The Birth of Dinosaur Mania (A Glorious Enterprise–Conclusion)
Posted by Richard Conniff on July 6, 2012
The mid-nineteenth century was the end of the time when a naturalist’s scholarship could span the entire world, and that has always been a large part of the appeal of that era for modern readers. Not only were explorers from the Academy and other institutions going to new places and making great discoveries, but the average educated layperson could still understand what their work was all about. Professionalization would soon set in, obliging scientists to confine their research to ever more narrow specialties, often comprehensible only to a handful of like-minded experts around the world.
Joseph Leidy, who arrived at the Academy in 1842, managed to bridge both worlds. He was part of the new breed, a professional scientist, but still managed to work on everything from parasites to dinosaurs. He was the first to demonstrate that the parasitic disease trichinosis came from failing to adequately cook meat contaminated with roundworm larvae—and thus gets credit or blame for the next century or so of overcooked pork chops. He is also said to have been the first scientist to use his microscope to solve a murder, foreshadowing countless police procedurals and CSI episodes to come. (The suspect in the case contended that the blood on his shirt came from a chicken, not the murder victim. He confessed when Leidy demonstrated that the red cells contained no nucleus, as in humans.)
But it was his fossils that really made Leidy famous. As collectors in the American West began sending him paleontological specimens, Leidy described a saber-toothed cat and a rhinoceros that had once roamed the Great Plains. His description of an ancient American camel led the War Department to create a U.S. Camel Corps in the 1850s, with animals imported from North Africa to transport equipment in the American Southwest. Leidy also demonstrated that horses had lived in America long before Spanish colonizers re-introduced them. (They disappeared the first time, he thought, because of climate change.) He “was discovering an entirely new world in the virgin fields of the American West,” write Peck and Stroud. “It was not possible to base his studies on those of European paleontologists because, according to the eminent scientist Henry Fairfield Osborn, ‘every specimen represented a new species or a new genus of a new family, and in some cases a new order.’”
Leidy and the Academy were the best available source of paleontological thinking when a British sculptor named Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins arrived in the United States in 1868. Hawkins had previously made concrete models of dinosaurs for London’s Crystal Palace in 1854. He liked to imagine what he called “the revivifying of the ancient world” and at a party held inside the mold for one of these models, the guests sang “The Jolly Old Beast/is not deceased/There’s life in him again.” But in truth, these dinosaurs were low, plodding, lifeless creatures, about as likely to induce wonder as the average lizard. (You can still see them on display at a park in London’s Sydenham Hill neighborhood.)
With Hadrosaurus foulkii, Hawkins had the opportunity to do it right. The scientific know-how came from Leidy and a young paleontologist named Edward Drinker Cope. (He who would later compete fiercely with Yale rival O.C. Marsh in the so-called “bone wars” to unearth the best Western dinosaur specimens.) Hawkins set to work rebuilding the animal, mounting plaster casts of the bones, and plaster reconstructions where needed, on an iron scaffolding. Because the dinosaur’s head was missing, the team modeled a replacement on the modern iguana, and painted it green. The finished animal, reassembled in just two months of feverish work, reared up overhead as if there were truly “life in him again” after 65 million years. Though Hawkins’ original is now lost, its innovative approach to fossil specimens continues to shape the way museums around the world display dinosaurs to this day.
POSTSCRIPT: At the end of their book A Glorious Enterprise, Peck and Stroud suggest that the work of discovery is not just romantic history. Scientists from the Academy continue to do research today everywhere from Venezuela’s Orinoco Delta to Lake Hovsgol in northern Mongolia. The work can seem obscure, and as in Thomas Say’s day, subject to ridicule or indifference from a society that tends to be more concerned with Hollywood celebrities. It’s also badly funded: In 2006, on the brink of financial collapse, the Academy caused a flurry of protest when it sold off more than 18,000 mineral specimens to keep itself alive. But we ignore this work at our considerable peril. The Academy’s naturalists had quietly shaped America’s past (and its ideas about its past). Their counterparts today have the power to shape our future.