Richard Swann Lull (b. 1867, d. 1957) was born at Annapolis,
Maryland, on November 6, 1867, the son of a naval officer, Edward
Phelps Lull, and Elizabeth Burton, the daughter of General Henry
Burton. Fortunately for vertebrate paleontology, poor eyesight kept him
from following in his father’s footsteps into the Naval Academy.
Lull majored in zoology at Rutgers College and received both his undergraduate and graduate degrees from there (M.S. 1896; honorary D.Sc. 1918). He worked briefly for the Division of Entomology of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but in 1894 took a position as an assistant (later associate) professor of zoology at the State Agricultural College in Amherst, Massachusetts (now the University of Massachusetts at Amherst). It was at the other college in Amherst, Amherst College, renowned for its collection of fossil footprints from the red beds of the Connecticut River valley, where Lull’s fascination with fossil footprints began. This enthusiasm ultimately led him to change course from entomology to paleontology.
To gain field experience in paleontology, Lull worked as a member of the American Museum of Natural History’s party at Bone Cabin Quarry, Wyoming, in 1899, helping to collect that museum’s brontosaur skeleton. In 1902, he again joined an American Museum crew in the field, this time in Montana. His close association with the American Museum led to his studying under Henry Fairfield Osborn (one of the originators of the vertebrate paleontology collection at Princeton University). In 1903 he received his Ph.D. from Columbia University.
In 1906, after a short stint at Amherst, Lull accepted a dual appointment as Assistant Professor of Vertebrate Paleontology in Yale College, and Associate Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Yale Peabody Museum. He served in one curatorial capacity or another for the next 50 years, continuing on as Curator Emeritus some 20 years after his obligatory retirement from the University in 1936.
As a teacher, Lull was well loved. His undergraduate course on organic evolution became one of the most popular on campus. The content of these lectures has been preserved in his book Organic Evolution. He discouraged graduate students from specializing in vertebrate paleontology, as jobs in that discipline were so very scarce even then. Only about half a dozen students took their doctorates directly under him, including E.L. Troxell, M.R. Thorpe and G.G. Simpson.
In his 1958 “Memorial to Richard Swann Lull,” Simpson notes that “The names Marsh, Lull, and Yale are so strongly linked in the history of paleontology that it is almost a shock to recall that Marsh and Lull never met….” The contrasts between these men are extraordinary. Lull was a consummate teacher; O.C. Marsh did little or no teaching. While Marsh spent much of his time and money acquiring material for the Museum, Lull made relatively few additions to the collections, taking part in only 3 field expeditions after coming to Yale. He seems to have lost his interest in fieldwork early on. According to Simpson, Lull often remarked that the best collecting he knew was in the basement of the Peabody. On his shoulders was left the herculean task of making the Marsh Collection accessible to researchers and seeing that it was safely housed.
It was during Lull’s term as Director (1922–1936) that the Yale Peabody Museum moved into its present building. Under Lull’s supervision, portions of the Marsh Collection were mounted for display in the Museum. To this end, Lull oversaw not only the mounting of the famous dinosaur skeletons in the Great Hall, but also created many scale models and restorations for use in the exhibits. One of his more ingenious methods of displaying skeletons was to mount the bones of a fossil on one side and sculpt a restoration of the animal on the other. That the Museum was designed not only to serve the University but also to attract and educate the greater New Haven community is one of Lull’s greatest achievements.