The first significant dinosaur fossils added to the museum’s
collections were the type specimen of the sauropod Dystrophaeus
viaemalae, collected by J. S. Newberry and donated in 1859,
and Lower Jurassic dinosaur footprints from the Connecticut
Valley, donated in 1861. These fossils were catalogued along with
all other vertebrates in the Department of Osteology. It was not
until 1887 that the Department of Vertebrate Fossils was established,
and given its own catalogue system. The acronym for the “U.
S. National Museum” (USNM) became part of our official designation
for specimen catalogue numbers, and remains so even though our name
has been changed to the National Museum of Natural History.
The honorary head curator of this new department was the famous
dinosaur paleontologist O. C. Marsh of Yale University, and he was
assisted by Frederic Lucas, who was based in Washington, D.C. Marsh
led active field expeditions for both Yale University and the U.
S. Geological Survey. During Marsh’s lifetime, these fossils
were reposited at Yale, but upon his death in 1899,
the vertebrate fossils he had collected for the government (over
80 tons!) were transferred to the Smithsonian Institution. Marsh’s
collections include some of the most important dinosaurs known to
science, among them our exhibit specimens of Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, Camptosaurus, Ceratosaurus, Triceratops, and Edmontosaurus. The “Marsh
Collection” still constitutes the largest single dinosaur
collection at the Smithsonian.
In 1898, J. W. Coleman was hired as the first full-time preparator
of vertebrate fossils. He was joined in 1900 by Alban Stewart. They
soon left government service and were replaced by Charles W. Gilmore
H. Boss (1904) , and James W. Gidley (1905). In 1908, Gilmore was
promoted to Custodian of Fossil Reptiles, and in 1924 he was again
promoted to the rank of Curator. While at the Smithsonian, Gilmore
became one of the most renowned vertebrate paleontologists of the
twentieth century, and with him Norman Boss mounted most of the
museum’s famous dinosaur exhibits.
Gilmore led sixteen dinosaur expeditions during his tenure as
Curator, mostly to Wyoming and Utah, and the collections he brought
back to the Smithsonian Institution included Diplodocus,
Camarasaurus, and Brachyceratops. He also studied
the Marsh Collection extensively, producing important studies of
the dinosaurs Camptosaurus, Allosaurus, Ceratosaurus,
Stegosaurus, and Thescelosaurus. The first complete,
fully mounted dinosaurs to be exhibited by Gilmore and Boss were
Edmontosaurus in 1903, followed by Triceratops in
1905, both in the Arts and Industries Building.