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Digging Up the Dinosaurs (September 2020): The Supporting Institutions

by Larry T. Spencer

The Supporting Institutions

With the completion of the trans-continental railroad in 1869, many eastern paleontologists took advantage of free transportation to the American West via the railroad. The decisive impact of the railroad on the development of US science is explicated by Jeremy Vetter in his Field Life: Science in the American West during the Railroad Era. As told by Vetter, some of the first toothed bird specimens obtained by Marsh were in fact obtained from the vicinity of a train station in Kansas. Cope, too, traveled west via the railroad, bringing his wife and daughter along on the trip, as did Joseph Leidy himself, who took up residence in southwestern Wyoming for a time in the early 1870s. 

As this literature shows, the growth of the federal scientific establishment is closely related to the exploration and settlement of the American West. As noted above, Hayden led a number of expeditions to the Rocky Mountain West, and many of the finds were shared with Eastern paleontologists, notably with Cope. The US Army Corps of Topographical Engineers also sponsored a number of survey groups, for example those led by cartographer George Wheeler. Cope himself participated in one of the Wheeler surveys. After the Civil War, the US Congress sent out a number of expeditionary parties to explore a possible route for a transcontinental railroad. These expeditions are colorfully portrayed by William Goetzmann in two books published more than fifty years ago. First to appear was Army Exploration in the American West, 1803–1863, followed by Exploration and Empire, where Goetzmann expanded the scope of his research.

Yet, many legislators then serving in the US Congress were disturbed not only about the financial costs of expeditions, but also by the very idea of supporting science. In an effort to bring order out of confusion, the Congress established the United States Geological Survey in 1879 under the leadership of Clarence King, a multitalented person who was, however, more interested in mining and minerals than he was in dinosaurs. Thurman Wilkins, an English professor noted for his many books on western topics, first brought out King’s biography in 1958, then substantially revised and republished it thirty years later with coauthor Caroline Hinkley, still under the title Clarence King: A Biography. More recently, the events of King’s tenure are vividly told by Robert Wilson, editor of the American Scholar, in his book The Explorer King: Adventure, Science, and the Great Diamond Hoax. King only lasted one year directing the USGS, and was replaced by John Wesley Powell. Earlier, Powell had been the first commissioned explorer to ride the Green/Colorado River from Wyoming to where the Colorado River exits the Grand Canyon, and had proposed a grand plan for the lands of the arid West, to mitigate the limitations on development imposed by the lack of rainfall west of the Rockies. After Powell became head of the USGS, most of the dinosaur fossils earlier collected for and with Cope ended up at the Peabody Museum in New Haven, much to Cope’s chagrin. The story of Powell’s career is ably told by Donald Worster, noted for his writing about the American West, in his excellent biography A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell. Worster reveals that Marsh was now receiving government financial support and even gained an official title under Powell’s leadership. Most recently, John Wesley Powell: His Life and Legacy is authored by James Aton, newly-retired professor of English at Southern Utah University, who himself has paddled most of the rivers in southern Utah and therefore knows firsthand what Powell experienced. Still worth consulting, however, is Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West, the classic biography by Wallace Stegner, well known for his many works about western environmental topics,.

Besides sending out expeditions to collect dinosaur remains, the government needed a place to put these materials. Thus ensued the creation of a national and publicly funded natural history museum. Initially, many government-sponsored finds had been sent to Philadelphia where they were examined by Joseph Leidy. Earle Spamer, Edward Daeschler, and L. Gay Vostreys-Shapiro document the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences fossil collection in A Study of Fossil Vertebrate Types in the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia: Taxonomic, Systematic, and Historical Perspectives. Meanwhile James Smithson (an independently wealthy English scientist) had directed during the 1830s that upon the death of his last relative, his wealth would be donated to the US government for the purpose of founding an “establishment for the increase [and] diffusion of knowledge among men,” to be named after himself, in Washington, DC. The Smithsonian Institution was born of British philanthropy, and in 1846 Congress established the institution by designating Joseph Henry its first secretary. Construction of the first physical structure (the so-called Castle on the Mall) began in 1849, and the building opened in 1855. As head of the Smithsonian, Henry was opposed to the collection of dinosaur bones, but after his death the position was taken over by Spencer Fullerton Baird, and new directions were undertaken. No recent biography of Baird is known, but Mark Jaffe, in his book on the Cope-Marsh feud (discussed above), documents the fact that Baird supported Marsh both financially and by designating him the Smithsonian’s paleontologist. It is due to this relationship that many of the specimens collected earlier in the West (under Cope’s influence) then went to New Haven, rather than remaining in Washington as part of the Smithsonian’s collection. After his predecessor’s death, however, Baird did begin to fill the Smithsonian with dinosaur bones. The newest Smithsonian complex, the National Museum of Natural History, was not completed until 1911, and by this time it housed not only dinosaur bones but also three-dimensional reconstructions of the animals.

The deaths of Cope (in 1897) and Marsh (in 1899) brought a younger set of paleontologists into the mix, and this group was left with the task of reconstructing the systematic mess that Cope and Marsh had made of the dinosaur taxonomy, one result of their having worked without collaboration. One of Cope’s protégés was Henry Fairfield Osborn, a Princeton graduate, who obtained a position at Columbia University and became head of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). Before Cope died, Osborn solved some of his mentor’s financial problems by purchasing his collection of dinosaur bones. The AMNH also received many of Cope’s written materials that, as discussed above, were exploited by Osborn in his biography of Cope. The AMNH was founded in 1869, occupying its first building in 1877. Osborn served as director from 1908 through 1933. The general history of this museum is told by Douglas Preston in Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History, while Osborn’s personal vision and direction for the museum is explored by Ron Rainger in An Agenda for Antiquity: Henry Fairfield Osborn and Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, 1890–1935. 

Between the two world wars and even after WWII, two American paleontologists played a dominant role. The first was Edwin Harris Colbert, who served as curator of vertebrate paleontology at the AMNH for forty years. (The other was Alfred Sherwood Romer, whose tenure at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology is discussed below.) Colbert, a protégé of Osborn, wrote a number of books on collectors, among them The Great Dinosaur Hunters and Their Discoveries. One of Colbert’s active collectors was Roland T. Bird, a close associate of Barnum Brown (discussed  below). Colbert married the daughter of his AMNH predecessor/colleague William Matthew, and tells his own life story in two autobiographical volumes: A Fossil Hunter’s Notebook: My Life with Dinosaurs and Other Friends, and Digging into the Past. An Autobiography.
At AMNH, it was not only collectors and curators who were important. A new center of interest was the work of supporting artists, and most important among these was Charles Knight, whose autobiography, Charles R. Knight:Autobiography of an Artist, was recently edited by Ottaviani (author of the graphic novel on the Cope-Marsh feud, mentioned above). Knight’s life and work, and its impact on natural history collections around the country, are the subject of analysis in Charles R. Knight: The Artist Who Saw through Time, by historian of science Richard Milner, notable for his own popular stage performances in the character of Charles Darwin.

A fortuitous hire for the AMNH was collector Barnum Brown. A student of Williston at the University of Kansas, and more at home in the field than in the city, he found the first fossil of a tyrannosaur in the Hell Creek Formation of western Montana, as told by Lowell Dingus and Mark Norell in Barnum Brown: The Man Who Discovered Tyrannosaurus Rex. Additional material on Brown is found in Roland Bird’s Bones for Barnum Brown: Adventures of a Dinosaur Hunter. Brown’s supervisor at the AMNH was William Diller Matthew, whose biographer (and son-in-law) was Edwin Colbert (discussed above). In William Diller Matthew, Paleontologist: The Splendid Drama Observed, Colbert documents Matthew’s tenure at the AMNH, which extended over fifty years, in the course of which he mentored many paleontologists. For example, Matthew’s belief that humans originated in Asia was influential in motivating the expeditions to Mongolia and the Gobi Desert undertaken by his successor, Roy Chapman Andrews.

In 1935, Roy Andrews began his service as director of the AMNH. His tenure lasted until 1951, during which time he became well known for his surveys in Mongolia and the discovery of dinosaur eggs, not to mention his hypothesis about the behavior of the parents with respect to those eggs. The story of his expedition to Mongolia is told in a number of books including quite a few written by himself, notably the recently republished 1943 autobiography, Under a Lucky Star. His expedition to the Gobi Desert brought “star appeal” to Andrews during the 1930s. Aside from accounts in his own autobiographical works, the expedition has been chronicled by Charles Gallenkamp in Dragon Hunter: Roy Chapman Andrews and the Central Asiatic Expeditions.

Although the purchases of Cope’s materials by Osborn had expanded the collections of the AMNH, other museums located in Pittsburgh and Chicago were on a similar quest. In Pittsburgh, Andrew Carnegie funded the museum named for him; his story is told by Robert Gangewere in Palace of Culture: Andrew Carnegie’s Museums and Library in Pittsburgh. One of the early hires at the Carnegie was John Bell Hatcher, who had worked for Marsh as a collector in the American West. One of the reasons Hatcher had quit was that Marsh, as already noted, would not allow assistants to write their own articles. Hatcher then moved to Princeton where he became a friend of Osborn, eventually arriving in Pittsburgh, where Carnegie wanted not just dinosaur bones, but a mounted dinosaur specimen. Hatcher provided him with the exhibit of Diplodocus carnegii. This dinosaur mount was so popular that Carnegie had casts made of all the bones, which were then sent to a number of museums in Europe. Hatcher also headed up one of the first US expeditions to Patagonia. Sometimes called “king of the collectors,” Hatcher has been recently portrayed in a biography by Lowell Dingus, King of the Dinosaur Hunters: The Life of John Bell Hatcher and the Discoveries That Shaped Paleontology. One of the US locales investigated by Pittsburgh collectors was the quarry in Echo Canyon, Utah, which in 1915 became Dinosaur National Monument. During the 1950s, a dam was proposed where the Green River flows through Echo Canyon, but unlike the case of the Tuolumne Canyon in Yosemite (lost with the building of the Hetch Hetchy Dam), in this instance the environmentalists won. The fight is covered by Mark Harvey in A Symbol of Wilderness: Echo Park and the American Conservation Movement, while Carnegie’s fascination with dinosaurs and his quest to acquire one for his museum is detailed by Tom Rea in The Bone Wars: The Excavation and Celebrity of Carnegie’s Dinosaur.
The Field Museum of Natural History began in 1893 as part of the Chicago World’s Fair, and was first known as the Columbian Museum of Chicago. In 1905 its name was changed to the Field Museum in honor of a donor. Today the museum is known for Sue, the world’s largest tyrannosaur (discussed in part 3 below). In 1900, in an effort to match the Diplodocus collected by the Carnegie museum in Pittsburgh, Elmer Riggs sent collectors west who succeeded in finding a brachiosaur near Grand Junction, Colorado, later mounted in Chicago as Brachiosaurus altithorax. The story of this competition for mounted specimens is aptly told in Paul Brinkman’s The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush: Museums and Paleontology in America at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. Alternatively, Lukas Rieppel, a historian of earth science interested in the close relationship between the competitive bid for mounted dinosaur displays and the capitalism of the time, tells much the same story but with a different twist in Assembling the Dinosaur: Fossil Hunters, Tycoons, and the Making of a Spectacle.

Not to be outdone, the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) in Cambridge also joined the race for vertebrate specimens. The MCZ was established at Harvard by Louis Agassiz, who had immigrated from Switzerland in 1859. His life story is told by Edward Lurie in Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science. Agassiz is also known for his work with fossil fish and glacial studies, and for massive books on the natural history of the US. The role of the MCZ in American natural history has been illustrated by Mary Winsor in Reading the Shape of Nature: Comparative Zoology at the Agassiz Museum. Another paleontologist who became prominent between the two world wars was Alfred Sherwood Romer, at the University of Chicago; he moved to Harvard in 1936. In 1946 Romer was appointed director of the MCZ, where he later produced two of the classic, foundational texts for the discipline: Vertebrate Paleontology and The Osteology of the Reptiles. 

Works Cited