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   After 1840

Motivations and kinds of ownership

The to-and-fro over the Bristol bones reflects a number of aspects of contention (Knell, 2000). To palaeontologists then, as today, there are three kinds of ownership involved:

  1. Ownership of the actual fossils - Stutchbury wanted them all for the collections of the Bristol Institution, whereas Williams wanted them for his own collection.
  2. Ownership of the species name - the hope that the new animal might be named after its discoverer.
  3. Ownership of permission to bestow the name - the first discoverer is expected to exercise the privilege of announcing the new materials to the world, and perhaps affixing a name.

In the 1820s to 1840s, the norm was to seek to achieve both objectives 2 and 3, by naming the genus first (objective 3), and then allowing someone else to name the species later (objective 2). A further issue, and strengthening point 1, was that Stutchbury and Riley may have felt an intense need to keep the Bristol bones in Bristol; the specimens came from quarries in Clifton, geographically close to the rooms of the Bristol Institution, and it may have seemed unusually challenging to see some of them disappearing out of the city and out of general ownership to the private collection of a country parson.

Linked with these issues was the fact that the fossil collections of the Bristol Institution were proudly displayed for the benefit of members and others, both in their rooms, and at national events like the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (Anonymous, 1836a), and so the curator and members urgently required new materials. Two final points of contention may have been that Williams was a country parson, perhaps also that he was Welsh, and these facts may have played against him; certainly these two epithets, 'Welsh' and 'parson', were employed almost as terms of abuse by Murchison and others (Rudwick, 1985; Thackray, 2003). Whether these reflect generalised prejudices against country parsons and against the Welsh, or just the fact that Williams was roundly disliked as an individual, it is hard to tell.

Class and prejudice

The story of the discovery and naming of Thecodontosaurus is a vignette of scientific practice and scientists in the 1830s. The three proponents represent three classes of scientists of the day, the paid curator, the gentleman medical man, and the amateur country parson. The curator, Samuel Stutchbury, overworked and underpaid, and certainly not regarded as a gentleman by the fellows of the Bristol Institution, became increasingly respected in Bristol and London because of his industry and wide knowledge (Taylor, 1994). The gentleman surgeon, Dr Henry Riley, had a higher social status, even though he worked for his living. He was styled 'doctor', and was something of dandy and a radical, coloured profoundly by his student years in Paris (Desmond, 1989).

The country parson, the Reverend David Williams, was driven by his interest in geology and palaeontology, and was clearly held somewhat at arm's length by the established scientific community in Bristol and London (Rudwick, 1985; Thackray, 2003). Normally, such a person would have been accepted well into society, as were many other country parsons, including Conybeare, but perhaps Williams's controversial character and his pushy approach to establishing fields of research made him something of an outcast. In one of his notebooks (SOMCM, notebook 18, May-October, 1840), he notes that he is a nobody in London and was snubbed shamefully, and this after a decade as a Fellow of the Geological Society, and having read his papers at their meetings through that time.

Williams was not even well regarded as a parson. In a devastating sketch, published in his lifetime, the anonymous 'Church-goer', later revealed as Joseph Leech, local journalist and founder of the Bristol Times, described how Williams's church at Bleadon, west of Bristol, was uncared for. He attracted meagre congregations of a dozen in the morning and 'in the afternoon there might have been two, a sorry proportion for so extensive a parish' (Church-goer, 1850, p. 88). He notes, further, that during the service, Williams 'seemed to be suffering from flatulency, for at every other verse he was obliged to pause, afterwards wiping his mouth with an old brown handkerchief, and occasionally varying the act by using the sleeve of his surplice (which was far from clean) for the purpose.' Later, Church-goer (1850, pp. 91-92) estimates that Williams earned some £1000 per year from the living of Bleadon and a neighbouring parish (Kingston Seymour), a vast sum in those days, and yet 'there is no school of any kind at Bleadon; nor have I heard that the Revd. David Williams ever made a single effort to establish one there'.

In the end, the Thecodontosaurus specimens passed to Richard Owen, another class of scientist, firmly rooted in London, and at that time rising rapidly in prestige. Although he worked for a living, and was in some regards no different from Stutchbury in his origins and social class, Owen's higher appointments, at the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London, and elevation from mere curatorial tasks to the title of Professor, allowed him to pass into the higher echelons of society. His position in London also gave him an immediate advantage, since even the gentleman savants in Bristol, like others around the provinces, saw it as their duty to send every new discovery to him for his inspection. Owen rarely went in the field. He travelled out of London to see specimens in the private collections of noblemen, but generally relied on country naturalists to send specimens to him from all parts of England.

Around 1840, Owen had at his disposal a vast array of fossil reptiles, including the specimens of Thecodontosaurus, but also related materials from the Triassic of Shropshire and Warwick, also sent by local natural history societies (Benton and Gower, 1997), and these he used in his various reports to the British Association for the Advancement of Science (e.g. Owen, 1842), his ambitious, monographic study of the comparative anatomy of teeth (Owen, 1845), and various concurrent papers to the Transactions of the Geological Society of London.

  • Anonymous, 1836a. British Association for the Advancement of Science. Bristol Mercury, 27th August, 1836, pp. 1-4. [Also: Bristol Gazette and Public Advertiser, 1st September, 1836, p. 4.]
  • Churchgoer [Leech, J.], 1850. Rural Rides; or, Calls at Country Churches, Second Series. John Ridler, Bristol, 262 pp.
  • Desmond, A.J., 1989. The Politics of Evolution: Morphology, Medicine, and Reform in Radical London. Chicago University Press, Chicago, 503 pp.
  • Knell, S.J., 2000. The Culture of English Geology 1815-1851. Ashgate, Aldershot, 377 pp.
  • Owen, R., 1842. Report on British fossil reptiles. Part II. Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science 1842, 1841, 60-204.
  • Owen, R., 1845. Odontography, or a Treatise on the Comparative Anatomy of the Teeth. Hippolyte Ballière, London, 655 pp.
  • Rudwick, M.J.S., 1985. The Great Devonian Controversy. Chicago University Press, Chicago, 494 pp.
  • Taylor, M.A., 1994. The plesiosaur's birthplace: the Bristol Institution and its contribution to vertebrate palaeontology. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 112, 179-196.
  • Thackray, J.C., 2003. To See the Fellows Fight. Eye Witness Accounts of Meetings of the Geological Society of London and its Club, 1822-1868. British Society for the History of Science, London, 243 pp.

The paper

Benton, M.J. 2012. Naming the Bristol dinosaur, Thecodontosaurus: politics and science in the 1830s. Proceedings of the Geologists' Association 123, 766-778. Download pdf of the paper.

Dicynodon Illustration courtesy of John Sibbick.
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