20 February 1824. Mary Anning, Conybeare, and the Plesiosaurus
The mineral and fossil collection built by the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos at Stowe in the 1820s was almost unequalled. He purchased the mineral collection of Abbé Haüy, the celebrated founder of crystallography after his death. It cost £4,000, around £3 million today! The ten thousand specimen collection was housed in a Museum set in the flower garden at Stowe, along with many natural history, fossil and archaeological specimens.
The Duke’s prize specimen was not, however, within the Haüy collection. It was the complete skeleton of a Plesiosaurus which he purchased from fossil collector, dealer and palaeontologist Mary Anning for 100 guineas (£105) in 1823. There was great excitement about this huge specimen, one of the largest discovered. It measured about 10 feet long (3 meters).
The Plesiosaurus created a great deal of scientific interest, and the Duke allowed it to be examined by his friend and correspondent Dr William Buckland. A plaster cast of the specimen was made by Sir Frances Chantrey, and a lithograph from this appeared in the Transactions of the Geological Society of London (below).
The Rev William Daniel Conybeare used this fossil to confirm and revise his analysis of plesiosaur anatomy at a meeting of the Geological Society in 1824. Many commentators have since noted that he failed to mention Mary Anning by name, and accuse the men of stealing credit due to her. Conybeare’s presentation was made at the same meeting as that at which Buckland described the dinosaur Megalosaurus. The whole matter was sensational and Mary Anning rightly earned the epithet “the greatest fossilist the world ever knew”.
The Plesiosaurus was sold to the British Museum in 1848 for the modest sum of 8 guineas (£8 8s). The Haüy collection went under the hammer for a scarcely better sum of 310 guineas (£325 10s) to M Dufrénoy, who purchased it for the Jardin des Plantes, at Paris.