Barnum Brown: the man who discovered Tyrannosaurus rex by Lowell Dingus and Mark A. Norrell. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2010. No. of pages: xiv+368. Price: US$24-95. ISBN 978-0-520-25264-6 (paperback).


I admit to having a new thirst for information which developed after I read The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush (Brinkman's, 2010). Brinkman shifted some of my fascination with dinosaurs, which I've had at least from the age of five, to the dinosaur collectors. Hitherto, my idea of a great dinosaur collector was the Reverend Fox on the Isle of Wight in the 19th Century, who ‘… probably discovered more species of dinosaur than anyone else in the UK’ (Martill et al., 2001, pp. 15–16). Yet Fox's many achievements wither into relative insignificance, and even a fictional hero like Indiana Jones looks like a sit-at-home, shandy-drinking theorist, compared to the cast of characters that populated Brinkman's book. The style and scale of their fieldwork, with a field season's spoils filling a railroad freight car, was a fascinating alien landscape for me. And that style and scope is again apparent in Dingus and Norrell's excellent biography of the greatest of dinosaur collectors, Barnum Brown.

Barnum Brown is a pleasure to read, being well-illustrated, well-written and reading more like a thriller than fact. Fortunately for us, Brown, not quick with the pen in the field or elsewhere, took a profusion of photographs to record his field excursions and we are the benefactors. My favourite has to be figure 22, a breath-taking view showing the Ankylosaur Quarry perched high above the Red Deer River in Alberta. I would like to have seen more maps and more detail on the maps, but those presented are adequate.

Barnum Brown (1873–1963) was the archetypal field palaeontologist. His major achievements were in the field, not the laboratory or the literature. The appendices give a dry overview of Brown's contribution to science. ‘List of major specimens collected by Barnum Brown on display in the AMNH [American Museum of Natural History] Fossil Halls’ is five pages long and documents 57 specimens; ‘Summary of fossil collections by Barnum Brown and his AMNH crews’ estimates that over 1215 crates were collected for the museum between 1896 and 1941. These came from all continents except Australasia and Antarctica, but mainly are from the USA and Alberta.

Like any life, Brown's had moments of triumph and tragedy, no more so than when his young wife died of scarlet fever shortly after the birth of their daughter. But the triumphs were many. Brown's most notable contributions were most obviously the dinosaurs he collected mainly from North America, making the AMNH a Mecca for Mesozoic herpetologists, and the mammals from the Americas, Asia and Europe. His field collecting fed the research programme of his boss, Henry Fairfield Osborne, and the displays of the AMNH.

I recommend this book to historians of geology and palaeontology as a fascinating account of the travels and discoveries of a notable collector and explorer. To anyone else, this book should be read as a fascinating insight into a heroic age of vertebrate palaeontology and a biography of a notable pioneer of those times.