Intrigue and egos in a tussle over Irish amphibian fossils in 1866
The discovery in Kilkenny in 1866 of the oldest amphibians then known led to underhand shenanigans
Joseph Dinkel’s illustration of Keraterpeton galvani, named after Charles Galvan, one of the Geological Survey of Ireland fossil collectors. Image courtesy TCD Geology Museum
On this day in 1866, members of the Royal Irish Academy gathered in their elegant meeting room on Dawson Street in Dublin to hear about an important scientific discovery.
The Jarrow fossils were 320 million years old, making them the oldest amphibians then known. These ancestors of all land vertebrates were the link between fish and four-legged creatures that could live out of water for some time.
The Jarrow find was significant, and the information presented in Dublin that January day was written by a world expert, Thomas Huxley, the man famously dubbed “Darwin’s bulldog”.
How did London-based Huxley get involved in this Irish discovery? Therein lies a tangled tale of underhand shenanigans and egos, as people jockeyed for the privilege of being the first to scientifically describe this important find.
But first, the fossils. They were a stunning collection of plants, fish and amphibians, an “assemblage” or ecosystem preserved in stone. They came to light in 1864, perhaps when an eagle-eyed coal miner spotted something unusual.
In March 1865 they came to the attention of Irish scientists, when a local landowner and amateur geologist, William Brownrigg, described the find to a geology society in Dublin.
Brownrigg realised their significance and was sufficiently skilled to realise that they included several new species. Over the next few months, Brownrigg studied the fossils and arranged for an artist to produce illustrations of key specimens.
Interest in the fossils was growing. Professional fossil collectors and geologists working for the Geological Survey of Ireland were interested.
A scientific artist who worked for the GSI, George Victor du Noyer, offered to illustrate the fossils for free, possibly realising the credit that would accrue.
By the autumn, academic geologists and zoologists in Trinity College Dublin were involved and the story took its international turn.
From here we can trace the intrigue in the many letters that sped back and forth from London to Dublin, as TCD’s zoology professor, Edward Wright, alerted Huxley. Wright and Huxley had worked together on a short-lived journal, Natural History Review, which Wright had started, and the two men knew each other somewhat.
The story of Wright, Brownrigg, and Huxley has been carefully pieced together, from their correspondence, by three modern scientists in Dublin: Nigel Monaghan, keeper of Dublin’s Natural History Museum; Dr Patrick Wyse Jackson, curator of TCD’s geology museum; and Dr Miguel DeArce, a TCD geneticist with a keen interest in the history of Irish science. It’s a fascinating tale.
Huxley dropped everything to take the overnight train and boat to Dublin, and arrange for the “right” to describe the fossils. In a letter to the noted geologist Charles Lyell, Huxley admitted: “I returned last night from a hasty journey to Ireland, whither I betook myself on Thursday night, being attracted vulture-wise by the scent of a quantity of carboniferous corpses. The journey was as well worth the trouble as any I ever undertook, seeing that in a morning’s work I turned out ten genera of vertebrate animals of which five are certainly new.”
By December, the collection had been shipped to London so Huxley could study them and have a London artist, Joseph Dinkel, illustrate them. In just a few weeks, Huxley described what Brownrigg had been the first to discover: several new species of fossil amphibian.
There were some local concessions: Huxley mentions Brownrigg in his report to the RIA, and names several species after local people, including Ophiderpeton brownriggii (Brownrigg), and Urocordylus wandesfordii for the estate owner, a Mr Wandesford.
Today, it’s a minor if fascinating footnote in history, but an important insight into how science happens. Some 100 years later, older amphibian fossils were found and the Jarrow collection is of less interest now.
The Jarrow coal seam has vanished, but you can explore the story of the fossils and the local coalmines at Castlecomer Discovery Park, coincidentally on the former Wandesford estate. The exhibition, craft village, adventure park and cafe make for a great family day out.
Mary Mulvihill is a science writer. She tweets about Ireland’s science heritage at @IngeniousIE