The man who split the dinosaurs in two

A guest post from the Sedgwick Museum’s Douglas Palmer

Harry Govier Seeley (1839-1909)

The lecture was titled ‘On the Classification of the Fossil Animals Commonly Named Dinosaurs’ and it was given in 1887 by Harry Govier Seeley, Professor of Geology at King’s College, London. Seeley argued that the ‘terrible lizards’, which were becoming increasingly popular at the time, could be simply divided into two great groups – the Saurischia and the Ornithischia, based on differences in their hip structure. For 130 years Seeley’s fundamental division of the dinosaurs has stood the test of time – until now.

New research by Cambridge palaeontologists Matt Barron, Dave Norman and Paul Barrett from London’s Natural History Museum has made a significant challenge to Seeley’s subdivision.

But who was Harry Govier Seeley? While everyone has heard of the dinosaurs, few people outside the small world of vertebrate palaeontologists have ever heard of him.

Harry Govier Seeley (1839-1909) was a talented, combative and somewhat idiosyncratic palaeontologist who opposed Darwinian evolution. Despite a difficult and financially insecure background, with an apprenticeship to a pianoforte maker, Seeley attended T.H. Huxley’s lectures at the Royal School of Mines in London. His uncle, the bookseller Robert Benton Seeley, paid for him to train for the bar but Harry Seeley abandoned the law and studied English and maths at the Working Men’s College. He supported himself by copying documents in the British Museum library, where the palaeontologist Samuel Pickworth Woodward (1821-1865) encouraged him to study geology.

Seeleyosaurus, a plesiosaur named in honour of Seeley in 1940

Seeley entered Sidney Sussex College at the University of Cambridge in 1859, suffered a mental breakdown in 1860 and migrated to St John’s College in 1868 but did not matriculate. It was during this time that Professor Adam Sedgwick hired Seeley as an assistant in the Woodwardian (now Sedgwick) Museum where for 10 years he lectured, catalogued fossils, arranged collections and published papers on the pterodactyl fossils of the Cambridge Greensand.

In 1872 Seeley married, moved back to London and held a succession of academic posts in the University and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1879. His early struggle to educate himself resulted in his strong support for the expansion of higher education, especially for women, and he taught for some years at Bedford College for Women, which was the first college for the higher education of women and had been founded in 1849. An enthusiastic and successful lecturer he attracted large audiences to his illustrated talks all over the country.

One of Seeley’s major achievements was his published work (1888) on the classification of dinosaurs into two major groups the ‘bird-hipped’ Ornithischia and lizard-hipped Saurischia. Considering that it was such an important intervention in classification of the dinosaurs, it is surprising that Seeley did not do more work on the group. But his dinosaur paper was just the first of a ten-part series of papers on fossil reptiles published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. These included the results of visits to South Africa and Russia to study the strange groups of extinct reptiles (parareptiles and synapsids) that lived long before the dinosaurs and from whose ranks the mammals evolved.

Reconstruction of Dimorphodon by Harry Seeley, 1901

By the turn of the century Seeley returned to the pterosaurs, which he had studied 40 years earlier in Cambridge and published a semi-popular book called ‘Dragons of the Air’ (1901). Still an anti-evolutionist he wrote that ‘there is no one continuous chain of life or gradation in complexity of structure of animals’ (ibid. p.188).

One thought on “The man who split the dinosaurs in two

  1. Pingback: ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ in the world of dinosaurs | Geological Society of London blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s