Bone-Hunter Biographies | Science | Smithsonian

Bone-Hunter Biographies

Finding, excavating, preparing, studying and mounting dinosaur skeletons is hard work. We marvel at the articulated bones of these creatures in museums, and while each skeleton tells the story of the creature it once belonged to, there is also the story of its discovery. These stories are often jus...

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The cover of The Fossil Hunter by Shelley Emling, one of the most recent biographies about famous fossil collectors.


Finding, excavating, preparing, studying and mounting dinosaur skeletons is hard work. We marvel at the articulated bones of these creatures in museums, and while each skeleton tells the story of the creature it once belonged to, there is also the story of its discovery. These stories are often just as exciting as those of the animals themselves. Here are a few of my favorite book which provide a behind-the-scenes look at some of the most famous dinosaur hunters.

Fossil Hunter

Despite her contributions to paleontology, the early 19th century fossil collector Mary Anning has long been one of the unsung heroines of paleontology. An avid and knowledgeable fossil hunter, she recovered some of the finest specimens of ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs and other Mesozoic creatures known at the time, but since she was both a woman and of low social standing she was prevented from fully pursuing the science she loved. Shelley Emling's new biography of Anning does much to give her the attention she deserves.

The Bonehunter's Revenge

There have been many books and articles written about the intense rivalry between the 19th-century paleontologists E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh, but David Rains Wallace's The Bonehunter's Revenge is probably my favorite. In it Wallace skillfully tells the story of two ambitious paleontologists whose brief friendship turned into a bitter rivalry over who was North America's preeminent paleontologist.

The Life of a Fossil Hunter

Written by the famous fossil collector (and amateur poet) Charles H. Sternberg, this autobiography recounts the discovery of many specimens still prominently on display in museums around the world. Sternberg got his start by writing to E.D. Cope, and while he did go collecting with the paleontologist, Sternberg made some of his greatest discoveries with his sons George, Charles and Levi. What makes this book particularly enjoyable are Sternberg's brief visualizations of what the life of the past was like, such as an imaginary battle between two mosasaurs in the sea that once covered much of the American west.

Barnum Brown: The Man Who Discovered Tyrannosaurus rex

One of the most celebrated fossil hunters of the 20th century, Barnum Brown was so skilled at finding specimens that rumor had it that he could actually smell fossils. Most at home in the field, Brown traveled the world collecting bones for the American Museum of Natural History, including the first recognized specimens of Tyrannosaurus rex. Yet this new biography is not just about Brown's penchant for fossils—his legendary womanizing, his strained relationship with his daughter and other aspects of Brown's personality flesh out his story.

Bones for Barnum Brown

While discoveries made by Barnum Brown turned him into a household name, less well-known was his assistant and colleague R.T. Bird, another self-made fossil hunter who made some exciting discoveries of his own. From fossils found in the ceiling of a coal mine to the discovery of an impressive trackway made by a sauropod dinosaur, Bird's autobiography is a well-written look at one of paleontogy's less recognized bone collectors.

Speak to the Earth and it Will Teach You: The Life and Times of Earl Douglass

While many fossils are chipped out of the ground and sent off to far-away museums, there are a few places where they have been preserved in the rock as they around found. One such place is Utah's Dinosaur National Monument, which was discovered in 1909 by the paleontologist Earl Douglass. It was not easy work, especially as winter set in, and this new biography (largely written by his son and finished by his granddaughter Diane Iverson) tells the story of Douglass and his greatest discovery.

Those are just a handful of the biographical and autobiographical books about fossil hunters out there (bringing us only to the mid-20th century). What are some of your favorites?
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About Brian Switek
Brian Switek

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer specializing in evolution, paleontology, and natural history. He writes regularly for National Geographic's Phenomena blog as Laelaps.

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