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Mendes da Costa, Emanuellocked

  • Yolanda Foote

Mendes da Costa, Emanuel (1717–1791), naturalist, was born on 5 June 1717, the ninth and youngest child of John Abraham Mendes da Costa (1683–1763), a Jewish merchant of Portuguese descent who came to London from Rouen; his wife (and first cousin) was Esther (Ester), otherwise Johanna (1692–1749), of Budge Row, London, daughter of Alvaro da Costa, also of Portuguese origin. Philip Jacob Mendes da Costa was his brother. His father, who lived in the City parish of St Christopher-le-Stocks, claimed to have provided Mendes da Costa with a good education; he was intended for the lower branch of the legal profession, and for a time served his articles in the office of a notary.

From his early years Mendes da Costa applied himself to the study of natural history, particularly conchology and mineralogy. In 1740 he was noted as a member of the Aurelian Society, and six years later he was elected an extra regular member of the Spalding Society, at which time he was described as a merchant. In November 1747 he was elected FRS; his knowledge of minerals and fossils was highly praised. From the time of his election he began enriching the society's Philosophical Transactions with many papers on his favourite subjects. On 20 April 1750 he married his cousin Leah (d. 1763), the third daughter of Samuel del Prado (also of Portuguese Jewish origin); the couple had no children. On 16 January 1752 he was admitted a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries; he was also a member of several other scientific associations.

By the middle of the eighteenth century Mendes da Costa had gathered an extensive collection of shells, minerals, and fossils. He had also generated an impressive network of correspondents, who assisted him in obtaining further specimens. He gained an early reputation as one of the key fossil experts of his time, in contact with many celebrated European naturalists; yet his life appeared to be a continual struggle with adversity. He was having financial problems by 1754, in which year he was imprisoned for debt and his cabinets held in bond; about this time he also ceased receiving financial support from his father. Upon his release in the following year he continued preparing his long-promised Natural History of Fossils. This work, first proposed in 1751, was intended to be issued in two volumes; however, only the first part of the first volume appeared in 1757. Nevertheless, his first work met with praise from eminent naturalists such as Carl Linnaeus, and by 1763 he had become a respected member of the scientific and antiquarian communities.

Through the efforts of supporters, who included the antiquary William Stukeley and the naturalist Peter Collinson, Mendes da Costa was elected clerk of the Royal Society on 3 April 1763, following the death of Francis Hauksbee; he was also elected the society's librarian, keeper of the repository, and housekeeper. About 1766 he married his second wife, Elizabeth Skillman (or Stillman), with whom he had one daughter. In addition to an annual payment of £50 for his duties, he and his family were housed rent-free on the society's premises at Crane Court in Fleet Street. He had been appointed for only five years when he was found to have obtained, for his own purposes, about £1500 of the society's funds. Responsible for the collection of subscriptions as part of his duties, he had misappropriated more than a hundred members' fees. He was summarily dismissed in December 1767, the family moved from Crane Court, and their possessions sold at auction. In May 1768 he was taken to court by the society, and in November that year he was committed to the king's bench prison at St George's Fields. Furthermore, he was expelled from the Society of Antiquaries, and his books and specimens—the purchase of which had led him to debt, fraud, and imprisonment—were sold at auction.

Mendes da Costa remained in prison until 8 October 1772. While incarcerated he attempted to support himself by writing and lecturing on natural history, and in particular he gave a number of lecture series on fossils. He also revised and contributed additional notes to Gustav Engeström's translation of Axel Cronstedt's famous essay of 1758 on the new mineralogy (the English edition was published in 1770 as Essay towards a System of Mineralogy), and he carried out some translation work for the French edition of Dru Drury's Illustrations of Natural History (1770–82). He was eventually discharged from prison under the Insolvent Act, and from then until his death he struggled to make a living.

In 1774 Mendes da Costa petitioned to be allowed to read a course of lectures on fossils to the University of Oxford in the ensuing Trinity term; but his reputation preceded him, and permission was peremptorily refused. In addition to giving some lectures in London, he also resumed authorship—with some success. He published Elements of Conchology, or, An Introduction to the Knowledge of Shells in 1776, which was followed by Historia naturalis testaceorum Britanniae, or, The British conchology, containing the … natural history of the shells of Great Britain and Ireland … in English and French in 1778. Of the subscribers for this latter work, no fewer than twenty-two were fellows of the Royal Society.

Mendes da Costa died at his lodgings in the Strand in May 1791. He was buried on 22 May 1791 in the old cemetery of the Spanish and Portuguese congregation at 243 Mile End Road, London. Many of his manuscripts were preserved in the British Museum; the more important included letters to and from scientific friends, and covered a period of fifty years (1737–87). Mendes da Costa also mentioned his Athenae Regiae Societatis Londinensis (in three folio volumes), which he presented to the Royal Society's library in 1766, but all traces of this have disappeared.


  • The historical register, 11 (1726), 26
  • GM, 1st ser., 82/1 (1812), 21–4
  • GM, 1st ser., 83/1 (1813), 429
  • GM, 2nd ser., 26 (1846), 493
  • Nichols, Lit. anecdotes, 2.292; 3.233, 757; 5.712; 6.80–81; 8.200; 9.607, 799, 812–13, 816
  • review, QR, 139 (1875), 367–95, esp. 391
  • will, June 1791, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/1205, sig. 279
  • D. Lysons, The environs of London, 3 (1795), 478
  • D. E. Allen, The naturalist in Britain: a social history, 2nd edn (1994)
  • A selection of the correspondence of Linnaeus, and other naturalists, from the original manuscripts, ed. J. E. Smith, 2 vols. (1821), vol. 2, pp. 482–3
  • P. J. P. Whitehead, ‘Emanuel Mendes da Costa (1717–91) and the Conchology, or, Natural history of shells’, Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History) [Historical Series], 6 (1977–80), 1–24


  • BL, corresp., commonplace book and papers, Add. MSS 9389, 28534, 28544, 29867, 29868, Egerton MS 2381
  • Derby Local Studies Library, corresp. and papers
  • FM Cam., corresp. and papers
  • NHM, notebook relating to fossils in England
  • RCS Eng., catalogue of fossils and notary business
  • RS, papers
  • S. Antiquaries, Lond., corresp. with Michael Lost and Samuel Pegge
  • Warks. CRO, corresp. with Thomas Pennant
W. Munk, , 2 vols. (1861) 2nd edn, 3 vols. (1878)
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, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)