May 11, 2010
There are at least two stories behind every dinosaur skeleton you see at a museum. There is the story of the animal itself, its life and evolution, but there is also the story of its discovery, and at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City many of the fossils on display attest to the achievements of fossil hunter Barnum Brown. Born in rural Carbondale, Kansas in 1873, Brown would spend nearly his entire adult life searching for fossils all over the world, and for the first time his life story has been told by AMNH paleontologists Mark Norell and Lowell Dingus in the biography Barnum Brown: The Man Who Discovered Tyrannosaurus rex.
Brown’s career as a fossil hunter started early. As a child he amassed a small museum of fossil shells and similar curiosities from nearby deposits, and as he grew older he got the chance to study under vertebrate paleontologist Samuel W. Williston. Brown was an excellent field worker, and the good reputation he developed landed him a job collecting fossils for the AMNH, a museum looking to distinguish itself by collecting the best dinosaur fossils that could be obtained. Brown was the perfect man for the job. By 1902 he was the first paleontologist to discover a partial skeleton of Tyrannosaurus rex, from the famous Cretaceous-age Hell Creek Formation, and six years later he found an even more complete skeleton (including a well-preserved skull) which would form the basis for the museum’s famous mount of the superlative dinosaur.
Brown’s discovery of Tyrannosaurus rex was just the beginning. For the next six decades he would travel the world in search of important fossils, from the baking heat of India to the humid jungles of Guatemala, and when not looking for fossils, Brown often supplemented his income by working for mining or oil companies. Even though Brown had flunked out of Columbia University and seldom wrote scientific papers, his expertise at finding and excavating fossils was unmatched—it is no wonder that dozens of the skeletons he collected still grace the AMNH fossil halls.
Yet the book is not just about Brown’s exploits in the field. Appearances to the contrary, he was not a fossil-hunting machine, and Brown’s relationships with the many women in his life form a strong undercurrent through the book. Brown deeply loved his first wife, Marion, but when she died shortly after giving birth to their daughter, Frances, Brown was crushed and sent Frances to grow up with her maternal grandparents. Eventually Brown would marry again, this time a vivacious woman named Lilian who would later write up their adventures in the field together under titles like I Married a Dinosaur and Bring ‘Em Back Petrified, but neither Barnum nor Lilian were faithful to each other. In fact, Brown’s womanizing ways are nearly as famous as his dinosaur-hunting abilities, and while most of the original documentation of his affairs has been lost or destroyed, what Norell and Dingus put together confirms that Brown had a wandering eye for his entire adult life.
The authors of the new biography were able to put all this together on the basis of the papers, articles, field notes, letters and other documents Brown and those closest to him left behind. Some stories, such as Brown’s journey down Canada’s Red Deer River, in which his crew was in (mostly) friendly competition with Charles Sternberg for the best fossils, will be familiar, but much of Brown’s 20th century work has not been popularly recounted since the time his wife wrote about it several decades ago. Even better, both Norell and Dingus are expert paleontologists in their own right, and they are excellent guides to helping the reader understand the context of what Brown discovered. Without their help, readers would probably find themselves awash in a list of unfamiliar creatures and places.
As much as I enjoyed the book, however, it does have a few shortcomings. While the authors frequently write about Brown’s personal life, some aspects of it remain mysterious, especially Brown’s relationship with his daughter. Other than notes of her birth and a visit to her later in Brown’s life, she is absent for most of the book, and I have to wonder how she felt about her famous father, who was absent for most of her childhood. Likewise, there are hints and brief mentions that Brown’s philandering created tensions in the relationship with his second wife, but other than this becoming something of an open secret there is relatively little about how Barnum and Lilian Brown managed to get along. Perhaps the source material for such discussions was simply not available, but I was slightly disappointed that the authors could not go into more depth about Barnum Brown’s personal relationships.
Likewise, I am of two minds about the way in which the authors provide the context for Brown’s discoveries and scientific work. Such background information is necessary, but often it takes the form of descriptions that run for several paragraphs in the middle of the story. This breaks up the historical narrative of Brown’s life, and, at least in some cases (such as the discussion of what drove the non-avian dinosaurs into extinction), these descriptions might have been better forwarded in footnotes or endnotes.
Nevertheless, an authoritative biography of Barnum Brown has long been wanting, and the authors of the new volume have done an overall excellent job of summarizing the achievements of one of the most famous fossil hunters of all time. More than that, Brown’s career spanned the end of the 19th century “Bone Rush” to the time just before the “Paleobiological Revolution,” and his global exploits convey how paleontology changed from the late-19th to the mid-20th centuries, from the way fossils were recovered to the politics of getting them back home. In all, the new biography provides an alternate route by which to understand the life of the past and the history of paleontology, and I recommend it to anyone who has visited the AMNH and wondered where so many of those specimens came from.
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