Days of the dino

A priest-scientist to artists, dinosaurs have had their popularizers

By Kaushik Das Gupta
Published: Saturday 15 May 2010

Days of the dino

(1&2) William Buckland and Megalosaurus he named

In 1824, a group of people thronged the home of Oxford professor William Buckland. They reported to the professor the finding of a large jawbone from a quarry not far from his quarters at Oxford University. Buckland had by then acquired fame as a geologist with a keen knowledge of fossils.

Two years earlier at an Oxford meet he described a feeding frenzy of ancient hyenas based on fossil remains at Kirkdale Cave in North Yorkshire. The Oxford geologist named the fossil found in his home Megalosaurus, or a Great Fossil Lizard. Buckland was somewhat of an oddity: unlike the scriptural geologists of his day, he did not hold to a literal interpretation of Genesis.

(3&4) Richard Owen who coined the term dinosaur and hosted lavish parties in the belly of an iguana model

Though he rejected evolution, Buckland acknowledged the earth supported life long before the existence of humans. But he was also a deeply religious man who devoted much of his life to make geology palatable to the faithful. In one lecture, he tried to imitate the movement of giant lizards, saying there was something divine about their gait.

Charles R Knight working on Stegosaurus in 1899The moniker dinosaur was coined 18 years after the English geologist described the giant lizard. In 1842, the paleontologist Richard Owen combined the two Greek words deinos (“terrible”) and sauros (“lizard”).

Owen, like Buckland, loved making fossils popular. But his methods were vastly different. A friend of the British royal family, Owen got to oversee the construction of prehistoric life at Crystal Palace Park, where he helped create the first life-size sculptures of dinosaurs. He lobbied with the royal family to establish the natural history section at the British Museum—now the Natural History Museum of London.

Dinosaurs became popular across the Atlantic after Gertie was screened in 1912. It was among the top 50 American cartoons in a mid-1990 survey in USATheme parties around fossils became popular. Owen hosted extravagant parties in the belly of a reconstructed iguana.

Owen’s Crystal Palace exhibition catapulted sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins to fame. And by the late 19th century, museum directors wanted dinosaurs to popularize their institutions. Artist Charles R Knight’s representations in the American Museum of Natural History became popular. By the second decade of the 20th century, improvements in casting allowed dinosaur skeletons to be reproduced and shipped across the world for display in far-flung museums.

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