All posts by Paul D Brinkman

I am Assistant Director of the Paleontology & Geology Research Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, NC. In this capacity I manage the lab and do technical work in vertebrate paleontology, including fieldwork and fossil preparation. I also pursue my own research program in history of science, especially nineteenth and early twentieth century geology and vertebrate paleontology.

A marvel of unpreparedness

Elmer S. Riggs, vertebrate paleontologist at Chicago’s Field Museum, was also a poet who crafted whimsical verses inspired by his prehistoric trade. His admiring granddaughter, Marian Maas, proudly delivered a selection of these unpublished rhymes to historian Paul D. Brinkman at an interview at the Field Museum in 2000. Below are two examples with unknown dates of origin.

The Tragic Apatasaur

The Apatasaur grew so big and fat,
With never a shield to cover his slat.
His teeth were short and his claws were blunt,
And he was not built for the fighting stunt.

The robber-beasts fell on his helpless hide,
And they sliced him long and they sliced him wide:
They reveled and fattened on his cumbrous bulk
And left him stranded: a helpless hulk.

Naught but his frame was left beside
The mud-flat there at the ebbing tide.
When the waves came in and covered him o’er
With sand from the deep, and mud from the shore.

The ages passed with their work and play,
And a bone-digger came on a lucky day.
To the crumbling cliff where Apatasaur lay.
He picked and he shoveled and he dug him out:
A creature to be wondered and talked about.

Then they mounted him in the relic hall
Hung with creatures great and creatures small.
And they pointed him out from all the rest
As a marvel of UNPREPAREDNESS.

-Elmer S. Riggs

A bone digger and his Apatosaur in the relic hall
A bone digger with his Apatosaur in the relic hall

Riggs’ second poem has no title:

I am the geological
Scissors and Paste
I piece together
what the centuries waste
I dig in the rocks
and I delve in the sand.
I gather strange creatures from sea and from land

I am the geological
Scissors and Paste
I piece together
what the centuries waste
I dig in the rocks
and I delve in the sand
I gather strange creatures
from sea and from land.

-Elmer S. Riggs

A scan of Riggs' original manuscript
A scan of Riggs’ original manuscript

-Transcriptions, writing, and technical support supplied in part by Michelle Sclafani.

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Marian Maas reflects on her grandfather, Elmer S. Riggs

Marian Maas was a beloved wife, mother and grandmother and a kindergarten teacher who loved history. In her retirement, she collected and restored antique dolls. She passed away in late May of this year.

Marian was also the granddaughter of Elmer S. Riggs, a vertebrate paleontologist at Chicago’s Field Museum from 1898 through 1942. In the summer of 2000, she met with historian of science Paul D. Brinkman at the museum to discuss her late grandfather.

Following an exhaustive tour of the paleontology collections and exhibits, Paul and Marian retired to the former’s office to discuss Elmer’s family life and personality. As Paul explains at the beginning of the interview, there is a great deal of information in the written record about Elmer’s work, but comparatively little about his personal life. Fortunately, Marian was eager to talk. She spoke about her grandfather and his family for more than an hour. She was very fond of him, remembering him as the person who got her interested in science. According to Marian, Elmer was the glue that held the family together:

“He was family oriented, and we spent lots of Christmases there [with Elmer in Chicago] or they came to us for Christmas. So, we had a very strong family feeling that he kept together even with three different wives, you know. [Elmer widowed three times.] They fit in, and I never knew anything about their families; it just seemed like once they married him they were a Riggs along with everybody else. They were in our family, not theirs anymore. That’s kind of the way that seems.”

Riggs family portrait ca. 1933 with Elmer and Fannie in the middle
Riggs family portrait ca. 1933 with Elmer and Fannie in the middle

In her childhood, when Elmer still worked for the Field Museum, he would take Marian and her sisters on tours of the exhibits. She remembered how he “always welcomed us here [at the Field Museum] also, you know, and … every time we came to Chicago we always had to come here to see some of our old friends, you know, some of the old exhibits.” For her eighth birthday, Elmer gave Marian a prepared sheep’s skull with all of the individual bones festooned with neat pen-and-ink labels. Recollecting her gift in later years, she thought it was “rare for a grandfather to send an eight-year-old girl a sheep skull for her birthday, but it was perfect as far as I was concerned.” Marian went on to collect skeletons herself, remarking that even though her family did not have enough money to purchase mounted sets, she and her sister (with the assistance of their father) would create their own from carcasses found near their home.

In listening to the interview, one gets the feeling that Marian truly believed Elmer made an effort to visit the family as often as he could. He appears in many of the photos she brought to the interview, especially from the time she lived in Michigan. When Paul asked her about how her family felt about Elmer, Marian had quite a bit to say:

“Grandfather was always so imposing, and he always seemed serious and deliberate, and so we respected him, and not only did he have this fantastic job that we thought was so neat … but he was just a very imposing person otherwise, and … we did respect him and obey him without question even though sometimes it’s hard to keep quiet in the apartment or something. I remember asking him once why he was bald, and he said oh, cause his hat wore his hair away. Well, I couldn’t figure that out because where the hat was, the hair was, but he didn’t get upset by my question. He answered it, and … he did talk to us, and … didn’t talk down to us, and he was not only willing to bring us to his work and so on; like I say, bounce us on his knee, and sang to us.”

Marian even shared a touching family letter from 1913 written by Elmer to his young sons, who had been living with an uncle since the tragic death of their mother in 1906. She picked it out from a stack of papers she had copied for Paul. She hoped that his personal papers – including poetry and other miscellaneous writing – would paint a fuller picture of Elmer’s humanity. The letter explains that he would soon be marrying Fannie Smith, that she would be a new mother to the boys, and that they could move back home with him and be a family again.

“There is one [letter] in there that’s extra sweet. It’s to his two little boys in 1913, and it’s telling them that he’s got a new apartment for them to come live with him because they’ve been living with aunts and uncles … since their mother died, and … he talks about he’s going to fix up a room just for them, and maybe even Santa Claus will come visit, and best of all, you’re gonna have a new mother, and she’s gonna love you and take care of you, and so on. So, I hadn’t known that existed until I got it ‘til recently, and that was a real sweet letter, you know.”

Elmer Riggs, Fannie Smith, Robert and Hal at the Smith Farm ca. 1914
Elmer Riggs, Fannie Smith, Robert and Hal at the Smith Farm ca. 1914

Marian went on to talk about how she vacationed with her cousins often, and believed her father Calvin Harold “Hal” and his brother Robert were very close. They even sailed together in their retirement:

“And then later when he built catamarans and a trimaran, and then he raced catamarans, and he got Rob interested in it too. So they sailed together a lot after daddy retired. So they were quite close, and always got along quite well, and the family spent a lot of vacations together. So I knew—was very close to most of my cousins for that reason. So they were close.”

-Transcriptions, writing, and technical support supplied in part by Michelle Sclafani.

So you think you know rhinos?

John Flynn, Frick Curator of Fossil Mammals at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, sent me this photograph (below), asking if I remembered the specimen depicted. A complete and well-preserved skull of Hyrachyus eximius, I recognized it immediately as the first notable specimen I ever collected for the Field Museum back in the summer of 1994, when I was a volunteer preparator and a novice – but very enthusiastic – collector of vertebrate fossils. I will never forget the thrill of that particular discovery.

Field Museum specimen P1020856, Hyrachyus eximius.
Field Museum specimen P1020856, Hyrachyus eximius.

I kept a somewhat prosaic journal that summer, which failed to capture the excitement of that first expedition to the Bridger Basin of southwestern Wyoming. Nevertheless, inspired by seeing the specimen again, I excavated the long-neglected journal from a dusty desk drawer. My entry for Monday, July 18 reads (in part):

Down in the badlands I find early discouragement. I am distracted, I find nothing, and I conclude that this area is destitute of fossils. Even the turtles are scarce…. I wander for another 30 minutes before I spot what appears to be limb fragments, but in fact turns out to be a toothless jaw frag[ment], quite large. It is black in color and stands out distinctly on the pale … butte. I trace a line above and below the specimen and find more fragments but little to be excited about. Below and downstream … in the dry wash I find 2 more fragments of the same color and of compatible size to be associated with the jaw. I put them in the same bag. Back at the butte I scrape the topmost weathered layer with the pick end of my hammer. Just under the surface I find more jaw frag[ment]s. I get out my awl and brush and I soon realize that I have a complete lower jaw. Next to the jaw I uncover what turns out to be a complete skull – it appears to me to be a camel. [Hyrachyus is actually a small rhino.] The rest of the afternoon, minus a sorry lunch that I share with Robin [Whatley] on a nearby hill, I spend in uncovering my specimen.

A beautiful restoration of Hyrachyus eximius from 1913 by R. Bruce Horsfall.
A beautiful restoration of Hyrachyus eximius from 1913 by R. Bruce Horsfall.

Fortunately for posterity, this episode was also recorded by my late friend and colleague Steve McCarroll. Steve published an entertaining account of the following day – when the specimen was finally collected – in the Field Museum’s membership newsletter, In the Field. Steve wrote:

Paul had found what he was calling a skull and said he would have to go back and collect it in the morning. This was Paul’s first summer collecting with us in Wyoming, and so John and I were a bit skeptical about his identification of the specimen as a skull. Specimens are often [found] crushed and covered with bits of rock, so field identifications are often changed back in the lab once the specimen is cleaned up.

Even so, the thought of finding a skull was exciting. A complete fossil skull is a very rare find, so John decided to take a look at the specimen…. All morning I had occasionally glanced over to the spot where John and Paul were crouched down over the ground, the spot, I assumed, where the “skull” was. As I waited I … reread some scientific papers…. But by 9:20 a.m. I had run out of things to do. I glanced one last time over at John and Paul and saw that John was no longer at the site. I walked over to the edge of the ridge … and saw John below just starting the long walk uphill…. Carefully cradled in his arms was a small block of rock. About halfway up the hill John looked up at me, a huge grin creasing his face, and said, “It’s really cool.”

From left to right: Robin Whatley, Steve McCarroll, John Flynn and me. I am tired and dehydrated from a tough day in the field.
From left to right: Robin Whatley, Steve McCarroll, John Flynn and me. I am tired and dehydrated from a tough day in the field.

Remarking on a blackened eye

One of the most infamous fistfights in the history of science went down on May 5, 1888, at Philadelphia’s Philosophical Hall, just as a meeting of the American Philosophical Society was getting underway. The two combatants were dear friends. Hot-headed paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope was scheduled to give a formal presentation on fossil ear bones. Cope’s opponent, geologist Persifor Frazer, was dressed for an evening at the opera with his beloved wife. For Frazer, a matter of honor was at stake. When he confronted Cope in the hallowed hall, fisticuffs, rather than apologies, ensued.

Cope vs. Frazer, drawn by Zander and Kevin Cannon of Big Time Attic.
Cope vs. Frazer, drawn by Zander and Kevin Cannon of Big Time Attic.

The only published account of this unfortunate incident appears in Cope: Master Naturalist, a biography written by Henry Fairfield Osborn, which, regrettably, includes precious few details about the altercation. According to this one-sided account, Osborn chanced upon Cope, who was looking somewhat worse for wear, on the morning after the brawl. Osborn wrote, “I happened to meet Cope and could not help remarking on a blackened eye. ‘Osborn,’ [Cope] said, ‘don’t look at my eye. If you think my eye is black, you ought to see Frazer this morning!'”

A portrait of Persifor Frazer
A portrait of Persifor Frazer

While researching another matter related to Cope’s troubled professional career, I happened to find a document written by Frazer that provides a blow-by-blow narrative of the fight, as well as some additional context. I plan to publish a transcription of this document in the near future.

A portrait of Cope
A portrait of Edward Drinker Cope

During the course of this project, I read the graphic novel Bone Sharps, Cowboys and Thunder Lizards, which chronicles the scientific feud between Cope and his nemesis, Othniel Charles Marsh. I was so impressed with the book’s illustrations that I commissioned the artists, Zander and Kevin Cannon (no relation), to draw a cartoon of the fistfight between Cope and Frazer. Their work is featured above.

Winsor McCay’s Gertie, the wonderfully trained dinosaurus!

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Pioneer cartoonist Winsor McCay was Gertie’s creator.
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Gertie debuted at Chicago’s Palace Theater on February 8, 1914.

Gertie, the world’s first animated dinosaur, made her screen debut at Chicago’s Palace Theater on 8 February 1914, one hundred years ago today. Pioneer cartoonist Winsor McCay created the animated dinosaur as part of his vaudeville act. At the beginning of the show, a tuxedoed McCay would stand on stage with a whip and other props and lecture his audience about the making of animated films. Standing to the side of the film screen, he would then introduce Gertie, “the only dinosaur in captivity.” Once the animated film was playing, McCay would interact with Gertie, calling her out, giving her commands, even throwing her an apple. Near the end of the act, he would disappear backstage and then seem to reappear in the film. Gertie would then pick her animated master up, put him on her back, and walk away while McCay bowed to the audience.

Reviews were positive and the show was a popular success. Soon, McCay moved his act to New York City. Unfortunately, McCay’s regular employer, newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, was unhappy about the time he was spending on stage. Under pressure to curtail the act, McCay agreed to extend the film with a lengthy, live-action prologue, part of which was filmed at New York’s American Museum of Natural History. He also added title cards – a silent film staple – to replace his stage act. The longer film then toured the country’s motion picture theaters as Gertie the Dinosaur.

She was a scream!

The longer version of the film is the best-preserved of McCay’s animated work. It is now listed on the US National Film Registry. Click here to see the entire film.

A cell from Gertie the Dinosaur. Click here to see the entire film.
A cell from Gertie the Dinosaur.
A single panel from McCay's comic strip Little Nemo (1913).
A single panel from McCay’s comic strip Little Nemo (1913).

 

A political cartoon from 1922 on the obsolescence of war.
A political cartoon from 1922 on the obsolescence of war.

 

John Conrad Hansen’s poorly-known restorations of vertebrate fossils

Norwegian-born artist and engraver John Conrad Hansen (1869-1952) drew and painted a series of magnificent restorations of fossil vertebrates during his fourteen year career at Chicago’s Field Museum. Many of his line drawings were eventually published in the scientific literature, especially in papers authored by paleontologists Elmer S. Riggs, Bryan Patterson and Paul McGrew. Others, including an unknown number of beautiful oil paintings, were intended to add a dash of form and color to the fossil vertebrate displays in the museum’s historic Hall 38, the now defunct hall of vertebrate paleontology. Unfortunately, Hansen’s paintings were uninstalled in 1994 when the museum renovated its paleontology exhibits, and, to the best of my knowledge, none are currently on display there.

I remember seeing some of these paintings in the museum when I visited in my youth. I vividly recall a display that explained how fossils are formed, and how they are found and collected by paleontologists. This display featured a memorable series of six Hansen paintings illustrating how an animal carcass enters the fossil record. One of those paintings is featured below.

John Conrad Hansen paints the background for a small, portable diorama. Field Museum photo GN78638
John Conrad Hansen paints the background for a small, portable diorama. Field Museum photo GN78638.

Hansen’s work was much admired by the Field Museum’s paleontology staff. Riggs noted that “Mr. Hansen … has a fine discriminating sense of form in his drawings.” Patterson was even more effusive: “I may say without exaggeration that [Hansen] has no superior and few peers among either contemporary or former illustrators of fossil vertebrate remains.”

A very small sample of Hansen’s work is reproduced here, courtesy of the Field Museum.

This was part of a series of paintings illustrating how fossils form. Field Museum 84471c.
This was part of a series of paintings illustrating how fossils form. Field Museum 84471c.
A dramatic scene from the La Brea tar pits. Field Museum 84484c.
A dramatic scene from the La Brea tar pits. Field Museum 84484c.
Another installment from a series of six paintings illustrating how fossils form. Field Museum GEO84474c.
Another installment from a series of six paintings illustrating how fossils form. Field Museum GEO84474c.
A shovel-tusked mastodon. Field Museum GEO84491c.
A shovel-tusked mastodon. Field Museum GEO84491c.
Hansen rendered many very small paintings, also. Field Museum GEO80157.
Hansen rendered many very small paintings, also. Field Museum GEO80157.
A scientific illustration showing the skull of the type specimen of Andrewsornis abbotti. Field Museum GEO80035.
A scientific illustration showing the skull of the type specimen of Andrewsornis abbotti. Field Museum GEO80035.
A small ground sloth called Hapalops. Click here to see the specimen this painting was made from. Field Museum GEO84480c.
A small ground sloth called Hapalops. Click here to see the specimen this painting was made from. Field Museum GEO84480c.

Elmer’s first fossil, #1001

I recently spent a week at Chicago’s Field Museum looking through historic photographs and fossils from the Captain Marshall Field Paleontological Expedition to Argentina and Bolivia, 1922-1927. Together with Sergio Vizcaino, an Argentine paleontologist who specializes in fossil mammals, and Bill Simpson, Collection Manager, I looked at every fossil collected by Elmer S. Riggs & his colleagues in the Santa Cruz beds of southern Patagonia. We found many gems, including field number 1001, the first fossil collected by Riggs and recorded in his field notes.

Elmer's first fossil, a distal left tarsometatarsus of Psilopterus australis collected at Killik Aike. Photo courtesy of Bill Simpson.
Elmer’s first fossil, a distal left tarsometatarsus of Psilopterus australis collected at Killik Aike. Photo courtesy of Bill Simpson.

Sergio also took a picture of me with Elmer’s first fossil.

A bird in the hand....
A bird in the hand….