The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush

(Feedloader (Clickability))

Many visitors to natural history museums—especially children—come to see just one thing: dinosaurs. No major institution can be without a hall of enormous Jurassic and Cretaceous animals (with the smaller, lesser-known Triassic dinosaurs taking their places along the margins), but the American occupation with the biggest and baddest Mesozoic creatures is relatively new. Even though dinosaurs captured the public's imagination relatively early on —appearing in cartoons, poetry and other bits of pop culture in the 1820's—they were still almost entirely absent from American museums at the close of the 19th century. Even at the height of the infamous “Bone Wars” between the academics O.C. Marsh and E.D. Cope, public museum displays typically boasted little more than a few teeth and a limb bone or two.

As historian and paleontologist Paul Brinkman illustrates in his new book, The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush, today’s spectacular dinosaur displays have their roots in the turn-of-the-20th-century contest to see who could obtain the most impressive sauropod dinosaur. The American Museum of Natural History, the Carnegie Museum and the Field Museum competed to find the most complete Jurassic dinosaur specimens possible (skeletons that are still prominently on display in each institution to this day), yet this second “dinosaur rush” was a bit different from the rough-and-tumble expeditions of Cope and Marsh. Rather than actively try to savage one another’s reputation, teams from each of the institutions tried to lure away members of opposing groups and kept a watchful eye on what their competitors were doing, with whatever controversies erupted being a result of museum politics instead of Wild West antics. They did not always get along, but they had common goals, and so many of the paleontologists working at that time hated Marsh that each team was trying to find its own way of showing that America's former leading paleontologist was not as brilliant as he thought he was.

Much of Brinkman’s book records the movements and activities of the paleontologists employed by the various museums as they scouted Jurassic-age dinosaur sites in the American West. There are quite a few famous names to keep track of —H.F. Osborn, John Bell Hatcher, William Diller Matthew, Barnum Brown, Elmer Riggs, Olaf Peterson, J.L. Wortman and others—and a number of them switched institutions during the period in question. At times it is easy to get confused about who was working for whom, but this is less the fault of Brinkman’s clear prose than of the politics and dealings of early-20th-century paleontologists.

Although I would have preferred a little more analysis of how discoveries in the field were translated into academic and popular images of dinosaurs—something discussed primarily in the conclusion, in relation to the role of paleontology in large museums—Brinkman’s work fills in a considerable gap in our understanding of the history of paleontology. Every paleontologist worth his or her salt is familiar with the names Osborn, Hatcher, Riggs and the like, but few have paid much attention to the details of how these researchers collected specimens and kept paleontology thriving during a time when their discipline was being superseded by genetics and other biological sciences in universities. Had large museums not been so interested in fostering their paleontology programs—programs with great potential to collect specimens that would bring in hordes of patrons—the science may very well have stagnated. Although paleontologists sometimes found themselves caught up in red tape or working for finicky institutional administrators, both museums and paleontology benefited from the close collaboration.

If I have any significant criticism of Brinkman's work, it is that the book should have included a glossary or appendix explaining the present nomenclature for many of the dinosaurs discussed in the book. Frequent references are made to the sauropod Morosaurus, for example, which was considered a valid name at the turn of the 20th century but has since been synonymized with Camarasaurus. Those steeped in the esoterica of dinosaur paleontology will have no problem with such details, but other readers may be puzzled to see so many unfamiliar dinosaur names.

There are a few major gaps in the history of paleontology that, for one reason or another, have not yet merited a major investigation. Brinkman's The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush has now filled in one of those gaps in a comprehensive and accessible manner. From daily camp life to museum politics, Brinkman has ably documented a time of major change in dinosaur science, one that provides the context for paleontology as we know it today.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus