John Bell Hatcher
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John Bell Hatcher

O.C. Marsh’s biographers refer to John Bell Hatcher (b. 1861, d. 1904) as the “King of Collectors.” Hatcher became interested in paleontology while working as a coal miner to earn money for college. Before he graduated from Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School in 1884, he showed a small collection he had made of Carboniferous fossils to George Brush, who later introduced him to O.C. Marsh.

Hatcher began collecting for Marsh as an assistant to Charles H. Sternberg at the Teleoceras quarry near Long Island, Kansas, shortly after graduating in 1884. Within a month, he was working independently of Sternberg in a different part of the quarry. That winter, he moved on to collect in the Permian of Texas. In the summers of 1886 through 1888 he collected in the Oligocene of Nebraska and South Dakota. During October and November 1888 he sent 71 boxes of titanothere material weighing 15,140 pounds to the Yale Peabody Museum.

In 1889, Marsh sent Hatcher to Wyoming to acquire a skull that was apparently the source of horn cores previously sent to Marsh. Hatcher not only acquired that skull but, over the next 4 years, collected 33 ceratopsian skulls and the remains of an additional 17 individuals. The block containing skull 24 weighed 6,850 pounds and was collected 40 miles from the railroad, to which it had to be hauled by horse and wagon.

At the same time, Hatcher was also collecting anthills and sending the unsorted matrix back to New Haven to be picked through for Cretaceous mammal remains. Because Marsh was also working for the U.S. Geological Survey at the time, half of this collection eventually went to the Smithsonian, as did a percentage of his Long Island and Oligocene collections.

Hatcher felt that his opportunities at Yale were limited and disagreed with Marsh over his policy of not allowing “assistants” to publish on their own. In 1890, Hatcher negotiated with Henry Fairfield Osborn for a position at the American Museum of Natural History. Unfortunately, Osborn did not then have an appointment himself at the museum, and Hatcher broke off the negotiations on learning this.

In 1893, Hatcher went to Princeton University as Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology. In the 3 field seasons between 1893 and 1895 he collected in the Oligocene of South Dakota, the Miocene and Pleistocene of Nebraska, and the Cretaceous of Wyoming. In 1896, Hatcher went on the first of his 3 now famous Patagonian expeditions, expeditions he conceived of, planned and secured the greater part of the funding for by himself. Hatcher also came up with the concept of publishing the results of the expeditions as a series of reports with funding he acquired from J. Pierpont Morgan. Hatcher was accompanied on the first and third expeditions by his brother-in-law, O.A. Peterson. These expeditions amassed a large collection of Miocene mammals, at great personal risk, that has become one of the cornerstones of the Princeton vertebrate paleontology collection.

In 1900, Hatcher was made Curator of Paleontology and Osteology at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. He conducted fieldwork for 4 years and helped supervise the creation and mounting of the cast of Diplodocus carnegii for the British Museum. Hatcher died of typhoid fever in July 1904, and was buried in an unmarked grave, an oversight that was not corrected until 1995.

Hatcher did not begin to publish until after he left Yale. Between 1893 and 1904 he published 48 papers on the fossils he had collected and the geology of regions in which he had worked. He was a co-author of the Ceratopsia monograph begun by Marsh and ultimately completed by Lull in 1907 after Hatcher’s death. Although he had many disagreements with Marsh, and indeed with most of the people he worked for, he dedicated the Narrative and Geography volume of the Patagonian expedition reports (recently reprinted in part as Bone Hunters in Patagonia) “To the memory of Othniel Charles Marsh…student and lover of nature...this volume is dedicated by the author.”