Thank you to zoologist/paleontologist Mike Boyd of Hull, Yorkshire, for this perceptive piece that raises the question of who gets credit for a discovery. He wrote it initially as a Facebook post and kindly allowed us to use it here.
Mike spent most of his working life in museums, particularly the Hancock Museum (Newcastle upon Tyne), Hull City Museums, and Burton Constable Hall. At Burton Constable, he catalogued the 18th-century geology “cabinet” of William Constable (1721-1791) and excavated and restored the skeleton of a large male Sperm Whale that had washed up near the estate in 1825. Herman Melville mentioned this very whale in the pages of “Moby Dick.” Mike maintains his interest in paleontology but now spends more time in the Neolithic, searching for flints and greenstone axes and administering the Ancient Stone Implements group on Facebook.
Mary Anning or Albert Mohr: Which one discovered the ichthyosaur?
It is very often said that the justly famous female pioneer of palaeontology, Mary Anning (1799-1847), discovered the first “complete” ichthyosaur. In this context, “complete” is used in opposition to the isolated ichthyosaur vertebral centra, and other bones, described by such earlier workers as Lhuyd (1699) and Scheuchzer (1708) as those of fishes or even humans. But vertebrate fossils, with their complex skeletons, are rarely truly complete, so I intend to use the term “articulated” instead. This usually signifies that the majority of the bones are present and, importantly, are in their natural relationships, one to another.
The reason for the repeated claim about Mary Anning derives from the fact that, in 1812, she collected many of the postcranial parts belonging to a large skull first found by her elder brother, Joseph, in 1811. The combined parts of this specimen, which is assigned to the species Temnodontosaurus platyodon, are now displayed in the Natural History Museum in London. Its elements were described in 1814 by the surgeon Everard Home. It was thus the first ichthyosaur to receive a scientific description. Home and other scientific workers wrote several more seminal papers on British ichthyosaur material, notably between 1816 and 1822.
But Joseph and Mary Anning’s ichthyosaur, although the first to receive a scientific description, was not the very first articulated skeleton to be discovered. In 1749, a German physician called Albert Mohr (1709-1789) had found such a skeleton near Bad Boll in Upper Swabia. But he, and others, had assumed it to be a fish (a shark or ray) and it was as such that it had been preserved at Stuttgart. However, in 1824, Georg Friedrich Jaeger produced a monograph in Latin on Mohr’s specimen, concluding that it was an ichthyosaur and drawing comparisons with the ichthyosaur material that had been found and published in Britain. Jaeger’s (1824) monograph must, incidentally, have represented one of the last extensive uses of Latin as the language of scholarship in the mainstream of European science.
Some semi-popular German accounts of the paper that Jaeger published in 1824 appear to be written to give the impression that Jaeger’s recognition of the true nature of Mohr’s specimen owed little or nothing to the earlier British publications on ichthyosaurs, but represented independent insight. However, Jaeger’s own text gives the lie to this interpretation and it is very clear that his identification of Mohr’s fossil as an ichthyosaur was as a consequence of the British publications.
HOME, E. (1814) Some Account of the Fossil Remains of an Animal more nearly allied to Fishes than any of the Other Classes of Animals. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 104, 571- 577.
JAEGER, G.F. (1824) De Ichthyosauri sive Proteosauri fossilis speciminibus in Agro Bollensi in Wurtembergia repertis. Stuttgart.
LHUYD, E. (1699) Lithophylacii Britannici Ichnographia. London.
SCHEUCHZER, J. J. (1708) Piscium querulae et vindiciae. Zurich.