Dinosaur doctor: The life and work of Gideon Mantell by Edmund Critchley. Amberley Publishing, Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2010. No. of pages: 256. Price: UK 18.99. ISBN 978-1-848-68947-3 (paperback).


Stephen K. Donovan, Department of Geology, NCB – Naturalis, Postbus 9517, NL-2300 RA Leiden, The Netherlands. E-mail: Donovan@naturalis.nnm.nl

The town of Lewes in Sussex has been home to at least two notable names in the history of British palaeontology: Charles Dawson (1864–1916), the Piltdown forger of infamous memory, and the rather more luminous Gideon Mantell (1790–1852), the father of dinosaur studies in Britain. Mantell has been a personal hero since I was five years old and my late father introduced me to Iguanodon at the British Museum (Natural History) in South Kensington. Further, the Lewes area was a favourite collecting area of mine before I was an undergraduate. So, I welcomed a new biography of the great Sussex scientist with enthusiasm. Unfortunately, this initial eagerness was soon dispelled.

Critchley's book is readable but suffers from a lack of critical editing. It is twice as long as it needed to be, with much repetition and irrelevance. A particularly annoying failing is the recurrence of certain pieces of intelligence in almost the same words within, at most, a few pages. The most glaring example is in a paragraph at the foot of p.21, discussing the literacy of Mantell's father: ‘… he probably had little need to write … he probably had little need to write’. These assertions are separated by a single short sentence. This and similar passages are distracting. The author has been poorly served by his editor/publisher and, I must say, his own critical capacities. Further, the book is littered with quotations whose origins are, at best, indicated with imprecision, if at all. This is highly distracting to the reader and a failing in a book of ostensible historic erudition. With less than three pages of references and five pages of supporting notes, the scholarship seems thin.

Errors abound. Within a few pages, Critchley misnames Sir Robert [sic] Murchison (p.155), talks about A Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne as if it was published in the early mid-1800s (first available in 1864) (p. 157), notes that Richard Owen was a member of a group that found (not founded) the Zoological Society of London (p. 159) and the subject of the book is misidentified as Mantel (p. 161). Weak proof reading, a disorganised text and factual laxity combine to create a book that has been a pain, not a pleasure, to review.

Poor organisation within chapters includes rambling discourses, such as in ‘Fossils’ in which Critchley gives pocket sketches of selected late 18th/early 19th Century geologists. This diverts the reader from the rather more relevant correspondence between Gideon Mantell and Benjamin Silliman. A separate appendix discussing worthies such as James Hutton and Mary Anning would have been a less befuddling treatment. Other digressions (e.g. p. 80) seem irrelevant. The text could have been further strengthened by more supporting illustrations taken from Mantell's publications.

The cover design is also inappropriate, showing a modern restoration of a carnivorous bipedal dinosaur; the source of this image doesn't seem to be recorded. It does not appear to be one of Mantell's taxa, and he certainly would not have recognised the pose. Surely, Iguanodon was needed here, the most English of dinosaurs, originally described by Mantell and, perhaps, as restored by Waterhouse Hawkins under his direction (p. 239)? Instead, the cover is more Steven Spielberg than Sussex surgeon.

I do not recommend Dinosaur Doctor to you. Although it contains much that is factually correct and of interest, it is written in a chaotic, repetitive style that should have been improved by conscientious editing. Instead, it reads like a series of notebook entries hastily cobbled together. The overall effect is a little similar to a bad detective novel—lots of red herrings are dragged across the path, which only serve to divert the reader away from Gideon Mantell himself. If you want to know more about this fascinating character, then Dean (1999) is still the best modern distillate of Mantell's life.