The second jurassic dinosaur rush: museums and paleontology in America at the turn of the twentieth century by Paul D. Brinkman. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2010. No. of pages: xiv + 345. Price: US$49.00. ISBN 978-0-226-07472-6 (hardback).


This well written volume reads like a thriller and will fascinate any reader. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, teams of field geologists were collecting new dinosaur fossils in profusion from Colorado, Wyoming and neighbouring states in the western USA. The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush tells the tale of three of the major natural history museums in the USA, and their pursuit of more and better fossil dinosaurs, particularly sauropods, mainly from the Jurassic. Two of them, the American Museum of Natural History and the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, had egotistical champions for dinosaur palaeontology, namely Henry Fairfield Osborn and William Jacob Holland, who threw money at field parties in the western states. And they got their fossils. The third, the Field Columbian Museum in Chicago, had no such promoter, so field collecting was run on a shoestring, and could never compete with New York and Pittsburgh. It got what it deserved in the end—the posterior half of an Apatosaurus.

This book is well produced as is typical of the University of Chicago Press. The text is highly readable and the illustrations, including many period photographs, entirely relevant. Indeed, the photographs left me wanting more; I presume others are available. A book of illustrations covering the same ‘story’ as The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush would be a fascinating contribution to the history of science. My only complaint would be two strange sentences in the first few pages of Chapter 1, probably errors of typesetting.

Books on the history of geology typically have three components in unequal quantities, namely the people, the rocks (or fossils) and the ideas. This book is resplendent with a cast of characters who outshine the fossils. This is a notable achievement because the latter include some of the largest and most complete sauropod dinosaurs ever found. The ideas take a rather subservient role to the collectors, their rivalries and egos. Ideas in this context are not so much evolving ideas of dinosaur palaeobiology, although they play their part, but the interplay of rumour and experience that determined the sites that were prospected and exploited.

Yet this is a book about fieldwork and fieldworkers; big name administrators ‘back home’ like Osborn wanted results, but it was the collectors who were the heroes of the tale. And heroes they were, collecting under all weather conditions and living in tents during the summer, and sometimes over-wintering in huts next to bone quarries in order to protect a productive claim. To pick out but two of these fascinating figures, I couldn't help being impressed by the significant discoveries that Elmer Riggs made for the Field Columbian Museum despite being starved of resources. And what a collector was John Bell Hatcher of the Carnegie Museum before he was struck down by typhoid in 1904. These real field collectors make fictional characters like Indiana Jones look like an armchair theoretician.