Barnum Brown: The Man Who Discovered Tyrannosaurus rex

David Norman enjoyed an insightful tribute to a fossil hunter, but feels the public may not concur

September 9, 2010

In 1905, Henry Fairfield Osborn created the most evocative name of any prehistoric animal: Tyrannosaurus rex. In terms of global impact, that name must rank ahead of the coining of the name dinosaur by Richard Owen in 1842. T. rex was based on a comparatively incomplete assortment of bones collected between 1902 and 1905 from Montana's remote and forbidding (and equally evocatively named) Hell Creek outcrops - where else would one reasonably expect to find a T. rex? - by an extremely energetic, tough, resourceful and very gifted field assistant by the name of Barnum Brown.

Osborn was appointed to the American Museum of Natural History, New York, in 1891 to found the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology. Born into an extremely wealthy family, and scion of the Sturges and the Osborns, he was clearly a part of the American aristocracy and his family's business connections would stand him in good stead where fundraising was concerned; a fact that was of considerable importance to the administration of the museum.

Brown's background could not have been more different. He was born on 12 February 1873 (and therefore shares a birthday with Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, among others) in Carbondale, Kansas, of the Browns (William and Clara), who were successful and resourceful frontier-farmers of the Midwest. This book describes many of the personal and physical attributes of the Browns, and from an English perspective they remind me strongly of those described so eloquently by Thomas Hughes in Tom Brown's Schooldays.

Barnum Brown's memorably alliterative name finds its origin in the fame and publicity attending P.T. Barnum's Traveling World's Fair of the 1870s; Brown's elder brother Frank plucked "Barnum" from the air to settle family disagreements over the name of the newborn. A comparatively uneventful early childhood followed, until in 1889, at the age of 16, Brown was taken by his father on a four-month covered-wagon expedition through the American Midwest "while it was still wild". This experience appears to have ingrained in him a wish to explore, see new sights and experience what the world had to offer; slices of luck and a steely, obsessive drive would enable him to fulfil such desires and, in doing so, become something of an Indiana Jones-style celebrity.

Upon his return from this first expedition, Brown was sent to high school in Lawrence, Kansas, and from there he entered Kansas University, where he came under the influence of palaeontologist Samuel Wendell Williston, who fired in him a desire to study fossils and geology. These were heady and notorious days for fossil hunters. Williston had been an assistant to Othniel Charles Marsh at Yale University before migrating west to Kansas after being caught up (and lightly burned) in the "bone wars" between Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

Accompanying expeditions to collect fossils from the badlands of the Midwest with Williston honed Brown's skills as an observer and collector, and Williston was able to recommend Brown to the American Museum of Natural History (and Osborn specifically) as a collector of considerable ability and promise. Lured away from Kansas to complete his degree studies at Columbia University and collect fossils for Osborn, Brown went from strength to strength, even if his academic studies were compromised by his time spent in the field.

Osborn wished to establish "imperial" collections in New York that would rival those developed at Yale by Marsh and others being developed in Pittsburgh and funded by the industrial might of Andrew Carnegie. And, as posterity would show, Brown proved to be the man for the task. Across the decades he showed amazing endurance and fossil-finding ability as he toured not only the American West, but much of the globe, amassing the most spectacular collections, particularly of dinosaur and mammal fossils, that would grace the great new exhibition halls of his museum and create a veritable temple to ancient life that would do much to bolster Osborn's and the museum's reputation.

Towards the end of his extraordinary and long life (he died in 1963, shortly before his 90th birthday), Brown became a significant celebrity in his own right, through a combination of the publicity that surrounded his discoveries (carefully promoted by the museum) and his judicious use of the media to raise public awareness and to encourage private sponsorship for his expeditions.

There have been tributes to Brown in the past - notably R.T. Bird's Bones for Barnum Brown: Adventures of a Dinosaur Hunter (1985) and Edwin (Ned) Colbert's Men and Dinosaurs: The Search in Field and Laboratory (1968) - but none has benefited from the Brown archive to the extent that this book has.

Written by American Museum of Natural History researchers (and vertebrate palaeontologists to boot), this volume has a depth and understanding of the history of the subject and Brown's place in it that is difficult to surpass. And it is all the more valuable because it gives more of an insight into a genuinely multifaceted man: driven, self-centred, adventurous, entrepreneurial, a gambler in many aspects of this life; and to leaven the mix it is enlivened by just a whiff of the jauntiness of the charismatic sexual adventurer and spy - Indiana Jones indeed!

I enjoyed reading this book, but I am a vertebrate palaeontologist and reasonably well versed in the history of the subject - so what would you expect?

I imagine that the inclusion of the name Tyrannosaurus in the book title will help to attract potential readers, but I doubt that its contents will find that large an audience.

It is in the end a rather dry and dusty volume, quite densely written, and it relies heavily on archive photographs, annotations and referenced text. Indeed, it has far more in common with a "history and philosophy of science" text than one that can genuinely cross into the territory of an audience within the realm of the public understanding of science. To achieve the latter, the topic would have had to be treated very differently.

Barnum Brown: The Man Who Discovered Tyrannosaurus rex

By Lowell Dingus and Mark A. Norell. University of California Press. 384pp, £20.95. ISBN 9780520252646. Published 16 April 2010

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