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Forgotten Chap

John Phillips.

Science writer and historian Nina Morgan unearths another mute inglorious Milton

Geoscientist 18.4 April 2008

The earliest discovery of Cetiosaurus – a giant herbivorous sauropod dinosaur with a long neck and tail and four massive legs – was reported from a quarry at Chapelhouse (now close to the intersection of the A44 and the A361) near Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, in 1825. Once alerted to the find, the search for more evidence of the identity of this then unknown animal captured the interest of many pioneers in the study of dinosaurs, including William Buckland and Richard Owen.

The richest source of Cetiosaurus bones later proved to be from quarries close to the long-gone railway station for Kirtlington and Bletchingdon, eight miles north of Oxford. The discoverer of one of the most impressive specimens was, according to The Reverend W Tuckwell, not a geologist but 'another self-taught genius, Chapman, a watchmaker with a shop opposite Balliol [College, Oxford]'.

As Tuckwell recalled in 1907, in his Reminiscences of Oxford, Chapman was on a botanising expedition with his son during the 1860s when he happened to dismount from the train just as the first fragment of an enormous Cetiosaurus femur was revealed by a workman's pickaxe. Realising the importance of the find, the quick-thinking watchmaker sought out the foreman, stopped the digging, and telegraphed John Phillips (picture), Professor of Geology and first Keeper at the University Museum. Phillips rushed to the scene and supervised the removal of the bones to the Museum.

Sadly, notes Tuckwell, "The credit accrued to Phillips, no one mentioned Chapman".

NM writes: Thanks to Philip Powell of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History for drawing my attention to this vignette. Sources quoted in this text include: Reminiscences of Oxford by Rev. W. Tuckwell, M.A., 1907; and The Geology of Oxford and the Valley of the Thames by John Phillips, M.A., F.R.S, F.G.S., 1871

If the past is a key to your present interests, take at look at what the Geological Society History of Geology Group (HOGG) has to offer. A conference, Dinosaurs -- a historical perspective, organised by HOGG will take place at Burlington House on 5-6 May. For more information about the conference, and all things historical, visit the HOGG pages at the Geological Society website: