1863-1945).

Portrait of Florentino Ameghino (1854-1911) by Luis De Servi (1863-1945).

Florentino Ameghino was born on September 18, 1854. He came from a family of Italian immigrants who settled in 1854 in the town of Lujan, Buenos Aires, Argentina, where the extraction and exportation of fossils were a lucrative activity. The first well known fossil from South America, Megatherium americanum, was recovered by Fray Manuel Torres in this place and later described by George Cuvier in 1796. Fossil collectors and museum commissioners visited the Lujan area pursuing the colossal fossil bones. Darwin himself described the small city in his famous Notebook: “The houses at Luxan are all of one ground-floor, except that of the Cabildo, on the east side of the plaza, which has rooms above. They are all built with sun-burnt bricks, called adobes, not white-washed. The church is a small plain building, with a little turret, and a cupola top.”

Despite being a self-taught naturalist, Ameghino became an international authority in the field of paleontology of vertebrates, geology, and archeology. He was portrayed by his biographers as the incarnation of materialism, leftist culture and national genius. Throughout his scientific career, Ameghino was seconded by his younger brother Carlos Ameghino (1865–1936), who was a “travelling naturalist” for the Museo de La Plata. During his trips, he gathered a remarkable collection of fossil mammals, later described by Florentino.

Ameghino ́s house at Las Heras 466. (ca. 1920). From Ludueña, 2011.

Thanks to the financial support obtained by members of the Genovese community in Argentina, Ameghino traveled to Paris in 1878 and presented his archaeological and paleontological collections at the Paris Anthropological Exhibition. He studied with various French experts, including Paul Gervais and Gabriel de Mortillet, and sold part of his collection to the North American paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope. In 1879, he married Léontine Poirier. She became an important part of Ameghino’s scientific career helping him with his writings, their bookstore, and hosting her husband’s visitors in their home in La Plata. In 1880, Ameghino published La antigüedad del Hombre en el Plata (Man’s Antiquity in the la Plata Basin). He and Léontine stayed in France until 1881.

In 1884, Ameghino published Filogenia, his most important theoretical work which evidenced that Ameghino was a true Darwinist. The book was shaped by Haeckel’s reconstruction of the human ancestral tree, and Gabriel de Mortillet’s ideas. A year later, Ameghino was appointed professor of zoology at Universidad de Córdoba a position that he quit for the vice-directorship of the recently founded Museo de La Plata.

Photo from the Archives of the Museo de La Plata. Although it has no references, it is thought to portray Carlos and Florentino during the latter’s only visit to Patagonia. From Sergio F. Vizcaíno, 2011.

Between the 1880s and 1890s, Ameghino’s descriptions revolutionized scientific opinion regarding primitive mammals. He began corresponding with Hermann von Ihering, a German scientist who had settled in São Paulo, Brazil. They both studied the Tertiary geological formations in South America and elaborated the idea that all mammals had originated in Patagonia and then moved to Africa through the continental bridges connecting the ancient continents. This partnership was internationally known as Ameghino, von Ihering & Co. At the time, Ameghino had alredy published his monograph Contribución al conocimiento de los mamíferos fósiles de la República Argentina. The work was praised by Karl von Zittel in his History of Geology and Paleontology of 1899, who remarked that “the most important paleontological event of the last two decades of the nineteenth century has been the disclosure made by Florentino Ameghino of a rich Mammalian fauna in the Tertiary rocks of Patagonia.”

In 1887, Ameghino described a large, toothless jaw from the Miocene of the Province of Santa Cruz, naming it Phorusrhacos longissimus and assigning it to a new family of edentulous mammals. He used this finding as a critical evidence for his contention that modern mammalian lineages originated in Argentina and later spread across the globe. At that time, Ameghino and Francisco P. Moreno, Director of the Museo de la Plata, were in the middle of a bitter dispute. The feud between the two men was in many aspects similar to the well-known feud between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh, which took place in the United States at roughly the same time. Four years later, Moreno and Alcides Mercerat recognized for the first time that the mandible described by Ameghino was really that of a bird.

Images of the type specimen of the Santacrucian sloth
Proschismotherium oppositum Ameghino, 1902. From Vizcaino et al., 2017-

Ameghino resigned from his position at the Museo de La Plata in 1888, and Moreno denied him access to the paleontological collection. From that moment, and until became head of the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales in Buenos Aires in 1902, the Ameghino brothers continued with their palaeontological exploration, without any permanent official support, but they managed to get the funds to run their paleontological investigations as a private enterprise. Karl von Zittel, subsidized their explorations, receiving in exchange fossils for the collection of the Munich University. Meanwhile Moreno, in order to gain priority over his rivals, published a series of brief reports about the new palaeontological discoveries made by his field researchers.

In 1895, the critical financial situation forced Florentino Ameghino to sell his fossil bird collection, in order to support his further work in Patagonia. The collection was purchased by the London Museum by the sum of 350 £ in 1896. When Florentino became director of the Museo Nacional de Buenos Aires in 1902 the selling of fossils ceased, and he started making claims for the return of the museum’s collections. He also proposed for the most remarkable specimens of Patagonian and Pampean fossil faunas to be cast and stored in Buenos Aires and La Plata museums to be used in Argentinean schools. The same casts were sent to Museums all over the world and in exchange, Ameghino received casts of the oldest fossil mammals from Africa and the Northern Hemisphere to compare with the Patagonian faunas. It was a clever way to prevent the sale of the original fossils.

Florentino Ameghino in his archaeological deposit, 1902. Archivo General de la Nación Argentina. Inventario 4738.

Florencio Ameghino died on August 6, 1911. After his death, he became a national icon for his role in creating national science and culture. The Ameghino collection is still today the reference collection of the entire Cenozoic Era biostratigraphic system for the South American continent. The Florentino Ameghino Partido, situated in the north-west of Buenos Aires Province, was named after him, as well as various educational institutions across the country, libraries and museums, squares, schools, parks and other locations. The Ameghino Crater, located to the north of the Sinus Successus on the Moon, is also named in his honor. A very rare privilege for a paleontologist.


Ameghino, F. 1889. Contribución al conocimiento de los mamíferos fósiles de la República Argentina. Actas de la Academia Nacional de Ciencias en Córdoba 6: 1-1028.

Podgorny, I. (2016). The Daily Press Fashions a Heroic Intellectual: The Making of Florentino Ameghino in Late Nineteenth-Century Argentina. Centaurus, 58(3), 166–184. doi:10.1111/1600-0498.12125

Ludueña, E. 2011. La Casa era de los Ameghino. Monumento Histórico Nacional. La Graphica, Luján, 176 pp.

Sergio F. Vizcaíno, Gerardo De Iuliis, Paul D. Brinkman, Richard F. Kay, and Daniel L. Brinkman (2017). On an album of photographs recording fossils in the “Old collections” of the Museo de la Plata and Ameghino’s private collection at the beginning of the XXTH century. Publicación Electrónica de la Asociación Paleontológica Argentina 17 (1): 14–23.
Vizcaíno, Sergio Fabián; Cartas para Florentino desde la Patagonia: Crónica de la correspondencia édita entre los hermanos Ameghino (1887-1902); Asociación Paleontológica Argentina; Publicación Especial – Asociación Paleontológica Argentina; 12; 1; 12-2011; 51-67 http://hdl.handle.net/11336/80957

A Short History of the Early Female Geoscientists from Argentina

Mathilde Dolgopol de Saez. Image credit: Asociación Paleontológica Argentina (A.P.A.)

Women have played various and extensive roles in the history of geology. Unfortunately, their contribution has not been widely recognised by the public or academic researchers. In the 18th and 19th centuries women’s access to science was limited, and science was usually a ‘hobby’ for intelligent wealthy women. Early female scientists were often born into influential families, like Grace Milne, the eldest child of Louis Falconer and sister of the eminent botanist and palaeontologist, Hugh Falconer; or Mary Lyell, the daughter of the geologist Leonard Horner. They collected fossils and mineral specimens, and were allowed to attend scientific lectures, but they were barred from membership in scientific societies. Thanks to the pioneer work of these women, the 20th century saw the slow but firm advance of women from the periphery of science towards the center of it.

Edelmira Inés Mórtola (1894-1973)

In Argentina, during the 1870s, public schools were organized and expanded for the training of teachers in different cities of the country. North American teachers were hired, some of whom promoted among their students the interest in pursuing university studies. Cecilia Grierson (1859-1934) was the first woman to earn a PhD in Medicine and Surgery in 1889. She was an important reference for other women, collaborating in the women’s movement in the early twentieth century.

The first papers in natural sciences signed by women were published around 1910. Edelmira Inés Mórtola was the first woman to earn her Ph. D in geology in Argentina, in 1921. She was also the first woman to work for the Dirección General de Minas, Geología, e Hidrología (DGMGH) in 1919. She focus on teaching and was an inspiring figure for young women. In 1924, she was appointed Professor at the Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA). The Museum of Mineralogy “Dr. E. Mórtola “, that she helped to organize, honors her extraordinary career. She died on May 28, 1973.

Noemí Violeta Cattoi. Image credit: Asociación Paleontológica Argentina (A.P.A.)

Mathilde Dolgopol de Saez was born on March 6, 1901. She was one of the first female paleontologist from Argentina (graduated in 1927), along with Ana Cortelezzi (1928?), Dolores López Aranguren (1930), Andreína Bocchino de Ringuelet (1930?) y Enriqueta Vinacci Thul (1930). Unfortunately, only her thesis and the one of López Aranguren were formally published. The mayor part of her research was focused on fossil fish and birds. She died on June 27, 1957.

Noemí Violeta Cattoi was born in Buenos Aires on December 23, 1911. She received her PhD degree in Natural Science at the University of Buenos Aires, but before her graduation she was trained at the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales. She was head of Paleozoology at the Museum, and adjunt professor at the Museo de la Plata. Her research was mainly focused on extinct birds and mammals from South America. She was also one of the founding member of the Asociación Paleontológica Argentina (A.P.A), along with María Bonetti de Stipanicic, Andreína B. de Ringuelet, Elsa F. de Alvarez and Hildebranda A. Castellaro. Noemí Cattoi died on January 29, 1965.


Rafael Herbst, Luisa M. Anzótegui, Las mujeres en la paleontología argentina, Revista del Museo de La Plata (2016) Volumen 1, Número Especial: 130-13 DOI:https://doi.org/10.24215/25456377e024

GARCIA, Susana V.. Ni solas ni resignadas: la participación femenina en las actividades científico-académicas de la Argentina en los inicios del siglo XX. Cad. Pagu [online]. 2006, n.27, pp.133-172 https://doi.org/10.1590/S0104-83332006000200007.

Link: https://www.apaleontologica.org.ar/

From Mantell to de Ricqlès: A brief history of Paleohistology

Bone microstructure of M. intrepidus (NCSM 33392). From Zanno et al., 2019.

The aim of Paleohistology is the study of the microstructure of fossilized skeletal tissues. Despite that the organic components of mineralised tissues decay after death, the inorganic components of bone preserve the spatial orientation of organic components such as osteocyte lacunae, vascular canals, and collagen fibres.

The techniques for the microscopic study of biological tissues began in 1828, when two British scientists, Henry Witham and William Nicol, experimented by grinding sheets of petrified tree trunk into traslucents sheets so that they could viewed under the microscope. Few years later the new technique was applied to fossil vertebrates by Agassiz. In 1849, John Thomas Quekett published his most important paper on the histological structure of bone in mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish. He described vascular canals, lacunae and canaliculi, and trabecular endosteal bone.

Dorsal dermal spine of the Hylaerosaurus (From Mantell, 1850a. Plate XXVII)

The next important advance was the first clear description of dinosaur bone microstructure: Hylaerosaurus made by British paleontologist Gideon Mantell in 1850. In his work, Mantell provides a drawing of a thin section from a “dorsal dermal spine” of Hylaerosaurus. The same year, Mantell described a transverse thin section from a humerus of Pelorosaurus, and notes that the bone exhibits an “intimate structure beautifully preserved; the bone cells, and Haversian canals, are as distinct as in recent bones.” In 1871, John Phillips described the structure of pterosaur bones from the Stonesfield ‘Slate’ (Bathonian, Middle Jurassic, England) and noted that pterosaur bones contained longitudinal “Haversian canals” and figured “lacunae… with many short excurrent somewhat branched tubules”.

Detail of the humerus of Vegavis iaai (MACN-PV 19.748) in polarised light. Scale = 1 mm. (From G, Marsà et al., 2017)

A century later, the introduction of hard plastic resins, the development of tungsten carbide microtome blades, the use of very thin diamond-edged saw blades, and the examination of bone tissue with surgically implanted orthopedic devices fostered new methods for studying the histology of fully mineralized bone.

Armand de Ricqlès, in the 1960s and 1970s, observed that paleohistological features could be correlated with growth rates and thus could indirectly shed light on the thermal physiology of extinct organisms. He based his conclusions on the neontological observations of Rodolfo Amprino. Quantitative studies confirmed that avascular bone is deposited more slowly than vascular bone, and radial bone is deposited faster than laminar bone. De Ricqlès early histological examinations of dinosaur bones suggested that they did not grow in a manner similar to extant cold-blooded reptiles (which deposit poorly vascularized cortical bone, interrupted by many lines of arrested growth). On the contrary, the evidence indicated that dinosaurs had a physiology that more closely approximated that of extant, fast-growing, endothermic birds. He included pterosaurs in a discussion on reptile bone histology and emphasised the structural similarities with bird bones such as the large diaphyseal medullary cavities enclosed by a dense cortex, with spongiosa in the epiphyseal region. The studies conducted by de Ricqlès opened a new path for paleohistology and his work continues to influence the field today.


Bailleul AM, O’Connor J, Schweitzer MH. 2019. Dinosaur paleohistology: review, trends and new avenues of investigation. PeerJ 7:e7764 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.7764

Quekett J. (1849) On the intimate structure of bone, as composing the skeleton, in the four great classes of animals, viz., mammals, birds, reptiles, and fishes, with some remarks on the great value of the knowledge of such structure in determining the affinities of minute fragments of organic remains. Transactions of the Microscopical Society of London. 1849;2(1):46–58. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2818.1849.tb05102.x.
Mantell Gideon Algernon (1850) XVII. On a dorsal dermal spine of the Hylæosaurus, recently discovered in the strata of Tilgate Forest140 Phil. Trans. R. Soc. http://doi.org/10.1098/rstl.1850.0018

Mantell Gideon Algernon (1850b) XVI. On the pelorosaurus; an undescribed gigantic terrestrial reptile whose remains are associated with those of the iguanodon and other saurians in the strata of Tilgate Forest, in Sussex140Phil. Trans. R. Soc. http://doi.org/10.1098/rstl.1850.0017

De Ricqlès (1969) De Ricqlès A. L’histologie osseuse envisagée comme indicateur de la physiologie thermique chez les tétrapodes fossiles. Comptes Rendus Hebdomadaires des Séances de l’Academie des Sciences, Serie D: Sciences Naturelles. 1969;268:782–785

Christmas edition: Geologizing with Dickens, part III.

Charles Dickens at his desk, by George Herbert Watkins (National Portrait Gallery. From Wikimedia Commons)

It was the best of times. In the nineteenth century England, the Industrial Revolution started a time of important social and political change. London became the financial capital of the world. Several scientific societies were forming, such as the Geological Society of London, while fascinating discoveries revealed part of the history of our planet. But it was also the worst of time. England was ruled by an elite, meanwhile most of the people were poor. Churches provided schools for poor children and infant mortality was high. During these difficult times, Charles Dickens revitalized the tradition of Christmas and to Victorian England, Dickens was Christmas.  He had only 31, when began to write A Christmas Carol. The novella tells the story of  Ebenezer Scrooge, a bitter old man who finds salvation through the visits of the three Ghosts of Christmas (Ghost of Christmas Past, Ghost of Christmas Present, and Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come).

Charles Dickens also contributed to the popularity of geology in the nineteenth century. For him, the ideal science was Geology. In his review of Hunt’s Poetry of Science, he wrote: “Science has gone down into the mines and coal-pits, and before the safety-lamp the Gnomes and Genii of those dark regions have disappeared … Sirens, mermaids, shining cities glittering at the bottom of quiet seas and in deep lakes, exist no longer; but in their place, Science, their destroyer, shows us whole coasts of coral reef constructed by the labours of minute creatures; points to our own chalk cliffs and limestone rocks as made of the dust of myriads of generations of infinitesimal beings that have passed away; reduces the very element of water into its constituent airs, and re-creates it at her pleasure…” (London Examiner, 1848).

Hawkins’ Sydenham Studio. From Wikimedia Commons.

When the Crystal Palace was opening at Sydenham, Dickens addressed the sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkings to ensure that the dinosaurs he had named, including the megalosaurus, and the iguanodon, were accurately recreated. In Bleak House and Dombey and Son, Dickens encourage readers to perceive the scene of the city as a geological fragment of a much broader spatial and temporal vision. In Bleak House the dinosaurs uncovered by the railway in Dombey and Son move centre stage: “Implacable November weather. 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.” 

Among his friends were Richard Owen and Sir Roderick Murchison. Murchinson’s wife, Charlotte, was a very close friend of Mary Anning, the most famous fossilist of the time. Mary has been called “the Princess of Palaeontology”  by the German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt and scientists like William Buckland or Henry de la Beche owe their achievements to Mary’s work. She discovered (along with her brother Joseph) the first specimens of what would later be recognized as Ichthyosaurus, the first complete Plesiosaurus, the first pterosaur skeleton outside Germany, and a fossil fish, with characteristics intermediate between sharks and rays, called Squaloraja (unfortunately, the specimen was lost in the destruction of the Bristol Museum by a German bombing raid in November, 1940)

Skull of an ichthyosaur painted with fossil sepia by Elizabeth Philpot.

Mary Anning was born on Lyme Regis on May 21, 1799. Her father was a carpenter and an amateur fossil collector who died when Mary was eleven. By the age of 27, Mary was the owner of a little shop: Anning’s Fossil Depot. Many scientist and fossil collectors from around the globe went to Mary´s shop. She was friend of Henry De la Beche, the first director of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, who knew Mary since they were both children and lived in Lyme Regis. De la Beche was a great supporter of Mary’s work. She also corresponded with Charles Lyell, William Buckland and Mary Morland, Adam Sedgwick and Sir Roderick Murchison. It’s fairly to say that Mary felt secure in the world of men, and a despite her religious beliefs, she was an early feminist. In an essay in her notebook, titled Woman!, Mary writes: “And what is a woman? Was she not made of the same flesh and blood as lordly Man? Yes, and was destined doubtless, to become his friend, his helpmate on his pilgrimage but surely not his slave…”

The article published in All the Year Round in 1865, about the life of Mary Anning. From the Internet Archive

In 1865, Charles Dickens wrote an article about Mary Anning’s life in his literary magazine “All the Year Round”, where emphasised the difficulties she had overcome: “Miss Anning wrote sadly enough to a young girl in London: “I beg your pardon for distrusting your friendship. The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of every one.” 

Mary Anning, ‘the greatest fossilist the world ever knew’, died of breast cancer on 9 March, 1847, at the age of 47. She was buried in the cemetery of St. Michaels. In the last decade of her life, Mary received three accolades. The first was an annuity of £25, in return for her many contributions to the science of geology. The second was in 1846, when the geologists of the Geological Society of London organized a further subscription for her. The third accolade was her election, in July 1846, as the first Honorary Member of the new Dorset County Museum in Dorchester. About her life and legacy Dickens wrote: “Her history shows what humble people may do, if they have just purpose and courage enough, toward promoting the cause of science. The inscription under her memorial window commemorates “her usefulness in furthering the science of geology” (it was not a science when she began to discover, and so helped to make it one), “and also her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.” The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.” 


Dickens, Charles, 1812-1870, `Mary Anning, the Fossil-Finder’, All the year round, Volume XIII, Magazine No. 303, 11 February 1865, Pages: 60-63

A. BUCKLAND, ‘“The Poetry of Science”: Charles Dickens, Geology and Visual and Material Culture in Victorian London’, Victorian Literature and Culture, 35 (2007), 679–94 (p. 680).

A. BUCKLAND. Novel Science: Fiction and the Invention of Nineteenth-Century Geology. Chicago, IL and London: University of Chicago Press, 2013. 400 pp. 9 plts. $45.00. ISBN 978-0-226-07968-4


The Great Female Scientists of the Victorian Era

Skull of an ichthyosaur painted with fossil sepia by Elizabeth Philpot.

Women have played  various and extensive roles in the history of geology. Unfortunately, their contribution has not been widely recognised by the public and the history of geosciences has largely been interpreted as a history of male scientists.

In the Victorian times there was the common assumption that the female brain was too fragile to cope with mathematics, or science in general. In a letter from March 1860, Thomas Henry Huxley wrote to Charles Lyell: “Five-sixths of women will stop in the doll stage of evolution, to be the stronghold of parsonism, the drag on civilisation, the degradation of every important pursuit in which they mix themselves – intrigues in politics and friponnes in science.” Lyell, one of the most famous geologist of his time, was married to Mary Horner, daughter of the geologist Leonard Horner, and one of the many female contributors to geology in the early nineteenth century in the United Kingdom. A list that also includes Mary Anning, Barbara Hastings, Etheldred Bennet, the Philpot sisters, Mary Buckland née Morland, Charlotte Murchinson, Elizabeth Cobbold, Mary Buckland née Morland, Charlotte Murchinson, Mary Sommerville, Jane Marcet, Delvalle Lowry, and Arabella Buckley. Those women formed a framework of assistants, secretaries, collectors, field geologists, illustrators, and as popularizers of science.

Duria Antiquior famous watercolor by the geologist Henry de la Beche based on fossils found by Mary Anning. From Wikimedia Commons.

The nineteen century was the “golden age” of Geology. The Industrial Revolution ushered a period of canal digging and major quarrying operations for building stone. These activities exposed sedimentary strata and fossils. The concept of an ancient Earth became part of the public understanding and Literature influenced the pervasiveness of geological thinking. The most popular aspect of geology was the collecting of fossils and minerals and the nineteenth-century geology, often perceived as the sport of gentlemen,was in fact, “reliant on all classes”. Due to the informal character of the early British geology, women were free to take part in collecting fossils and mineral specimens, and they were allowed to attend lectures, but they were still barred from membership in scientific societies. Women interested in geology could attend the meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS). Also, the public lectures at the Royal Institution were very popular among educated women. About the BAAS meeting at York (1831), Charles Lyell wrote: “A hundred and fifty ladies, and many of rank, at the evening discussion, must also have ‘popularised’ scientific pursuits”.

William Whewell, contrary to some other colleagues, welcomed scientific women to the third meeting of the British Association in 1834. In an invitation addressed to Mary Somerville, he wrote: “I expect Mrs. Buckland and Mrs. Murchinson and several other ladies…”

Autograph letter about the discovery of plesiosaurus, by Mary Anning. From original manuscripts held at the Natural History Museum, London. © The Natural History Museum, London

Early female scientists were often born into influential families, like Grace Milne, the eldest child of Louis Falconer and sister of the eminent botanist and palaeontologist, Hugh Falconer; or Mary Lyell, the daughter of the geologist Leonard Horner. Althought Barbara Hastings (1810-1858) and Etheldred Benett (1776–1845) published their works independently, the prevailing pattern was formed by women who have worked in the field but acted as assistants to father, husband, brother, or other male geologist that were no relatives. In these cases, the publication of their findings was not part of accepted females activy, and their contribution is often completely concealed under the name of someone else. Even Lyell wrote about the iniquity of the situation in a letter to his future wife, Mary Horner: “Had our friend Mrs. Somerville been married to La Place, or some mathematician, we should never have hear of her work. She would have merged it in her husband’s, and passed it off as his.” 

Although she was not formally published, Etheldred Benett wrote several manuscripts, which are now in the collections of the Geological Society of London. She was a lady, a member of the landed gentry, and unlike Mary Anning, Etheldred Bennet was in a very confortable financial circumstances. She described the stratigraphic and geographic distribution of fossils of Wiltshire, and for more than 30 years she was frequently acknowledged in the publications of palaeontologist and geologist throughout Europe.

Portrait of Barbara Rawdon Hastings (née Yelverton), Marchioness of Hastings. From Wikimedia Commons

Barbara Rawdon (née Yelverton) Hastings (1810–1858), 20th Baroness Grey de Ruthyn and Marchioness of Hastings was known as a fossil collector and a “lady-geologist” . She is also well known for the “Hastings Collection,” consisting of several thousand fossil specimens from England and Europe. She also studied the stratigraphy of England and published her findings in “Description géologique des falaises d’Hordle, et sur la côte de Hampshire, en Angleterre” (Hastings, 1851–52) and “On the tertiary beds of Hordwell, Hampshire” (Hastings, 1853).

The Philpot sisters (Margaret, ?–1845; Mary, 1773?–1838; Elizabeth, 1780–1857) were also well know for their fossil collection and their friendship with Mary Anning. They came from educated, middle-class London, and after their parents dead, they moved to Lymes Regis and amassed an important collection of fossils. Elizabeth maintained correspondences with William Buckland, William Conybeare, Henry De la Beche, Richard Owen, James Sowery and Louis Agassiz. About Elizabeth, Agassiz wrote: “I have the pleasure to recognize publicly the service, that she rendered to palaeontology and specially to fossil ichtyology, in collecting with much ardour the fossil relicts in the Lias of Lyme Regis.”

Mary Horner Lyell (1808-1873) British geologist. Daughter of geologist Professor Leonard Horner, wife of Sir Charles Lyell.

In the other group we could find those women who worked with their husbands. The most prominent of these women were Mary (née Moreland) Buckland (1797–1857), wife of Rev. William Buckland; Mary Ann (née Woodhouse) Mantell (1795–1869), wife of Dr. Gideon Mantell; Charlotte (née Hugonin) Murchison (1789–1869) wife of Sir Roderick Murchison; and Mary Elizabeth (née Horner) Lyell (1808–1873), wife of Sir Charles Lyell (Davis, 2009).

Mary Morland (1797–1857) illustrated some of George Cuvier’s work before she became Mrs William Buckland. She made models of fossils for the Oxford museum and repaired broken fossils. She assisted her husband by taking notes of his observations and illustrating his work. After the death of her husband, she continued working on marine zoophytes.

Charlotte Murchinson (1789–1869) was a strong influence for her husband and introduced him in the world of geology. She accompanied him on excursions and spent time sketching the  landscape and outcrops and collecting Jurassic fossil specimens from the beaches.

Mary Mantell and the lithographed of an Iguanodon teeth.

Mary Mantell (1795–1869) discovered the teeth of Iguanodon, which led to her husband’s publication of an important paper announcing the discovery of a new giant reptile (Creese and Creese, 1994). She also made the illustration of Mantell’s work: “Fossils of the South Downs: or Illustrations of the Geology of Sussex”. Mary Mantell left her husband in 1839 and the children remained with their father as was customary.

Mary Lyell (1808–1873) was daughter of the geologist Leonard Horner. She read both French and German fluently and translated scientific papers for her husband and managed his correspondence. She later specialized in conchology and regularly attended meetings of the London Geological Society.


Sketch of Mary Anning by Henry De la Beche.

Mary Anning (1799-1847), was an special case. Despite her lower social condition and the fact that she was single, Mary became the most famous woman paleontologist of her time. She found the first specimens of what would later be recognized as Ichthyosaurus, the first complete Plesiosaurus, the first pterosaur skeleton outside Germany and suggested that the “Bezoar stones” were fossilized feces. After her death, Henry de la Beche, Director of the Geological Survey and President of the Geological Society of London, wrote a very affectionate obituary published in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society on February 14, 1848, the only case of a non Fellow who received that honour.

Women were also great contributors to the popularization of geology. One such example is Mary Somerville. She has been called  “Queen of Nineteenth Century Science.”  She was also the first English geographer. Her book “Physical Geography” (1848) was the first textbook on the subject in English and her most popular work. It was published three years after the first volume of Alexander von Humboldt’s “Cosmos”. Jane Marcet’ Conversations on Chemistry, also gave a basic introduction in chemical mineralogy. Other examples include Delvalle Lowry, who published Conversations on Mineralogy in 1822, and Arabella Buckley, secretary of Charles Lyell, who wrote books about natural history.

Thanks to the pioneer work of these women, the 20th century saw the slow but firm advance of women from the periphery of science towards the center of it.




BUREK, C. V. & HIGGS, B. (eds) The Role of Women in the History of Geology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 281, 1–8. DOI: 10.1144/SP281.1.

Kölbl-Ebert, M. (2007). The geological travels of Charles Lyell, Charlotte Murchison and Roderick Impey Murchison in France and northern Italy (1828). Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 287(1), 109–117.doi:10.1144/sp287.9

Kölbl-Ebert M (2002): British Geology in the Early 19th Century – A Conglomerate with a Female Matrix.– Earth Sciences History 21(1): 3–25.

Forgotten women of paleontology: Hildegarde Howard

Hildegard Howard with fossil bird from the Rancho La Brea.

The birth of modern science was hostile to women’s participation. The world’s major academies of science were founded in the 17th century: the Royal Society of London (1662), the Paris Académie Royale des Sciences (1666), and the Berlin Akademie der Wissenschaften (1700). Unfortunately, women were not become members of these societies for over 300 years. Yvonne Choquet-Bruhat became the first woman to be elected to the Paris Academy of Science in 1979. Although the Royal Society was less rigid in terms of memberships than the Paris Academy of Science, it was not until 1945 that the first women were admitted as fellows of the Royal Society: the X-ray crystallographer Kathleen Yardley Lonsdale (1903–1971), and biochemist and microbiologist Marjory Stephenson (1885-1948).

Despite the barriers, between 1880 and 1914, some 60 women contributed papers to Royal Society publications. Meanwhile, in the United States, geology was a marginal subject in the curricula of the early women’s colleges until an intense programme was started at Bryn Mawr College in the 1890s.

Hildegard Howard measures specimens from the Rancho La Brea Collection. Image from The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County Archives.

Florence Bascom was one of the pioneers when geological education at universities became available to women. She received her PhD degree from Johns Hopkins University in 1893 by special dispensation, as women were not admitted officially until 1907; while Carlotta Joaquina Maury attended Cornell University, where she became one of the first women to receive her PhD in paleontology in 1902.

When Hildegarde Howard began attending the Southern Branch of the University of California (now known as the University of California at Los Angeles), women were still barred from scientific societies. She was born on April 3, 1901 in Washington D.C., but moved to Los Angeles at the age of 5. Her main interest was journalism, until she met her first biology instructor, Miss Pirie Davidson. In 1921, Hildegarde obtained a part-time job working for Dr. Chester Stock, sorting bones from Rancho La Brea in the basement of the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art (now known as the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County). One year later, she went to Berkeley to finish her degree.

Dr. Hildegarde Howard, in her office in 1961.Copyright Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

In 1928, she obtained her Ph.D. degree. Her dissertation, entitled “The Avifauna of Emeryville Shellmound”, became one of her most popular works, and remained as the principal reference of its kind until the appearance of the first edition of Nomina Anatomica Avium in 1979. She obtained a permanent position with the museum in 1929. Although she was a curator, she did not receive that official title until 1938. Through that decade, she wrote twenty-four papers on fossil birds in the American Southwest. She was promoted to the curator of Avian Paleontology in 1944, and she would serve in that role until 1951, when she was promoted to Chief Curator of Science, She became the first woman to receive the Brewster Medal for outstanding research in ornithology in 1953.

Hildegarde Howard officially retired in 1961, although continued research on fossil birds, publishing her last paper in 1992. During her extraordinary career, Dr. Howard described 3 families, 13 genera, 57 species, and 2 subspecies, and remains highly regarded as one of the foremost experts in her field. She died on February 28, 1998.



Campbell Jr., Kenneth. 2000c. “In Memoriam, Hildegarde Howard 1901-1998.” The Auk, vol.117, no.3, 775-779.


The mounting of the cast of Diplodocus carnegii at the Museo de La Plata.

Diplodocus carnegii at the Museo de La Plata, 1912 (From Otero and Gasparini, 2014)

Diplodocus carnegii at the Museo de La Plata, 1912 (From Otero and Gasparini, 2014).

Diplodocus is one of the most popular dinosaurs of all time. The first remains of a Diplodocus were found by Benjamin Mudge and Samuel Wendell Williston, in the Upper Jurassic outcrops of Cañon City, Colorado, United States, in 1877. One year later, Othniel Charles Marsh named the species Diplodocus longus on the basis of remains of the hind limb and tail. The name Diplodocus means ‘double beam’ in reference to the particular two-pronged morphology of the posterior hemal arches. D. carnegii, was discovered in 1899 during an expedition carried out by the Carnegie Museum to the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation of Wyoming. John Bell Hatcher dedicated the new species of to Andrew Carnegie.

A sketch from the of Diplodocus carnegii, which Carnegie had framed and mounted on a wall at his castle in Scotland.

William Jacob Holland, director of the Carnegie Museum, sent a sketch of the skeleton of Diplodocus to Andrew Carnegie. At the time, the steel tycoon was at his Castle, Skibo, in Sutherland County, Scotland. The King Edward VII of England, saw the sketch and asked Carnegie to give him a specimen for the British Museum of Natural History in London. Holland proposed to Carnegie to make a life-sized replica of D. carnegii to be given to the British Museum of Natural History. On May 12, 1905, the long skeleton was unveiled to a crowd of 300 people, and became an instant star.

Mounting of the cast of Diplodocus carnegii at the Museo de La Plata, Argentina. Arthur Coggeshall and William Holland are second and third from left (Adapted from ‘Caras y Caretas’ magazine, 1912).

Nine replicas of D. carnegii were made and donated to kings and presidents of Europe and Latin America. On November of 1911, Argentinean president Dr. Roque Saenz Peña communicated to Andrew Carnegie his request to have a replica of D. carnegii. His request was accepted, and on July 1, 1912, 34 boxes containing the cast of the animal were sent to Argentina on the S.S. ‘Sallust’. William Holland and Mr. Arthur Coggeshall were in charge of mounting the replica. The site where the replica would be mounted in the Museo de La Plata, would be the Sala III, which was dedicated to invertebrates and plants. Holland insisted that the plans used for the mounting of D. carnegii at Vienna were followed in mounting the skeleton in La Plata. After the skeleton was mounted, the Director of the Museum, Dr. Samuel Lafone-Quevedo, gave a speech expressing his gratitude to Andrew Carnegie and his representatives, in which William Holland was designated an Honorary Member of La Plata University.


Alejandro Otero and Zulma Gasparini “The History of the Cast Skeleton of Diplodocus carnegii Hatcher, 1901, at the Museo De La Plata, Argentina,” Annals of Carnegie Museum 82(3), (2014). doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.2992/007.082.0301

BARRETT, P., P. PARRY, AND S. CHAPMAN. 2010. Dippy: The Tale of a Museum Icon. Natural History Museum, London. 48 pp.