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The History of the Paleobiology Department

by Ray Rye

1. A Brief Introduction

The business of the Department of Paleobiology at the National Museum of Natural History is using fossils to understand patterns and processes in the history of life.  By fossils we mean any evidence of formerly living things from the geologic past, from trilobites to dinosaurs, and let’s not forget the base of the food chain - plants.  Fossils are the tape and glue of our exhibits, research, educational outreach, and collections.  The Smithsonian does not own any fossils, but rather holds them in trust for the People of the United States.  So how did we get into this business?

Paleontology probably made its first impact in Washington nearly two centuries ago.  When Thomas Jefferson was in the White House from 1801-1809, he used East Room, which he nicknamed The Mammoth Room, to display fossil bones collected at Big Bone Lick, Kentucky, as well as some from a cave in Greenbriar County, Virginia – which became West Virginia during the Civil War.  Jefferson was at the center of most of the activity involving recently discovered fossil elephants, both in America and Europe.  Like his fellow scholars, Jefferson also had many ideas about the unknown areas westward, beyond the Appalachians.  His library at Monticello had more books about the American west than any other library in the world, yet nearly everything in them was speculation, pure and simple.  Many reports told of unicorns, woolly mammoths, seven-foot beavers, and erupting volcanoes.  One of his instructions to Lewis and Clark when they departed in 1803 was to find out if there still were mammoths alive out there, as “in the present interior of our continent there is surely space enough for such creatures.”  Alas, Lewis and Clark saw no herds of mammoths, but did find fossils - only a few of which were collected, sent back to Washington - almost all are now lost.   The bulk of the non-fossiliferous natural history specimens went to the White House, or to Jefferson at Monticello.  A few were kept by the men of the Corps of Discovery.  Of the ones sent to the President, some were deposited in Peale’s Museum at Philadelphia, but lost when that museum closed.  Others went to the American Philosophical Society, and the survivors are in the Academy of Natural Sciences.  Some are still at Monticello today.

(Left) Meriwether Lewis prepares for the journey accompanied by his dog, Seaman.  Seaman, a Newfoundland, traveled with the corps throughout their epic journey.  (Right) William Clark with surveying chain and copy of his map, completed in 1806.  Although he had limited experience in cartography when he joined the expedition in 1803, Clark became a skilled mapmaker.  The compass readings he took at every twist and turn contributed to the first map of what became the U.S. west.  Both Paintings by Bill Carr.

The President and Charles Willson Peale were friends, so it was logical the Peale Museum became the primary repository for the expedition’s collections.   For many years Jefferson, no slouch in the collection and acquisition of fossils, frequently sent them on to Peale for identification, or as a donation to Peale’s ever-growing museum.  And then in 1801, barely three months into Jefferson’s first term, their relationship was officially cemented when Peale couldn’t resist the temptation of mastodon bones found earlier by a farmer in the Hudson River valley.  Charles Willson Peale departed Philadelphia on what was probably the first collecting expedition underwritten by a scientific society in the United States, the American Philosophical Society.  Peale organized the operation and excavated two nearly complete mastodon skeletons from a glacial bog near Newburgh, New York.  Although no money came from the United States government, President Jefferson ordered the US Navy to loan a pump for draining the pits, and provide some tents.  At that time mastodons had not yet been differentiated from mammoths, and Peale called everything a mammoth.  He assembled and mounted the bones of one beast for his Museum in Philadelphia - the first fully articulated fossil skeleton of to be mounted in America, and possibly the first in the world.  It was a sensation.  A second specimen was mounted in sections so it could be moved from city to city for display.

Charles Willson Peale introduced many innovative features we take for granted in museums of today.  He was the first to label specimens on exhibit, and to enclose them in cabinets with glass fronts.  He pioneered dioramas.  With his mastodon he contrived the idea of a special “blockbuster” display – it cost 25 cents extra.  In a male-dominated society, he went against the grain by admitting all people of all ages at a time when many public places were off limits to women and children.  The Peale Museum was ready and available for specimens from exploring expeditions of the United States.

2. The Pre-Smithsonian Years

The Wilkes’ Expedition

Thirty-five years after Lewis and Clark returned, the United States South Seas Exploring Expedition set sail from Norfolk on August 18, 1838 under the command of a bold and vain naval Lieutenant named Charles Wilkes.  This was the first serious effort of the United States to explore the unknown world beyond our shores. Authorized by Meriwether Lewis’ friend, Secretary of the Navy Mahlon Dickerson, this was the first naval expedition “fitted out by national munificence for scientific objects that has ever left our shores.”  Whereas most expeditions by foreign powers up to this time consisted of but one ship, the Wilkes Expedition sailed in six naval vessels, and carried a coterie of seven scientists.  They didn’t miss much - passing down the east coast of South America; rounding Cape Horn; discovering Antarctica; visiting the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), and the American Northwest; crossing the Pacific and Indian oceans to visit the Philippines and East Indies; and rounding the Cape of Good Hope to return.  After almost four years they arrived in New York City June 10, 1842.  By bringing back a wealth of geological, botanical, zoological, and anthropological specimens, this expedition was a milestone in American science – but the Navy had created a very big problem for Congress - where to put it all?

USS Vincennes, flagship of the United States Exploring Expedition, in Disappointment Bay, Antarctica.  Line engraving by C.A. Jewett, after a sketch by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, USN, depicting USS Vincennes in the Antarctic ice, circa January-February 1840.
U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph

The first collections of the Wilkes Expedition to be offloaded in America arrived in 1839 and were stored temporarily in Charles Willson Peale’s museum in Philadelphia.  By 1840 Peale’s Museum was located in the Arcade Building at Fourth and George streets, having moved four times beginning with the transfer from Peale’s own house in 1784.  Depositing the Wilkes’ collections in Peale’s Museum was a natural, since Peale’s fourth son, Titian Ramsay, accompanied the Wilkes Expedition as chief zoologist, and drew scientific illustrations for several plates in one of the reports.

The Wilkes’ collection was a tempting prize.  Coincidentally, also in 1840 The National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful Arts was organized on May 15 in Washington to “promote science and the useful arts, and to establish a museum of natural history,” and to “procure specimens.”  The controlling mind in this movement of about ninety influential men, including some members of Congress, was the Honorable Joel R. Poinsett of South Carolina, in whose home the organizers met.  Fortunately, Poinsett was able to convince the Secretary of the Navy, James K. Paulding, to forward the Wilkes collections to Washington, and he also obtained $5000.00 from Congress to defray the costs of transportation and care.  An important principle was established – all specimens collected by official exploring parties were the property of the United States government and were to be sent to Washington.  Secretary of State Daniel Webster designated the Patent Office (9th Street NW between F and G streets, NW) as the new depository.  Known today as the Old Patent Office Building, it now houses two Smithsonian museums:  the National Collection of Fine Arts, and the National Portrait Gallery.  When the Wilkes collections arrived at the Patent Office on April 21, 1841, they were to be curated by Dr. Henry King, a geologist and mining expert.  The appropriation of $5000.00 had to cover Dr. King’s salary, as well.

3. The Founding of the Smithsonian Institution

Many members of the National Institute thought their society should be made the custodian of the Smithson bequest.  The conditions of James Smithson’s will were not known until 1835 when Henry James Hungerford, nephew and chief beneficiary of James Smithson’s will, died in Pisa, Italy.  In 1838 the money passed “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.”  As early as 1839, before the National Institute was founded, Poinsett called upon John Quincy Adams and pleaded his case for the Smithsonian funds to be placed under the management of such an organization.  This was the hidden agenda of the National Institute, which succeeded in becoming officially accredited by Act of Congress on July 27, 1842.

After a great deal of fussing by the world’s greatest deliberative body, Congress authorized the Smithsonian Institution on August 10, 1846 and the legislation was signed by President James K. Polk the same day.  Not until 1857 were the Wilkes collections transferred to the Smithsonian.  From this bonanza the Department of Paleobiology has bones of fossil fish and shells of fossil clams that are probably the first fossils to come to the Smithsonian.  So after having lost custody of the Wilkes collection after only a few years, in 1862 the Congressional charter of National Institute finally expired on July 27.  On the very same day all the National Institute’s remaining property was transferred to the Castle.

The Smithsonian Castle

In 1846 the Smithsonian had a name, but no building, no staff, and no leader.  It did have a Board of Regents, which met for the first time on September 7.  Wasting no time, on December 3 they appointed a professor of physics from Princeton, Joseph Henry, as the first Secretary of the Smithsonian.   He was 48.  Within six months of Joseph Henry’s selection as Secretary, the Castle, first building of the Smithsonian Institution, was born with the laying of the cornerstone on May 1, 1847.  By April 30, 1849, the Castle was far enough along that Edward Hitchcock began a course of six lectures on Geology, being the first program given in The Building of the Smithsonian Institution.  By 1853 the Smithsonian had already published three papers on paleontology, at a time when there were few outlets for scientific papers.  For example, Robert Wilson Gibbes’ work on fossil reptiles sold for $.25 and. Joseph Leidy’s classic “Ancient Fauna of Nebraska” could be obtained for $2.00.  By that time the exterior of the building had been completed for two years.  With the opening of the Lower Main Hall to the public in 1855, now the Great Hall, the entire building was finished and formally occupied.

Smithsonian Institution Building circa 1857, two years after the entire building was completed and fully occupied.
Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Westward Expansion

Tied to America’s optimistic expansionism to the west were dreams of fortunes to be made there in real estate, in minerals, in farming, and in countless schemes.  But the naturalists dreamed of another gold mine:  new species and revelations awaiting discovery in the physical resources beyond “the shining Mountains.”  The Army set out to obtain accurate information about the West, and two famous Western surveys became de facto extensions of the Castle.  In 1867, Spencer Fullerton Baird, Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian, told his friend Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden that the new state of Nebraska, established March 1, needed a leader for a survey of the state’s resources.  A doctor of medicine as well as a geologist, Hayden undertook the job with enthusiasm and over the years sent Baird all his natural history specimens.  Hayden’s exploits west of the Missouri River so influenced Congress, that in 1869 it underwrote an expansion of the effort, and named it the “United States Geological Survey of the Territories,” with Hayden as its head.

Fourteen years earlier Fielding Bradford Meek accompanied Hayden in 1853 on the first trip west for either of them.  They were bankrolled indirectly by Smithsonian funds laundered through Joseph Leidy and the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and rinsed though James Hall of the New York State Geological Survey.  Meek was Hall’s assistant, and Hayden boarded with the Hall family in Albany.  When Hayden received his degree from the Albany Medical School in the spring of 1853, Hall funded the pair with the Smithsonian money for a field expedition, and off they went. 

Hall wanted them to go to the Bad Lands of the White River in Nebraska Territory to make the best fossil collection to date.  At the time Nebraska Territory included all of present-day Nebraska, and large portions of South Dakota, North Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana.  This was the first geological study to establish the stratigraphy of Upper Cretaceous and Paleogene rocks of the northern Great Plains.  The vertebrate fossils were given to Leidy for study, while the invertebrates were named by Hall and Meek.  As already mentioned, this trip was Hayden’s first time to the West, an area he desperately wanted to study.  It also brought Hayden and Meek together, a geologist and paleontologist respectively, that lasted until Meek died at age 59.  Both men became prominent as a result of their mutual studies.

Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden 1871
Fielding Bradford Meek

Brilliant collaborators in science, Meek and Hayden were otherwise a paleontological odd couple.  Although plagued by ill health from tuberculosis and somewhat deaf, Meek was a renowned invertebrate paleontologist, meticulous in every detail, having his most productive years in the Castle.  On the other hand, Hayden thrived on living in the rough, leading many of the great territorial surveys.  Reported to be a dreamer, a notorious ladies’ man, a showman, and frequently impulsive, Hayden in his haste to make their discoveries known often worked so rapidly and published so quickly that shoddiness in his reports was never a surprise.

To be fair, Hayden urgently wanted the general public to know about the geological wonders of the west, and while traveling back from his field work he frequently jumped off a train after arriving at a depot, dashed into the telegraph office, and sent newspapers a colorful dispatch about geological phenomena.  Also, his haste in writing official reports was driven by his priority to make his discoveries available to the scientific community as quickly as possible.

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4. First Home – Henry’s Castle

Portrait of Joseph Henry painted by Henry Ulke
in 1875 and redone in 1879
Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives

Meek was the first paleontologist at the Smithsonian, arriving in 1858.  James Hall was a tyrant, and as soon as the Castle was ready, Joseph Henry rescued Meek from Hall. Meek was classified as a volunteer, having already worked for the state geological surveys of Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and New York.  Although Meek had no salary at the Smithsonian, he enjoyed the privilege of living in his office at the Castle.  A lush accommodation it was not.  Until the Smithsonian fire of 1865, he lived in a tiny room under one of the stairways leading to the balcony of the Lecture Hall.  Sometime after the fire he relocated to the north tower, where after 18 years of service he died of tuberculosis on December 22, 1876.  Meek devoted his time principally to investigating and reporting on the fossils that had been accumulated by all the government exploring expeditions - his main supplier of geological treasures by far was Hayden.  Meek was the first to show there were Permian fossils in North America.  At the Smithsonian, he co-authored  “Paleontology of the Upper Missouri” (1865) with Hayden.  He was the sole author of “Checklist of the Invertebrate Fossils of North America:  Miocene” (1864); “Checklist of the Invertebrate Fossils of North America:  Cretaceous and Jurassic” (1864); and “Report on the Invertebrate Cretaceous and Tertiary Fossils of the Upper Missouri Country” (1876), among many, many others.

After the Civil War, four independent Federal geological surveys of the western territories were organized within a short time of one another, and were more or less contemporaneous in their activities.  This vast undertaking explored a region that now includes the states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming.  Meek contributed to the publications of all four surveys, and on occasion, when both Secretary Henry and Assistant Secretary Baird were away, he acted as informal Secretary of the Smithsonian.

Lower Main Hall, now the Great Hall of the Smithsonian Institution Building. 
Natural history specimens are in exhibit cases down the middle of the ground floor,
as well as in the second floor galleries.
Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives

5. Second Home – Baird’s Castle

On March 3, 1879, the four Federal territorial surveys were superceded by the founding of United States Geological Survey (USGS).  Although Charles A. White, a paleontologist with Hayden’s United States Geological Survey of the Territories (1867), did not join the USGS until 1881, he is considered to be the first official USGS paleontologist.  White frequented the Smithsonian Castle prior to Meek’s death in 1876, yet there is no indication White ever had an office in that building.  Another key event occurred in 1881 with the completion of the Smithsonian’s second building, which was built to house the United States National Museum (USNM), an issue Congress had been tangling with since 1857 when they appropriated $2,000 for the transfer of Government collections of the National Institute in the Patent Office to the Smithsonian, and $15,000 for the construction of cases.  It is now the Arts & Industries Building.

United States National Museum under construction in December 1879.  Now known as the Arts and Industries Building.  From the north tower of the Castle looking east toward the Capitol.
Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Although the United States National Museum now had a building, it had practically no staff.  To compensate, the Museum gave “honorary” appointments, a practice started long before the USNM became a reality.  Like Meek, those who received this honor were expected to do the work of the National Museum while being paid by another agency, or serving as volunteers.  For example, Othniel Charles Marsh, Director of the Peabody Museum at Yale University, was also paid by the USGS as Vertebrate Paleontologist for the United States from 1882 to 1892.  In 1887, Professor Marsh was appointed honorary curator of the Department of Vertebrate Fossils of the Museum, without a dime from the Smithsonian.

The classic example of pro bono work for the USNM is the story of Charles Doolittle Walcott.  Four months after formation of the USGS in 1879, he became its employee number 20 on July 8.  He was originally hired as a temporary geological assistant, not as a paleontologist.  After having written up his extensive field season of paleontological research in the Eureka District of Nevada, in May 1882 Walcott came to Washington and followed Charles White in having an office in the spanking new U.S. National Museum building.  The paleontologists of the USGS were all located along the south and west sides of the USNM on the first floor.  Upon his arrival as a new tenant in May, the Smithsonian appointed Walcott Honorary Assistant Curator of Fossil Invertebrates for the National Museum.  This was followed in 1894 by his being appointed as Honorary Assistant Curator in charge of Paleozoic fossils.

Beginning in 1894, Walcott acquired many new duties.  Always under a Smithsonian roof, he became Director of the USGS on July 1.  Later that year, during a partial reorganization, all the Museum’s fossil collections were administered under the title, “Department of Paleontology” with Walcott as Honorary Curator in charge, and Charles Schuchert as assistant curator.  The new Department was divided into three sections that remain today: vertebrate fossils; invertebrate fossils; fossil plants. The appointment of Schuchert in 1894 is a milestone, since for the first time in their history the paleontological collections were placed in charge of an official paid by the Museum to supplant the chain of free labor.

While still Director of the USGS, Walcott accepted the job of Acting Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in charge of the National Museum on January 27, 1897, replacing George Browne Goode who had died in office in 1896.  Walcott did this without leaving the Survey, and volunteered to serve without pay from the Smithsonian.  The Regents of the Institution did the right thing, but only to the tune of $200.00 a month.  Six months after being appointed, he initiated a major revision of the organizational structure of the United States National Museum by establishing the departments of Anthropology, Geology, and Zoology. Walcott was appointed fourth Secretary of the Smithsonian on January 31, 1907, after the death of Samuel Pierpont Langley.

Spencer Fullerton Baird, Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian, in 1867.
Upon the death of Joseph Henry, Baird became Secretary in 1878.
Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives

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6. Third Home – Langley’s (Walcott’s) Castle

The construction of the “new” National Museum building began with groundbreaking on June 15, 1904.  In his capacity as Acting Assistant Secretary, Walcott had obtained the planning money in 1898 for the third building of the Smithsonian Institution – the new National Museum building to house the departments of Natural History - which held its first public function on March 17, 1910.  The paleontologists of the USGS and the Smithsonian, and their collections moved from the old USNM building.  Specimens, libraries, exhibits, and other paraphernalia were moved across the Mall by horse and wagon.  A feature that has intertwined the fossils collected by paleontologists of the USGS with the collections of the U. S. National Museum is the wording that established the USGS.  The Organic Act of 1879 founding the Survey specified that when collections made by the USGS were no longer needed for research, they were to be transferred to the National Museum.  In such a manner, the paleontologists of the Survey and those of the Museum appeared to be one and the same to an outsider.

Construction of the Natural History building, now known as the National Museum of Natural History, on July 8, 1908.
The exterior walls of the south façade are almost to their full height but they lack their stone veneer and no windows are in place. 
Building materials are piled on the ground.
Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.

For many years the paleontologists of the Survey outnumbered those of the Museum.  In 1910, USGS paleontologists moved to the third floor corridor on the east side of Natural History.  By now the Smithsonian’s paleontologists had been folded into the Department of Geology, as the result of a head curator system established in 1897 by Walcott in his role as Acting Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in charge of the National Museum.  Geology occupied almost the all the rest of the third floor of the East Wing and Range, leaving one office for the Head Curator of Biology, and the north end for Anthropology.  The exception was Vertebrate Paleontology, which was housed downstairs on the east side of ground floor.  Since the head curator system governed the organizational structure that moved into Natural History, it is instructive to see how few paleontologists there were at the time.  Below is the plan that went into effect July 1, 1897, and was still in force at the time of the move:

George P. Merrill, Head Curator

(a) Division of Physical and Applied Chemical Geology (Systematic and Applied):
George P. Merrill, Curator
______  ______, Assistant Curator
W. H. Newhall, Aid

(b) Division of Mineralogy:
F. W. Clarke, Honorary Curator
Wirt Tassin, Assistant Curator
Rev. Dr. C. T. Chamberlain, Custodian of Gems and Precious Minerals

(c) Division of Stratigraphic Paleontology:
Charles D. Walcott, Honorary Curator
Charles Schuchert, Assistant Curator

Section of Vertebrate Fossils:
O. C. Marsh, Honorary Curator
F. A. Lucas, Acting Assistant Curator

Section of Invertebrate Fossils:
Paleozoic:  Charles Schuchert, Custodian
Mesozoic:  T. W. Stanton, Custodian
Cenozoic:  W. H. Dall, Associate Curator

Section of Paleobotany:
Lester F. Ward, Associate Curator
F. H. Knowlton, Custodian of Mesozoic Plants
David White, Custodian of Paleozoic Plants

Associate in Paleontology (Honorary):
Charles A. White

Of the paleontologists in 1897, only Schuchert and Lucas were Smithsonian employees.  Except for Marsh of Yale University, all the rest were USGS staff.

Charles D. Walcott, Fourth Secretary of the Smithsonian from 1907-1927,
working at his desk in the Smithsonian Castle on May 16, 1922.
Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Head Curators of the Department of Geology

For good or for bad, the position of head curator was an appointment for life.  The honored few in the Department of Geology were:

George P. Merrill, 1897-1929
Ray S. Bassler, 1929-1948
William F. Foshag, 1948-1956
G. Arthur Cooper, 1957-1963

George P. Merrill

George P. Merrill graduated from the University of Maine in 1879 with a BS degree in chemistry, and then accepted a teaching position at Wesleyan University.  There he became acquainted with George Browne Goode, who helped curate Wesleyan’s museum collections in addition to administering the United States National Museum in Washington.  Later, Merrill earned his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from Maine, in 1883 and 1889, respectively.

In the winter of 1880-1881 Merrill was appointed aide at the United States Bureau of Fisheries - transferring in July to the USNM, where he was employed as an aide in the Department of Mineralogy.  Through promotions and reorganizations he eventually became Head Curator of the Department of Geology.  Many a Smithsonian scientist has also taken the route of initial employment at the bottommost rung of the ladder.

Merrill pioneered in the study of using stone for building purposes, and in the study of the process of rock weathering.  So keen was his interest, he personally selected all the varieties of building stone to be used in the new National Museum building housing the departments of Natural History.  He was one of the first to apply petrology to the study of meteorites.  In addition to his scientific work, Merrill was a historian of North American geology.  In connection with his two works on the history of American geology, “Contributions to the History of American Geology” (Report of the United States National Museum for 1904, pages 189-733) and The First One Hundred Years of American Geology (1924), Merrill assembled an extensive collection of irreplaceable photographs and correspondence, much of which is in the Smithsonian Archives.

Ray S. Bassler

Ray S. Bassler spent his childhood in Cincinnati, where he came into personal contact with some noted geologists, including Charles Schuchert (Smithsonian), Carl Ludwig Rominger (Michigan Geological Survey), and Edward Oscar Ulrich (USGS).  While in high school, Bassler sold fossils for Ulrich.  In 1902 Bassler received a BA degree from the University of Cincinnati, and went on to George Washington University to get his MS in 1903, followed by his Ph.D. in 1905.  From 1904 to 1948 he was also an Assistant Professor of Geology there.

Bassler joined the staff of the United States National Museum as Assistant Curator in the Department of Geology’s Division of Stratigraphic Paleontology in 1904.  Three years later he was promoted to Curator in the Department’s Division of Invertebrate Paleontology.  He moved from there to be Curator of the Division of Paleontology in 1910, and then back to where he began, only this time as Curator of Stratigraphic Paleontology in 1932.  Bassler became the first Head Curator of Geology who was a paleontologist.  His main research interest from 1905 to 1931 was with the study of Paleogene bryozoans of the Atlantic and Gulf states, in collaboration with Ferdinand Canu of France.

William F. Foshag

William F. Foshag joined the United States National Museum’s Division of Mineralogy and Petrology as an assistant curator in 1919.  Foshag’s research was primarily devoted to the study of the geology and mineralogy of Mexico - between 1926 and 1941 he made several collecting trips there under the auspices of the Smithsonian’s Roebling Fund.  While serving as a representative of the USGS in its cooperative work with the Mexican government, Foshag was on the spot to study the eruption of Parícutin, a cinder cone volcano, when it spewed out of a farmer’s corn field in 1943.  Over the next two years he made follow-up visits to observe its evolution as it gradually buried the town of San Juan Parangaricutiro.  In 1946, he went to Japan for the United States government to supervise the grading, classifying, and appraising of diamonds captured from the Japanese during World War II.

G. Arthur Cooper

G. Arthur Cooper at a workstation in his office, 1980.  After retirement from federal service in 1974, he continued his research as paleobiologist emeritus until 1987 – 57 years after he began his Smithsonian employment with the Department of Geology in 1930.

During his childhood in New York, G. Arthur Cooper, known to all as “Gus,” developed an interest in natural history by collecting insects and minerals.  His interest in minerals grew during his adolescence, and was sustained through college at Colgate University, where in 1924 he received his BS degree in chemistry with a minor in geology.  With an MS from Colgate in 1926 (one of the first MS degrees offered by that institution), Gus Cooper continued his graduate studies at Yale University under Carl O. Dunbar and Charles Schuchert.  Under Schuchert’s direction, he began his study of fossil brachiopods, an interest he maintained throughout his career, distinguishing himself as an authority on brachiopods from the Paleozoic Era of geologic time.

Cooper received his Ph.D. in 1929, and came to the Smithsonian in 1930 as assistant curator in the Division of Stratigraphic Paleontology of the United States National Museum, a path trod by Bassler before him.  Hiring Cooper may have been the best thing Bassler ever did during his tenure as Head Curator.  When Cooper arrived, Charles E. Resser oversaw the Museum’s Cambrian fossils, and Cooper did everything else but plants and vertebrates.  After Resser died Cooper did the Cambrian, too.  Gus Cooper had a long and distinguished career and produced many landmark publications and received numerous honors.

The Beginning of the Space Race

Shortly after Head Curator Foshag’s death in 1956, and Cooper’s appointment as Head Curator of the Department of Geology in 1957, the world was rudely awakened when Russia launched Sputnik on October 4.  The fact that the Russians had launched the first artificial satellite shocked the United States to its boots.

Congress started to pour money into every federal agency that had anything to do with science.  Natural History got two new wings to make room for new scientists - East Wing in 1962, and West Wing in 1964.  This one event probably did more for scientific research at the Natural History building than any other!

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7. Fourth Home – Cooper’s Castle

New East Wing of the Natural History building, now known as the National Museum of Natural History, nearing completion on February 2, 1962.  In the center background is the Arts and Industry building, to its right the Smithsonian Castle, and to the left of A&I in the far distance is the Department of Education building under construction.
Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The Geology Department with Cooper at its head and the USGS cooperated to ensure new hires were not duplicating areas of paleontological research.  Paleontology grew from two scientists in 1944 to twenty in 1967 as Cooper sought to fill gaps in coverage of plant and animal groups in the Department.  At the same time, the USGS paleontologists grew to the point there were almost 150 telephone entries for paleontologists, clerks, photographers, secretaries, catalogers, preparators, and research assistants.  Altogether more than forty paleontologists were housed in the Natural History building - more than at any other place in the world.  Beginning in 1962, paleontologists of all stripes and their support moved from the 1910 Building into the new East Wing.  It is hard to say which was more welcome - more space and more staff, or the long-awaited arrival of air conditioning!

During this time, Cooper made a bold stroke that shaped the Department of Paleobiology as it is today.  He was the motivating force behind the split of the Department of Geology into two separate departments in 1963:  the Department of Paleobiology, and the Department of Mineral Sciences.  He reasoned that with two different departments emphasizing different aspects of geology, the prospects for a larger staff in each one might double the number of hires possible in a single Department of Geology.  His scheme worked, and he not only simulated growth, but also focused research on paleobiology.  As a welcome outcome of the split, the position of Head Curator was abolished, and Cooper continued as Chairman of the new Department of Paleobiology until 1967, when he was appointed Senior Paleobiologist.

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8. Treasures of the Smithsonian - Outstanding Collections in the Department of Paleobiology

Texas Mountains and Their Glass Menagerie

During the middle Permian Period plate tectonic was massing the continents together, forming the supercontinent, Pangaea.  Shallow seas in the tropics somewhere near the Equator flooded what eventually became western North America.  Reefs rimmed a deeper basin in what is now west Texas.  Like the of marine animals expected in a modern-day coral reef, the fossils of the Permian reef record shallow, warm-water marine life of incredible diversity.  For example, the selection of fossils includes algae, sponges, bryozoans, brachiopods, crinoids, conodonts, corals, ostracodes, gastropods, nautiloids, and many others. 

When they were alive, some of these animals made their skeletons of calcium carbonate, which over time becomes rock of the same composition - limestone.  Limestone will dissolve in even dilute solutions of hydrochloric acid, acetic acid, or formic acid.  During the process of fossilization, silica replaced the calcium carbonate of the fossils.  –But silica, the solid form of the mineral, quartz, will not dissolve in these acids.  So a block of limestone can be etched with acid, and liberate the exquisitely fragile silicified fossils without losing their shell anatomy.

Echinaurus, a spiny brachiopod replaced with silica. Courtesy Department of Paleobiology. Photograph by  Richard E. Grant
Glass Mountains of West Texas

In Texas where the Permian reef is exposed, the limestone weathers naturally, albeit at a much slower rate than in acid.  The silicified fossils are so abundant that the entire region is known as the Glass Mountains of west Texas.  In 1939 Smithsonian scientist G. Arthur Cooper began collecting blocks of limestone with silicified fossils from the Glass Mountains and other mountain ranges in the area. Soon they were working in cooperation with Norman Newell and his colleagues from the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Cooper was joined in 1957 by another Smithsonian Colleague, Richard E. Grant.  Over the years they brought back more than 50 tons of limestone to the Museum, which they etched in acid to divulge a bonanza of specimens.  They published their findings, “Permian Brachiopods of West Texas,” in six volumes of the Smithsonian Contributions to Paleobiology, running an incredible 3370 pages and 780 plates.  This remarkable collection is valuable not only for its importance to science, but also for the beauty of its amazingly delicate preservation.

G. Arthur (Gustav Arthur) Cooper and his wife, Josephine Cooper, are at work in his office in the Division of Invertebrate Paleontology, United States National Museum, now the National Museum of Natural History, June 1954.
Courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Richard E. Grant and G. Arthur Cooper taking a break in Marathon, Texas July 1963.  While collecting for their Glass Mountains study, they were regulars at the Big Bend Café.
Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.

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Smithsonian Dinosaurs, the Legacy of O. C. Marsh

Othniel Charles Marsh, who liked to be known as "Oh See," was born October 29, 1831, on a farm one mile from the Erie Canal, near Lockport, New York.  OC's mother died when he was three.  His father was an unsuccessful farmer, so OC spent a rather confused childhood, living partly with his father, partly with a stepmother, partly with uncles and aunts.  He was a real country boy without much consecutive schooling.  Not a very auspicious beginning for a lad who was to become the first formally appointed Vertebrate Paleontologist for the United States, thus directing funds toward the collection of our Triceratops.  Marsh was the author of 301 papers, including the naming of Triceratops in 1889.  Besides Triceratops, he named some of the most well-known dinosaurs such as Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Ceratosaurus, Diplodocus, Stegosaurus, and Camptosaurus. Marsh was President of the National Academy of Science for twelve years, and he also winner of the Cuvier Prize in 1897, given by the French Academy every three years for "the most remarkable work either on the Animal Kingdom or on Geology."

Othniel Charles Marsh
Courtesy Peabody Museum of Natural History

How did OC manage such a transformation?  His maternal uncle, George Peabody, was a self-made millionaire and a bachelor who believed it was his duty to see that his nieces and nephews were amply provided for.  OC convinced his Uncle George to pay for his Yale education, his graduate work in Germany, and the building of the Peabody Museum at Yale. Yale obliged by creating a new Professorship of Geology and Paleontology, and giving it to Marsh on July 24, 1866, although without salary.

With the completion of the Union Pacific Railway in 1869, Professor Marsh led four successive Yale student expeditions to the West.  By 1877, people were finding bones of enormous dinosaurs in Colorado and Wyoming, and sending them to OC at Yale.  But Marsh could not find time to both collect and describe this wealth of material, so he hired people to do the collecting and paid them out of his own pocket, courtesy of Uncle George's checkbook.

As fat as that checkbook was, OC drained it at an alarming rate.  But luck was on his side.  Remember that the organic act that established the USGS directed them to transfer their  collections to the National Museum after the Survey no longer needed them for investigations in progress.  That natural wealth included bones of huge dinosaurs, and the Survey needed someone with high standing in the scientific establishment to be responsible for the fossils.  OC was a logical choice, and in August 1882 he was appointed the first Vertebrate Paleontologist for the United States, thus assuring him of funds other than his own for field work and laboratory research.  Although the National Museum had no paid paleontologist until 1894, Marsh also held the position of Honorary Curator, Section of Vertebrate Fossils in the Department of Geology, from May 10, 1887, until his death.

In 1903 Charles Whitney Gilmore was hired as a preparator to work on the extensive O. C. Marsh dinosaur collection, after it was transferred from Yale University to the U.S. National Museum in the late 19th century.  Gilmore later became curator of fossil reptiles.  The illustration on this page is a beautiful pen and ink line drawing of the USNM type specimen of the dinosaur, <em>Ceratosaurus nasicornis </em>Marsh, drawn by Rudolph Weber under the direction of Gilmore.

During his ten years of active service on the Geological Survey, Marsh had at least fifty-four persons on his staff, some serving for a month or more during a field season, others employed for a year, or in the case of John Bell Hatcher, for as long as nine years.  Thirty-seven of them collected fossils in the Rocky Mountain region:  nine were preparators, who freed the bones from the rock matrix and assembled them; and another eight were either assistants in Paleontology, illustrators, or clerical helpers.

What did the USNM get from OC and the USGS?  After Marsh's death in 1899, Yale shipped 592 boxes of fossils in five freight cars, totaling 80 tons of specimens.  Prior to this there were four car loads containing 255 boxes sent in 1886, 1891, 1896, and 1898.  These form the core of our dinosaur collection, and many of these fossils are on exhibit, including our Triceratops, the first one in the world ever mounted for display.  It was prepared and put together from 1903 to 1905 in the old USNM building under the supervision of J. B. Hatcher.  When asked about the relative merit of Marsh and the other paleontologists with whom he had been associated, Hatcher, noted for his plain, unassuming manner, lit up and said with great feeling, "Marsh was the best of them all!"

Like his Uncle George, Marsh never married.  After a visit to Washington and New York, OC walked home from the railway station at New Haven in a heavy rain.  He became ill, but insisted on coming to the Museum every day, until finally Marsh had to be sent home.  Within a week he died of pneumonia on March 18, 1899.

Springer Collection - Animals with Roots, Stems, and Wriggly-Squiggly Arms
Most of the National Museum of Natural History’s fossil echinoderm collection, and the large library associated with it, were donated by Frank Springer in 1911.  Springer was a lawyer and businessman who spent most of his life in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  There he was widely known for his skill in resolving major land-grant disputes in the southwest, and for his influence on New Mexico’s early economic development.  His name is familiar to paleontologists, however, because of his interest in crinoids.  At an early age Springer made treks from his boyhood home in Wapello, Iowa, to collect crinoids from rocks exposed in bluffs along the Mississippi River at Burlington, about 30 miles south.  His questions about crinoids of the Burlington Limestone, and their possible evolutionary relationships to one another, led to his association with Charles Wachsmuth.

Cactocrinus denticulatus
Frank Springer ( Photograph by Forest Gahn.)

Wachsmuth was born in Hanover, Germany in 1829, educated as a lawyer there, and on account of poor health abandoned law and moved to New York as an agent for a Hamburg shipping house.  In 1854 he moved to Burlington, Iowa, found work as a shopkeeper, and was immediately attracted by the fossils of the Burlington Limestone, especially the crinoids.  Before long he had a magnificent collection, became a serious student of crinoids, and traveled extensively in Europe to study in the British Museum and other famous research institutions.

When Frank Springer came to Burlington to practice law, Wachsmuth stirred up his enthusiasm in the crinoids, which led to a 20-year collaboration that included a series of classic monographs and papers published between 1877 and 1897.  They invested a great deal of time and personal funds to prepare and curate their cobined collection and library.  To be sure the collection would not be divided or neglected, Springer donated it and their library to the Smithsonian, which had just completed building the most fireproof natural history museum in North America.  In July 1911, 269 boxes and crates weighing 24,500 pounds were loaded in “a fine steel express (railroad) car having springs like those of a Pullman,” and shipped from Burlington to Washington.  Springer also provided an endowment to ensure continued upkeep of the collection, which is available for study by “investigators of recognized standing in any branch of the Echinoderms, and in accordance with the regulations of the National Museum.”

As a condition of his gift, Springer was allowed full use and control of the collection during his lifetime, as well as office space for his research in rooms 308 and 312 of the Museum.  The Smithsonian also honored him with the title, “Associate in Paleontology.”

Today their unparalleled collection and additions to it comprise the largest repository of fossil crinoids in the world.

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Cushman Collection of Foraminifera - From Tiny Things Come Big Fortunes

The National Museum of Natural History houses the world’s largest collection of some very tiny organisms, known as foraminifera.  Although microscopic, these fossils are an extremely useful group in solving the structure of layered rocks underground, where they are out of sight far below Earth’s surface.  The National Collection of foraminifera is an aggregate of smaller collections, and the hands-down prize is the Cushman collection.  Joseph Cushman was a pioneer in the study of foraminifera who willed his collection of approximately 175,000 mounted slides and 100,000 catalogue cards to the Smithsonian, where it is the largest single foraminifer collection at the National Museum of Natural History.

Joseph Cushman in 1920
Bolivina striatula, a benthic foram

Hard Work and Good Connections

Joseph Cushman was born of New England pilgrim stock in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, on January 31, 1881.  As a young boy he was fascinated by natural history, and followed through with a BS magna cum laude from Harvard in 1903.  Since his father was in poor health, Cushman had to earn his way through school.  In the six years between graduation in 1903 and his doctorate from Harvard in 1909, Cushman married, supported a growing family, and published 43 papers on plants and invertebrates, including foraminifera.  Shortly before his Ph.D. and for some time later he worked at the Museum of the Boston Society of Natural History, which led him to occasional research at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.  While at Woods Hole he met the world’s leading specialist on fossil and living crabs, Mary Jane Rathbun of the United States National Museum.  Her encouragement influenced him to make the study of foraminifera his life work, and their acquaintance started his mutually beneficial connection with the Smithsonian which lasted until Cushman’s death.

Big Things Can Come in Little Packages

Foraminifera are tiny protists - essentially amoebas with a shell, typically between 0.1 and 1.0 mm in size.  The shell is shot full of holes, which allows much of the protoplasm on the inside to poke through to the outside.  Some live in sediment of the sea floor (benthic) and others live floating in the water at depths of less than 300 feet (planktic).  Foraminifers are excellent indicators of past climate change because they are abundant, they evolve rapidly, they are found all over the world, and they are sensitive to small changes in the environment.  And because it is also relatively easy to identify different species, they are extremely useful in determining the geologic age of the rocks in which they are found.

Joseph Cushman was at the right place at the right time.  He joined the United States Geological Survey in 1912 to work on foraminifera of the Gulf Coastal Plain.  During the next decade the expanding search for oil had a great impact on geology.  Scientists quickly realized that invertebrate fossils, which had traditionally been used for geologic age determinations in field mapping, could not be used to monitor progress during borehole drilling because they were destroyed by the drill bit and became unidentifiable among the small sediment chips brought to the surface as borehole cuttings. During his consulting work with the Marland Oil Company in the early 1920s, Joseph Cushman demonstrated that the small size of foraminifera, their abundance in a small amount of sediment and their utility as age and environmental indicators made them extremely useful for borehole age determinations and correlation of subsurface strata.

It took years, but Cushman compiled numerous faunal lists, faunal summaries, detailed local and long-distance correlations, and summaries of the sedimentary environments in which the fossil foraminifera lived.  By 1921, Cushman had published 41 papers and shared in monographs on fossil and living foraminifera.  These established him as the leading expert on foraminifera at a time when oil geology was just beginning to offer spectacular financial rewards for a workable technique to determine the age of subsurface rock units.  On December 31, 1921, Cushman resigned from the US Geological Survey, and was free to engage in commercial micropaleontology not only in the United States, but also anywhere else in the world.  His success stimulated not only the need for micropaleontologists, but also for college courses on the subject, so that soon the demand for relevant scientific literature on foraminifera exceeded the supply.

Passing the Torch

Cushman built his own laboratory in 1923 at Sharon, Massachusetts.  He had informal working relationships with Harvard, MIT, and Radcliffe, in which advanced students came to the Cushman Lab for instruction.  Cushman took no compensation for this.  Scientists from all over the world passed through his lab to take advantage of his massive collection of type material, by far the largest of its kind.  Many of those who worked at the laboratory or studied there enjoyed the relaxed camaraderie, and were invited to join the Cushman family in hiking, camping, and seeing the New England scenery in all seasons.

J. A. Cushman in his laboratory at Sharon, Massachusetts, 1948
Courtesy of the Cushman Foundation

More than any other person, Joseph Cushman broke the mold of simply naming species of foraminifera and noting their geographic distribution.  He did innovative research that enabled geologists to date layers of subsurface rocks and use them to identify oil traps.  He established the requirements for successful oil exploration of his day and a classification scheme that became adopted all over the world.  After Cushman’s death in 1949, his wife and three children joined with a group of paleontologists to form the Cushman Foundation for Foraminiferal Research, to continue his legacy of financial support of research, and its publication.  The most prominent activity of the Foundation is the Journal of Foraminiferal Research, published quarterly with original papers of international interest dealing with foraminifera and allied organisms.  Next, in recognition of outstanding contributions in the study of foraminifera, The Joseph A. Cushman Award for Foraminiferal Research honors a researcher selected annually for scientific achievement.  Finally, the nurturing of deserving young scientists is supported by the Student Research Awards to support M.S. or Ph.D. candidates who have no other source of funding.  Although Cushman and the Laboratory in Sharon are no longer with us, his magnificent collection and the Foundation in his name are indispensable to science, and a treasure of the Smithsonian.

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Burgess Shale - Portent of Things to Come, and Things to be Left Behind

The Burgess Shale Fauna in the Canadian Rockies contains fossils with some of the most spectacular examples of soft-bodied preservation in the fossil record. The layers in which the fossils occur at 7000 feet in elevation are in a zone 10 to 12 feet thick at its maximum, and 65 feet in length.  The outcrop is a mere sliver, high on the slope of a ridge that connects Wapta Mountain with Mount Field.  The site is now known as the Burgess Shale quarry on Fossil Ridge.

Burgess Shale fossil quarry blasted out on the steep slope of Fossil Ridge in British Columbia.  Walcott is standing to the right of the others, wearing a slouch hat.
Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution. 

When Charles D. Walcott of the United States Geological Survey was appointed Secretary of the Smithsonian on January 31, 1907, he inherited many administrative burdens.  But as Secretary he was free of confining his geologic work to the United States, as he had been required to do while with the USGS.  He was the world’s foremost authority on the Cambrian System.  While working in the Canadian Rockies during the field season of 1909, he made one of the most profound discoveries known to paleontology - the extraordinary fossils of the Burgess Shale.  Not only are they the world’s best-known example of soft-bodied preservation, important for the exquisite clarity of the details of their soft-part anatomy, but also for the tremendous diversity of the fauna for so early in the record of evolution - as well as for a snapshot of a marine community in the Middle Cambrian Period, about 505 million years ago.

Walcott engaged his whole family in the enterprise of excavating slabs of fossiliferous rock, hauling them 800 feet down the mountain to base camp, and splitting them open in the hope of finding the fossils.  Then in the morning, they went back up the same 800 feet to work the outcrop, which soon became a quarry.  After splitting the slabs and retrieving the fossils at the base camp, they were packed into wooden crates and hauled another 3000 feet down grade to the railhead in the town of Field.

Walcott collected at the quarry during the field seasons of 1910, 1911, 1912, 1913, and 1917.  It was hard physical work, and Walcott even oversaw the setting of dynamite charges.  His feat is even more remarkable when we consider during these years Walcott went from age 60 to 67.  And was grief-stricken as he lost not only his wife to a train accident in March 1911, but also his son Charlie to tuberculosis in 1913 while he was a student at Yale. If that weren’t tragedy enough, Walcott’s second son, Stuart, was killed in an aerial fight over France in 1917.  There was no more dynamiting during the field seasons of 1919 and 1924 - Walcott and his field assistants collected from the debris piles.  The Burgess Shale quarry is now in Yoho National Park, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site, protected from commercial exploitation.

The Burgess Shale, and similar deposits found in the past few decades, provide us with an exquisite record of some of the earliest animals.  Some of these fossils represent groups common today; others are unlike anything in modern oceans. Some of these may be evolutionary blind-ends that went nowhere.  Altogether about 170 fossil species have been described from the Burgess Shale.  The Department of Paleobiology holds all of Walcott’s collection, about 68,000 specimens and one of only two large collections of Burgess Shale fossils.

Dasycladacean alga (green pipe cleaners), Nisusia burgessensis (white brachiopod), Marpolia spissa (green filamentous alga), Choia carteri (pink spinose sponge on right), Burgessochaeta setigera (polychaete worm in substrate), Olenoides serratus (large trilobite on left), Sidneyia inexpectens (large brown arthropod on right), Scenella amii (tan monoplacophoran, right foreground)

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9. Smaller Gems among the Collections

Thomas J. Bones Collection

Thomas J. Bones, photographed in 1977 at an excavation in the Clarno Hills. Mr.  Bones collected here for about 40 years.

On the John Day River near the community of Clarno in Wheeler County in north-central Oregon is a remarkable area for any student of paleobotany.  Fossil woods, leaves, and exquisitely preserved fruits and seeds are found in profusion together with occasional mammal parts and insects.  Thomas J. Bones first visited the “Clarno nut beds” in 1942, when he began a hobby of collecting that lasted almost 40 years.  At first only the large seeds were obvious to him, but over the years his technique became so refined that finding tiny specimens the size of a poppy seed became routine.  The larger specimens were worked out of the rock matrix in the field as a hard-rock mining operation, by digging rocks and breaking them with a sledge.  The smaller seeds were extracted in his laboratory, where he further broke down rock matrix, screened it, and isolated the seeds with a magnifying glass. Through his years of  collecting he recovered literally thousands of specimens of fossil fruit and microscopic seeds.

About 50 million years ago in the Eocene Epoch, these plants were probably growing in a tropical climate similar to that of present-day forests of southern Asia..  Mountains rose up, streams flooded, and volcanoes erupted.  Plants and animals were periodically buried by flood deposits and landslides, with volcanic ash mixed in. Through these lucky events they became the richest-known assemblage of fossil fruits and seeds of that age in North America All this happened in the right combination of minerals, water, and heat to distinguish the fossils of the Bones collection by the extraordinary preservation of their anatomy and external morphology in three dimensions.  Specimens are perfectly preserved inside the ash, now turned to tuff; and others are completely replaced by silica.

Eocene fossilized twigs and nuts, possibly walnuts (Juglandaceae? and Hamamelidaceae?), USNM Lots 354771-354776 on same slab).
Courtesy of the Department of Paleobiology. Photograph by Forest Gahn

The value to science of the serious amateur collector can not be better illustrated than by Tom Bones.  Through his tireless efforts more than 145 genera and 173 species of plants have been described from the Clarno Formation, with more to come.  Many of these would never have been known without the work of this persistent and careful man.  In sharp contrast to the arid Clarno hills of today, he showed us a lush landscape in the Eocene of climbing vines and palms ranging from tropical to subtropical.  Mr. Bones’ patient, meticulous, and loving preparation of this material, donated in 1960, has given us a truly remarkable collection of plants from the past.

LaCoe Collection

Ralph Dupuy LaCoe was born November 14, 1824, the youngest of five children, in Inkerman, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania.  Country schools provided his limited education, supplanted by his mother’s home schooling, apparently with great success.  For example, before LaCoe was of age he taught school for several years in his neighborhood, apparently also with success, as one of his pupils was the young girl who became his wife.  His father was a carpenter, a trade LaCoe learned and practiced with the reputation of being a skilled, meticulous craftsman.

About 1850 LaCoe and his three brothers went to their grandfather’s land in Nicholson Township, which they began to timber.  They cut railroad ties for the Delaware & Lackawanna Railroad, and Ralph began his modest fortune by investing his proceeds more or less fortunately in coal lands near home in the Lackawanna anthracite coal field, not yet developed.  Pending improvement of the property he continued working as a carpenter.  By 1858 he is recorded as a real estate dealer, and through diligence and hard work he gradually became a manufacturer, banker, financier, and public officer.

Stem of Sigillaria, a scale-tree, from the Wyoming
Valley near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
Courtesy of the Department of Paleobiology
Photograph by Jerry Persall.
Ralph Dupuy LaCoe

About 1865 LaCoe’s health deteriorated from years of overwork, and he was forced to restrict the activities of his business ventures.  While resting in Florida’s mild winter climate, he passed the time by collecting shells along the beach, and began to study marine life of the coast, as well.  When he returned to Pennsylvania he took along his growing interest in natural history, and before long LaCoe was collecting fossils from the Coal Measures of the Pittston region.  Apparently he collected with enthusiasm, enjoying a recuperative and healthful hobby he found to be free from the cares and responsibilities of business.  LaCoe often remarked that he owed the added years of his life to his pleasure of collecting, and life out-of-doors.  Like Thomas Bones, at first he worked as collector and amateur; later he became systematic and professional.

Before long LaCoe met J. Peter Lesley, the state geologist, and Leo Lesquereux, who was preparing his great work on the Coal Flora of the United States for the Second Geological Survey of Pennsylvania.  Lesquereux and LaCoe enjoyed a warm friendship between paleobotanist and patron that lasted until Lesquereux’s death.  Meanwhile, LaCoe’s work in the Carboniferous flora broadened out to include plant life of the entire Paleozoic Era.  Not only did he gather material from the Pittston-Wilkes Barre Coal Measures in the Northern anthracite field of Pennsylvania, but he also collected other anthracite fields.  Then he went on to the Coal Measures of Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Illinois, and Rhode Island.  Becoming impatient with the pace of his own efforts, he hired collectors from time-to-time, besides purchasing many additional collections.   He traveled in Great Britain and Europe, and by purchase or exchange obtained Paleozoic plant collections from coalfields in Britain, France, and Germany, as well as from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

Eventually LaCoe branched out from his beloved fossil plants.  Animals with hard parts have a fair chance of being preserved as fossils, but delicate ones like insects and millipedes rarely are.  Those rare occasions are usually in association with fossil plants, which gave LaCoe an advantage in finding the beasts.  His initial curiosity with them grew into a fascination that increased to the end of his life.  In later years he also added large number of fossil crustaceans, fish, and molluscs to his already enormous collection.

LaCoe was a superb collector, but that was only the tip of the iceberg.  He realized the handicaps facing paleontologists because of the enormous labor and expense of discovering fossils in the field, collecting samples, and preparing them.  He decided his first service to science would be to obtain the specimens and place them in the hands of the scientists.  He routinely supplied material to Lesquereux, Dawson, Scudder, Cope, Hall, and Packard.  This made it possible for the specialists to use their own time more fully for research instead of field collecting, and in some cases LaCoe paid for preparation of their manuscripts and costly drawings.

By now LaCoe was in the same pickle that all collectors must face – THE SPACE PROBLEM.  His collection more than filled the entire upper floor of the Pittston First National Bank building.  In effect that floor was a first-rate museum.  LaCoe was a modest man, and its existence was unknown even to most residents of the town.  LaCoe believed the National Museum in Washington was destined to become the center of biological and geological research in this country, and in 1891 determined to place the great collection of fossil plants, insects, crustaceans, and fish in the Smithsonian.  His fossils would be in a fireproof repository, where they would receive the necessary preservative care and where for all time they would be accessible to specialists for study.

What did the Smithsonian get?  About 100,000 Paleozoic plant fossils, including over 575 described or figured collections; 800 Dakota plants, including a large number of types; 5000 specimens of fossil insects, over 200 of which are types; and 400 specimens of fossil insects.  The fossil plant and fish collections, filling 315 boxes, arrived in 1895, by far the greater portion of the specimens having been labeled and catalogued in Pittston.  In the words of G. Browne Goode, Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian, speaking of the arrival of the plants and fish, “the transfer of the magnificent LaCoe collection from Pittston, Pennsylvania, the home of the donor, to Washington was completed during the present year.  It was included in 315 boxes.  It is not too much to say that the National Museum has never received a gift of greater scientific value or importance than that acquired thorough the generosity of Mr. LaCoe.”  Who says one man can’t make a difference?

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McLuckie Collection

Foliage of Pecopteris, a tree-fern from Mazon Creek.
Courtesy of the Department of Paleobiology
Photograph by Jerry Persall.

For most of his working life, John M. McLuckie operated a dragline for a coal company in Illinois.  The coal was in seams below ground, overlain by layers of rocks.  In these ancient rocks are the remnants of more than 600 plant and animal species that lived during the Pennsylvanian Period of geologic time.  How did the coal and fossils get there?  About 300 million years ago Illinois was awash in vast tropical swamps on river deltas, formed by sluggish streams oozing their way to a shallow sea to the west.  Today’s bayous of Louisiana, Mississippi, and the Orinoco Delta of Venezuela are much the same.  Plant debris from lush forests growing on the deltas fell into the swamps, accumulated, and led to the formation of coal.  At the same time many animals lived in the warm shallow water along the shoreline.  When these marine animals died, their remains sank to the bottom where they were gradually buried by mud washing in from the rivers.  Rapid burial helped to protect the remains from being destroyed.   Sometime after the mud had turned to rock, minerals in groundwater reacted with the organic remains of all kinds and precipitated nodules of iron carbonate around them, protecting the fossils.

Now back to Mr. McLuckie.  His job on the dragline was to expose the coal seams by striping away layers of overlying rock, and scoop the product to the surface.  Scattered throughout the rubble piles of the waste rock were nodules containing Mazon Creek fossils, so named because they were first found along Mazon Creek in northeastern Illinois.  Mr. McLuckie’s work centered around Coal City, not far from the town of Mazon, itself.

With no amenities near the jobsite, Mr. McLuckie brought his lunch to work.  During dinner break he cracked open nodules for entertainment, and began to collect the fossiliferous ones.  Soon his hobby became his passion.  When Mr. McLuckie’s heirs donated his collection to NMNH in 1989, it consisted of 2500 fossil specimens of plants and animals from the Pennsylvanian Period, representing both terrestrial and near-shore environments.  Not only do these fossils give us an extraordinary view of biodiversity 300 million years ago, they also illustrate the importance of packing only a light snack for lunch.

Bundenbach Fossils

In Germany, a thick sequence of black slates contains another rare assemblage of splendidly preserved fossils of soft-bodied animals of the ocean deep.  They accumulated in an oxygen-free oceanic basin resembling that in which the Burgess Shale of Cambrian age was preserved, only about 140 million years later during the Devonian Period.  Not only was the environment of deposition similar – but also the magnificent preservation and diversity rivals that of the Burgess Shale.  Widely quarried throughout history, the Hunsrückshieffer, or Hunsrück Slate, was exploited for roofing shingles up and down the Rhine and Moselle valleys for more than 400 years.  Although the fossils are usually small in size, quarrymen had a knack for finding them, and had no trouble in finding collectors willing to pay a good price.  The quarry pits were small and local, with more than 600 known to have operated at some time or other.  The last survivor, the quarry at a little town near the French border named Bundenbach, is now closed, making these fossils even more valuable with every passing day.

Furcaster decheni, a Devonian brittle-star on a piece of roofing slate Bundenbach, Germany.
Courtesy of Department of Paleobiology, Photograph by Jerry Persall.

In what kind of a place did these animals live?  Mud was being deposited in a number of basins in the proto-Atlantic Ocean, offshore from a landmass that was forming as North America and ancestral Europe converged during the Devonian, about 390 million years ago.  Shallow places in the ocean near shore separated deep submarine basins from one another, but in the basins themselves mud was deposited to thicknesses of about 4400 feet – almost 7/8 of a mile!  The sedimentation rate was a steady drizzle of mud that buried many animals in their life positions – dying in their tracks, swaying in the water, or burrowing into the sea floor.  Water depth in the shallow places was on the order of 120 to 180 feet, as suggested by the well-developed eyes of arthropods and vertebrates that lived on the bottom where there was enough light to see.  Immediately after an animal died, and before decay destroyed the soft tissues, low oxygen levels on the deep sea floor favored the precipitation of pyrite, a mineral made of iron and sulfur.  Although pyritization of soft tissue is extremely rare in the fossil record, it is common in the Hunsrück Slate.  Separation of the Bundenbach fossils from the hard, fine-grained rock matrix is a challenge under any circumstances, but with the right technique pyrite makes it relatively easy to locate fossils buried unseen within the rock.  Having an X-ray image of an as-yet-unexposed fossil makes the task of the preparation much less of a hunt-and-pick operation.  The shallow-water bottoms were better oxygenated, and as a result these fossils are not pyritized.

So far more than 260 species have been described from the Hunsrück Slate along the main belt of deposits that runs for about 100 miles from northwest to southeast.  The towns of Bundenbach and Gemünden boast the best-preserved fossils of the entire region.  So who makes up this remarkable menagerie?  The usual suspects are typical Devonian animals such as jellyfish, sponges, corals, brachiopods, cephalopods, conularids, gastropods, and trace fossils of worms.  Trilobites and echinoderms are the stars of the show, with an occasional rare appearance of a vertebrate.  Crinoids, starfish, and sea cucumbers give the echinoderms variety as well as abundance, while the vertebrates are mostly flattened jawless fish that lurked on or near the sea floor.

Although the Smithsonian’s entire collection of Bundenbach fossils fills just two cases, their exquisite preservation is breath-taking.  Unlike most of our treasures, collected by people who realized the scientific importance of the fossils, countless Bundenbach specimens were purchased over many years by the Hauser family of Cincinnati who knew little, nor cared much about the identification or paleobiology of their material.  They bought fossils and minerals from Germany based primarily on their aesthetic appeal.  In 1984, the estate of Trudy Hauser donated 3320 specimens of fossils, minerals and rocks of all kinds from many places, including Bundenbach, to the Smithsonian.

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Kellogg Collection of Fossil Marine Mammals

Arthur Remington Kellogg in 1955, holding the skull of an Amazon river dolphin, Inia geoffrensis. Director of the United States National Museum from 1948 to 1962 (now the National Museum of Natural History), Kellogg began his Smithsonian employment with the Division of Mammals in 1928. Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Probably the greatest collection of fossil marine mammals in the world was assembled by Remington Kellogg. Kellogg was an Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian, and Director of the United States National Museum. Born October 5, 1892, in Davenport, Iowa, before completing high school he decided to attend a university where there were natural history collections.  Kellogg chose the University of Kansas, working his way through school as salesman in a dry goods store, worker in the smokehouse of a meat-packing plant, cement worker on a construction crew, and traveling salesman - selling trunks.  In Kellogg’s freshman year, he began a lifelong friendship with Alexander Wetmore, then with the Bureau of Biological Survey, and eventually Curator of Birds at the National Museum, and Secretary of the Smithsonian.  Wetmore helped Kellogg to get summer jobs at the Biological Survey, which was a much better deal for his future than meat packing, construction, or selling trunks.

Beginning at Kansas in entomology, Kellogg later switched to mammals and made his first acquaintance with skeletons of whale, porpoise, walrus, and seal there.  Before he left Kansas, Kellogg decided to study the evolution of marine mammals, and moved to the University of California at Berkeley to do it.  John C. Merriam gave Kellogg a teaching fellowship, and invited him to study the fossil record of seals, sea lions, and walruses found in California.  One of his papers in graduate school, Pinnipeds from Miocene and Pleistocene Deposits of California, still stands as the foundation of modern research on fossil pinnipeds.

Interrupted by service in World War I, Kellogg transferred from zoology to vertebrate paleontology upon his return to Berkeley.  In 1920 he got an offer he couldn’t refuse – Assistant Biologist in the Biological Survey, with headquarters in Washington, D. C.  Who else should be in Washington but J. C. Merriam, Kellogg’s advisor at Berkeley, and now President of the Carnegie Institution of Washington?  Merriam arranged a research associateship of the Carnegie for Kellogg, a position he held from 1921 to 1943.  A steady flow of grants from the Carnegie helped Kellogg to do research on marine mammals at the same time he tackled extensive projects for the Biological Survey.  Such a project in 1929 sent him to Alabama to collect zeuglodont bones and teeth to augment archaeocete (ancient whale) collections in the National Museum.  His monograph, A Review of the Archaeoceti, published in 1936, is a landmark in the literature of fossil whales.

Merriam’s increased administrative duties at Carnegie stole his time for paleontology, so he encouraged Kellogg to take on one of his cherished dreams, the study of the fossil marine mammals eroding from the Calvert Cliffs of Maryland.  For Kellogg, the most fascinating aspect of marine mammals is the way in which existing mammalian organs have been modified for life in the sea.  His doctoral thesis, delayed largely because of the war, explored this theme and drew heavily upon his own research.  Published in 1928, The History of Whales – Their Adaptation to Life in the Water, established Kellogg as an authority in the science of whales, and is still one of the best summaries available.

Skulls of Miocene cetaceans collected from Calvert Cliffs by Kellogg

Kellogg’s thesis was his springboard to the Smithsonian as Assistant Curator of Mammals.  He did this like he did everything else, and steadily rose to Curator, Director of the U. S. National Museum, and Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian.  But it also launched him in a related activity, the regulation of whaling.  Two years after his Ph.D., Kellogg went to Berlin as a delegate to the first of a series of conferences among experts on whales, held under the auspices of the League of Nations.  This was the seed for the International Convention of 1946 providing for the establishment of the International Whaling Commission.  Kellogg was United States Commissioner on the International Whaling Commission from 1949 to 1967, Vice-chairman from 1949 to 1951, and Chairman from 1952 to 1954.  At that time little thought was given to conservation, and probably only somebody like Kellogg could have made much headway in such drastic measures such as a complete ban on blue and humpback whales in the Southern Ocean.

Text and picture selection by Raymond Rye, Department of Paleobiology, with thanks for generous help from Paleobiology’s staff, immeasurable contributions from Ellis L. Yochelson, (deceased Research Associate), and editing and graphics from Jerry Persall, (Graduate Volunteer, Paleontological Training Program 2002)

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