If anything, the 19th century English paleontologist Gideon Mantell is known for his contributions to our understanding of dinosaurs. His most famous accomplishment was the description of Iguanodon, but Mantell has another legacy that is not as well-known. It was his last contribution to science, though it was not made willingly.
Like many other early paleontologists Mantell had to carve out his own career, and he studied fossils when not busy with his duties as a surgeon in the Lewes countryside. As Mantell began to gain recognition for his work on fossils, though, his passion for paleontology became so consuming that it nearly bankrupted the family. His wife Mary could not take it anymore, and she ultimately left her husband in 1839, just one year before their daughter died.
This marked the more difficult portion of Mantell’s life, made all the worse by increasingly severe health problems. As Mantell went about his work he often felt acute leg and back pain which he attributed to various causes. Maybe it was the long hours spent hunched over patients, his weight, or some other factor, but in the fall of 1841 things got a lot worse.
On October 11, 1841 Mantell was forced to leap from his coach when the driver tangled the reins and crashed the carriage. Now Mantell’s was in even more pain than before, and towards the latter part of the month he was effectively paralyzed from the waist down. Even as he regained feeling legs they would sometimes go numb when he leaned the wrong way or made too strenuous an effort. Mantell knew something was wrong with his back, but he was not sure what it was.
By the fall of the following year a tumor-like swelling appeared on the side of Mantell’s spine. He suspected that it was some kind of abscess, and he consulted his friends within the respected community of surgeons. The leading hypothesis was that Mantell’s vertebrae had become diseased, but they differed as to what method of treatment would heal the paleontologist. One recommended that a topical ointment might help while another advised that “gentle carriage exercise” and some “sarsaparilla” would be just the thing. This difference of opinion frustrated Mantell, but for a few years afterward the pain subsided enough to let him get on with his work.
Mantell’s reprieve was relatively short-lived. In 1849 the pain intensified but almost nothing could make it better. Mantell experimented with painkillers to try to soothe the injury, but this would ultimately prove to be his undoing. On November 11, 1852 Mantell took opium on an empty stomach and overdosed. He was 62 years old when he died.
The lower spine of Gideon Mantell as viewed from the front (left) and back (right).
Given that Mantell’s poor condition was well known among academics an autopsy was performed by a Dr. Hodgkin and William Adams on November 11, 1852. What they found was that Mantell had been suffering from a severe case of scoliosis in his lumbar vertebrate (or those in the lower back above the pelvis). This part of Mantell’s backbone was distorted, yet the medical experts Mantell saw about his condition could not have seen this if they examined Mantell while he was standing up straight or lying down flat. The curvature of the spine only became visible when the back was bent forward, an observation that Adams would use to establish the forward-bending test to detect cases of scoliosis in living patients.
(I recall performing this test during physical checkups as a child. As far as I am aware it is still used today.)
After Adams and Hodgkin completed their examination they removed the diseased portion of Mantell’s spine for preservation in the Hunterian Museum (which was under the care of Mantell’s bitter academic rival Richard Owen at the time). No mention of this was made in the obituaries of Mantell, but surely his friends and colleagues would have known about it. What they thought of a bit of Mantell being on display among the numerous medical abberations and “monstrosities” of the Hunterian Museum, I do not know.
If you want to find Mantell’s bones today, though, you are out of luck. The portion of Mantell’s spine and the plaster cast made of his diseased bones were destroyed in 1969 citing “lack of space.” This was an unfortunate loss for historians of science and medical practitioners curious about the condition which led to the founding of the “Adams forward bend test”, and I still have to wonder what those who survived Mantell thought of the fate of his remains.
[This account was primarily derived from Fairbank, J.C.T. (2004) “William Adams and the spine of Gideon Algernon Mantell.” Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. Vol 86, pp. 349-352.]