William Conybeare

From The Dragon Seekers by Christopher McGowan

In his inaugural geology lecture at Oxford, Professor William Buckland argued that geology completely supported the biblical account of the world's early history. Most of his words were not his own, however, but those of his close friend William Conybeare, who shortly afterward denounced Lamarck's transmutational theories as "monstrous."

William Conybeare was an astute scientist who devoted much of his life to paleontology, yet his interest in fossils came after his devotion to religion. Although he studied with Buckland at Oxford as a young man, he followed a different career path. While Buckland stayed on at Oxford with a modest income, Conybeare married and became a minister in living the countryside, and option he could afford thanks to a generous inheritance. Fortunately, his duties as a minister didn't keep him from the fossils he loved.

While looking through a collection of ichthyosaur vertebrae, Conybeare noticed a different kind of vertebrae and deduced that a different kind of animal must have lived with the ichthyosaurs. Mary Anning confirmed this suspicion with her find of the world's first plesiosaur. Yet Anning's first plesiosaur discovery, regrettably, lacked a skull. Conybeare found a jaw and a badly damaged skull that he believed to belong to the plesiosaur. Again, Anning made a discovery that proved him right — a complete plesiosaur skeleton with a skull matching his earlier finds.

French naturalist Cuvier was originally suspicious of the plesiosaur skeleton, thinking it a hoax, but Conybeare pronounced it genuine. Conybeare's defense of the fossil had the effect, perhaps purely incidental, of saving the Anning family's reputation — and finances.

Ironically, though Conybeare would likely enjoy being remembered for his contributions to science, he might not care to be remembered for his treatment of what he found to be the lower sort of citizen. On a fossilizing excursion through Ireland, Conybeare and Buckland found themselves hungry, wet and muddy. By their own account, they walked into the cottage of an Irishwoman and "demanded refreshment." She cooked them bacon and eggs and marveled at "two fancy gentlemen picking up stones." For her lot, removing stones from agricultural fields was exhausting work. They found her ignorance of their interests amusing. It's not clear whether they reimbursed her for the food she served them.

Likewise, Conybeare might not care to be remembered for how he treated the fossil collector who supplied him with so much material. After Anning found the plesiosaur specimen, he proudly announced to the Geological Society of London:

. . . the magnificent specimen recently discovered at Lyme has confirmed the justice of my former conclusion in every essential point connected with the organization of the skeleton.

But his description of the new fossil didn't mention the person who found it at all. Conybeare usually eschewed mentioning Anning by name, and when he did refer to her, he used the term "proprietor" as if to emphasize that her only interest in fossils was monetary. He also blamed his initial errors in interpreting the fossil on her arrangement.

He was much kinder to his old friend Buckland, and remained Buckland's advisor throughout his career, a decision he may have occasionally regretted. When supporting Buckland's argument that modern landscapes had been shaped entirely by the Great Flood (a view Buckland himself later abandoned), Conybeare announced that no river in history had deepened its channel. His announcement was immediately followed by the reading of a paper describing a stream's ability to sweep away a bridge. Conybeare and Buckland had a more productive partnership in describing Megalosaurus, the first recognized dinosaur fossil. But in the earliest days of describing fossil reptiles, the interpretations were a bit off. Conybeare wrote:

An immense Saurian animal, approaching to the character of the Monitor, but which, from the proportions of many of the specimens, cannot have been less than 40 feet long, occurs in the great oolite at Stonesfield, near Oxford.

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