Paleontologists to the Regency – Part one of three

Miss Mary Moreland (1797 – 1857) had a lovely white Spanish donkey. He would pull her small carriage around the countryside, stopping occasionally for her to disembark and collect shells. Miss Moreland’s love of natural history had been cultivated by the Oxford community in which she was raised after her mother died. The donkey was patient, waiting in between the buggy traces without being tied, while his mistress peered at objects half-buried in the ground. Sometimes she would take her sketchbook and draw the fossil as she found it in the earth.

These drawings were much admired among her academic neighbors. Even in far away revolutionary France, they came to the notice of Napoleon’s favorite naturalist, Georges Cuvier. He was instrumental in establishing the science of paleontology and proved that extinction was indeed a fact. Cuvier was to publish a new work comparing the anatomy of those things living to that which has long been dead.An advance copy of the book was sent to William Buckland, fellow of the Royal Society and the Regent’s favorite geologist. Buckland had garnered recent fame when he presented the first documented dinosaur, Megalosaurus, to an astonished ton.

oh, yes--she drew that!

oh, yes–she drew that!

What happened next might have come out of a Regency romance:

“Dr. Buckland was traveling somewhere in Dorsetshire, and reading a weighty book of Cuvier’s which he had just received from the publisher; a lady was also in the coach, and amongst her books was this identical one, which Cuvier had sent her. They got into conversation, the drift of which was so peculiar that Dr. Buckland at last exclaimed, ‘You must be Miss Morland..’ “

Miss Morland had created the illustrations of Cuvier’s paleontological tome, displaying an uncanny ability in understanding ancient fossils which Dr. Buckland had been pursuing his entire life.

She was twenty-eight and he was forty-one. Yet Miss Morland did not hesitate to accept Mr. Buckland’s proposal of marriage. They planned to depart right after the wedding on a honeymoon abroad. New fossils awaited their discovery and Cuvier, taciturn as he was, wished to meet Miss Morland in person.

The beloved Spanish donkey? As living things do, he had become old and infirm. He made his own departure, just as the wedding bells were ringing.

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