The Prince and the Paleontologist
Posted by Richard Conniff on June 24, 2016
This morning a lovely email came in about my book House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life On Earth. It’s from a writer and radio commentator named Jill Hunting:
“I have just finished reading your book and wanted to offer congratulations on a marvelous achievement … The writing throughout is beautiful and consistent, and I am in awe, frankly, of the soft landings at the end of your chapters.”
She added: “My favorite page is 154.” So naturally I wondered what the hell was on p. 154, and found a short anecdote about an eccentric paleontologist–is that redundant?–named George R. Wieland.
In the late 1890s, Wieland began working in South Dakota on a forest of fossilized plants called cycadeoids, also known as cycads for their resemblance to a variety of modern plant with a woody stem and palm-like crown. He soon became hooked on cycads. They had obvious visual interest, with their intriguing shapes, often resembling a beekeeper’s traditional basket beehive, and with a surface pattern of orderly pockmarks, from old leaf attachment points.
Local ranch families who collected the fossilized trunks as curios described them, Wieland wrote, as “beehives,” “wasps’ nests,” “corals,” “mushrooms,” and even “beefmaws,” for their resemblance to a bovine reticulum, the first digestive organ of a ruminant’s alimentary tract. On repeated trips back to the site in South Dakota, Wieland retrieved more than 700 cycad specimens, giving the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History the most extensive collection of these fossil plants in the world (and also earning Wieland a reputation in South Dakota as a plunderer). He went on to develop various methods of drilling and slicing cycads to study their interior anatomy. But let’s go to p. 154:
Over the years, Wieland became obsessed with his subject, even by the standards of museum curators. He could talk about nothing else, and he seems to have talked endlessly, to the point that it became necessary to
ban him from the preparators’ workrooms. In time, he “was practically kicked out of the museum,” according to an oral history, and had to move “his big old saw set up” to the basement of another building on campus. (“When did he begin to sort of go to pieces? Was that before he retired or after?” one former director of the museum wondered in that oral history, and another former director replied, “Maybe it was when he was born. He was a queer one all his life.”)
In June 1926, Yale was preparing for a visit by Sweden’s crown prince Gustaf Adolf VI, who was receiving an honorary degree. University authorities were “agog over the rare opportunity of entertaining royalty,” a Yale alumnus later recounted in a letter to Time magazine. They prepared to mark the event “with the utmost dignity and propriety,” beginning with “an exclusive little luncheon for only the mightiest figures of academic and of local society.” Then the prince arrived and asked for the one thing no one had ever thought to include: George R. Wieland. “Consternation smote the party and a frantic search for Yale’s forgotten man ensued.”
Wieland, who had no phone, was eventually tracked down at his suburban home, hustled back to New Haven and seated beside the prince. “The conversation presented pretty tough going for the local elite and even for the President and Fellows, for it dealt almost exclusively with fossil cycads,” the writer continued. Everyone was praying for the luncheon to end so they could escape stupefying talk of cycads and otherwise engage their honored guest’s attention.
Instead, the prince suggested a visit to Wieland’s workroom. Someone raced ahead in a desperate bid to bring order “out of the monumental chaos and dustiness” there, to no avail. The party of dignitaries found it “a little difficult to appear dignified and interested and at the same time keep their morning coats and striped trousers out of the inch-thick dust while the Prince and Wieland continued their ardent and interminable conversation.”
The prince, it was evident, was a serious paleobotanist, and George R. Wieland had found his perfect audience.
There’s much more worth checking out in the book, which you can buy here: “House of Lost Worlds”