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O.C. Marsh

History of Vertebrate Paleontology at Yale University

Othniel Charles Marsh


In 1866, Marsh was appointed Professor of Paleontology at Yale, the first such position in North America. In 1867, he became curator of the Geological Cabinet at the new Peabody Museum, which was endowed by his uncle, the philanthropist George Peabody. Marsh brought with him 2.5 tons of books and specimens, the bulk of which were accumulated as a Yale College undergraduate and during a lengthy stay in Europe. This collection was the foundation of the vertebrate paleontology collection.

During a lifetime at Yale, Marsh amassed an impressive collection of vertebrate fossils. Although he and the Peabody Museum would ultimately become famous for their collection of dinosaurs from the American West – which included type specimens of many of the best known dinosaurs - Marsh’s earliest collections were from the Cretaceous of New Jersey. Under his leadership, the Yale College Scientific Expeditions of 1870–1873 obtained historically and scientifically important collections of fossil mammals, including some of the largest collections of uintatheres, titanotheres, fossil horses, and early primates in the United States. The expeditions also made important contributions to our knowledge of marine life from the Cretaceous, including mosasaurs, pterosaurs (most notably Pteranodon), and the toothed birds Ichthyornis and Hesperornis. In addition, they assembled a sizable collection of fossil fishes from Eocene lake deposits in Wyoming.

After 1874, Marsh relied almost exclusively on “professional” collectors, which included both local residents and collectors sent to the American West by Marsh. Marsh’s associates form a “Who’s Who” of the history of vertebrate paleontology and geology: Erwin H. Barbour, David Baldwin, George Baur, Charles Emerson Beecher, Hugh Gibb, George Bird Grinnell, Oscar Harger, John Bell Hatcher, Arthur Lakes, Otto Meyer, Benjamin Mudge, O.A. Peterson, William Reed, George R. Wieland, and Samuel Wendell Williston.

According to his biographers, Schuchert and LeVene (1940), Marsh named 344 new species and 161 new genera of fossil vertebrates. His genera include Brontosaurus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, Triceratops and Eohippus. His work and collections were praised by Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley as some of the most crucial evidence supporting the theory of evolution.


Richard Swann Lull


Lull succeeded Marsh in one curatorial capacity or another from 1906 until his death in 1957, also serving as director of the Peabody Museum from 1922 to 1936. It was under his tenure that the Museum moved to its present building; the Great Hall was constructed; and the Marsh Collection was made available to academic researchers. Lull and his students, including M.R. Thorpe, E.L. Troxell and G.G. Simpson, inherited the task of identifying and publishing many of the previously neglected specimens collected by Marsh and his colleagues. Troxell is best remembered for his work on the fossil mammalian fauna of Rock Creek, Texas, whereas Thorpe became a leading expert on oreodonts and served as the Division’s senior curator from 1927 to 1938. Both added to the collections and continued Lull’s work of describing material already in the Marsh Collection.

Thorpe’s successor G.E. Lewis (1939–1945) was responsible for a renewed emphasis on field collecting. As a member of the Yale North India Expeditions, Lewis added a significant collection of fossil primates from the Siwaliks of India and Pakistan to the Peabody’s holdings. He also secured an excellent collection of casts of some of the most important Old World primate specimens. J.T. Gregory (1946–1960) succeeded Lewis as curator. While much of his tenure was spent heading up renovations to the exhibits and buildings, he also led several expeditions, making substantial collections from New Mexico, Oklahoma and Wyoming.


John Ostrom and Elwyn Simons

Elwyn Simons (1960–1977), now at Duke University, and John H. Ostrom (1961–1994) took over from J.T. Gregory. Each adding significant collections to the Division’s holdings: Simons led expeditions to Wyoming, the Siwaliks of India and Pakistan and the Fayum of Egypt, while Ostrom’s research and writings on the functional morphology of dinosaurs and the evolution of birds served as the main impetus behind the “dinosaur renaissance” at the end of the 20th century. His work on the Early Cretaceous fauna of Wyoming and Montana resulted in the discovery of important new dinosaurs, including Tenontosaurus tilletti, Sauropelta edwardsi, and, most famously, Deinonychus antirrhopus.


The Princeton University Collection


In 1985, the Peabody Museum acquired the fossil vertebrate collections of the Princeton University. Totaling around 15,000 specimens, the Princeton collection is now fully merged with that of the Peabody, but retains its original catalog number series identified by the prefix YPM-PU.


The origins of the Princeton collection lie in an undergraduate expedition to the Bridger Basin of Wyoming, organized by Henry Fairfield Osborn, Francis Speir Jr., and William Berryman Scott in 1877. The material they collected was deposited in the E.M. Museum of Geology and Archaeology at Princeton. In 1891 Osborn left to take up positions at Columbia University and the American Museum of Natural History, but Scott was to remain at Princeton, where he remained the anchor of Princeton’s vertebrate paleontology program until his death in 1947, 17 years after his retirement, although after 1893 he no longer led collecting expeditions. In 1888, while in Europe, he purchased a large collection of fossil mammals and birds from the Miocene deposits of St. Gerand le Puy and the Phosphorites de Quercy in France.

In 1893, J.B. Hatcher arrived at Princeton, having previously worked for O.C. Marsh at Yale. Between 1896 and 1899, Hatcher and O.A. Peterson undertook three expeditions to Patagonia, accompanied at different times by A.E. Colburn and Barnum Brown. The collections amassed, which consisted mostly of fossil mammals, together with some birds and reptiles, were some of the most extensive of their kind. Soon after his last Patagonian expedition Hatcher took a post at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.

In 1901 Earl Douglass, then of Montana State University, persuaded Scott to send Marcus Farr and a small group of Princeton students to the Crazy Mountain area of Montana. They also enlisted a guide and general handyman called Albert Silberling. At the end of the first field season Silberling and Farr made the first discovery of Fort Union Paleocene mammals. They more led parties to the area in both 1902 and 1903, accumulating a small collection of these early mammals. However, the importance of their material was not recognized at the time, and a concerted effort by Princeton to collect more was not made until the 1920s.

In 1904, W.J. Sinclair arrived at Princeton. He led collecting expeditions to the western United States, particularly the Bighorn Basin of Wyoming, the White River Badlands of South Dakota, and the Snake Creek region of Nebraska. He authored several sections of the Reports of the Princeton University Expedition to Patagonia, including those on the marsupials, the typotheres and, with M.S. Farr, the birds. In 1906, he became the first to document by microscopic studies the presence of volcanic ash in the Bridger beds.

Glenn L. Jepsen completed his undergraduate degree at Princeton in 1927 and continued working with Scott and Sinclair, receiving his Ph.D. in 1930. Jepsen was the first holder of the Sinclair Professorship of Vertebrate Paleontology and served as Director of Princeton’s Natural History Museum from 1936 until his retirement in 1971. He is responsible for Princeton’s exceptional collection of Paleocene mammals from Polecat Bench in Wyoming, together with important finds of Triassic fishes, mostly coelacanths, from the excavation site of the Firestone Library at Princeton.

In 1957, Donald Baird arrived at Princeton “to help with the program of renovation of the fossil vertebrate museum,” and like so many of his predecessors, chose to remain there. Through his field collecting efforts, Princeton became a major repository of fossil lower vertebrates from the Linton Coal Mines in Ohio and the Newark Supergroup of the eastern U.S. John R. Horner arrived in the mid-1970s and held the position of Assistant Curator until 1982, when he left to join the staff of the Museum of the Rockies. In the fall of 1978, Horner returned from a field season in Montana with the skull of a hadrosaur and bags of bones representing the partial skeletons of 15 “baby” dinosaurs from a nest. These remains belonged to an undescribed genus that was later named Maiasaura, the “good mother lizard.” His continuing work on “baby” dinosaurs and dinosaur behavior has been instrumental in shaping current views about dinosaurs.