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Barnum Brown

Barnum Brown (February 12, 1873 – February 5, 1963) was an American Paleontologist best known for his contributions to the American Museum of Natural History, and his discovery of the first documented Tyrannosaurus rex remains. Brown was known less as a published paleontologist and more often as an energetic excavator, perhaps the greatest fossil collector of all time.

Barnum Brown was born in Carbondale, Kansas, and was named after P.T. Barnum – of traveling circus fame, but no relation. His passion for paleontology began in childhood. His father ran a small-scale strip-mining operation, which unearthed large quantities of seashells, corals, and fossils, all ripe for the taking by young Barnum. His parents saw fit to educate him, so they sent him to high school – which was not widely available at the time — in a neighboring town. He continued his education at Kansas University, and during the summers of 1894-95, he began hunting fossils under the direction of Samuel Wendell Williston in South Dakota and Wyoming.

Williston was so impressed with Barnum Brown’s work ethic that he recommended him to the American Museum of Natural History for a fossil dig the following summer. His outstanding fieldwork prospecting for mammal fossils in New Mexico and Wyoming secured him employment with the museum, despite the fact that he had not completed his undergraduate education.

Brown spent the next several years with the American Museum of Natural History excavating dinosaur remains in Wyoming, then in Patagonia. In 1902, during an expedition in Hell Creek, Montana, he made the find of his career; he discovered and excavated a large carnivorous dinosaur that would later be known as the Tyrannosaurus rex. The digs in Hell Creek produced literally tons of fossils, enough to fill up entire train cars.

Brown spent the earlier part of the 1910’s on a flatboat floating down the Red Deer River in Alberta, Canada, stopping for digs at sites which appeared promising. In Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park, he discovered several hind feet of the sharp-toothed Albertosaurus as well as remains of the ostrich-like Struthiomimus.

His finds didn’t stop there; Brown continued excavating specimen after specimen, crate after crate of dinosaur remains. And his interests weren’t just in dinosaurs; in the 1920s his mentor found a tooth seemingly belonging to a primate, but Brown wasn’t ready to accept that theory. He thought it might be human, and in 1927 this was confirmed with a find of a prehistoric spear point in New Mexico. The spear provided evidence that humans were in North America near the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age. During that same decade, Brown traveled to the Greek isle of Samos and quarried 56 cases of fossils. These specimens belonged to horses, rhinoceroses, antelopes, gazelles, birds, and a variety of carnivorous mammals. The number of fossils Brown collected in his lifetime is not surprising, considering there were only five years between 1897 and 1942 when he did not participate in a major expedition. His string of discoveries earned him the nickname “Mr. Bones”.

Brown retired from the American Museum of Natural History in 1942, but he continued leading tours and supervising construction of dinosaur models; dinosaurs were a world he just couldn’t leave behind. His input was even requested for the dinosaur sequence in Walt Disney’s Fantasia. He died just a week short of his 90th birthday, but his legacy lives on. Several of his excavation sites have re-opened, and his discoveries fill the halls of the American Museum of Natural History.

Image Caption: Barnum Brown during field work in Montana in 1914. Credit: Preston/Wikipedia

Barnum Brown


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