Patrons of Paleontology: How Government Support Shaped a Science

Patrons of Paleontology: How Government Support Shaped a Science

Patrons of Paleontology: How Government Support Shaped a Science

Patrons of Paleontology: How Government Support Shaped a Science


In the 19th and early 20th centuries, North American and European governments generously funded the discoveries of such famous paleontologists and geologists as Henry de la Beche, William Buckland, Richard Owen, Thomas Hawkins, Edward Drinker Cope, O. C. Marsh, and Charles W. Gilmore. In Patrons of Paleontology, Jane Davidson explores the motivation behind this rush to fund exploration, arguing that eagerness to discover strategic resources like coal deposits was further fueled by patrons who had a genuine passion for paleontology and the fascinating creatures that were being unearthed. These early decades of government support shaped the way the discipline grew, creating practices and enabling discoveries that continue to affect paleontology today.


The Costs of Doing

Between 1715 and 1717 a posthumous work dealing with minerals and fossils written by a former papal physician, Michele Mercati, was published with funding from Pope Clement xi. the book was entitled Metallotheca and detailed the natural history collections of several late sixteenth-century popes. This was a very early instance of governmental (in this case papal) support for paleontology. Not only did the papacy back Mercati’s work with fossils, but Clement xi also paid for the publication of Metallotheca, well over a hundred years later. Metallotheca was a lavish book with a very large number of actual engravings bound within its pages. It was in itself a work of art. the book’s frontispiece constitutes the entire story. the pope is shown seated on his throne looking very regal, and not a little stern, and several clerics are literally groveling in front of him. One holds Metallotheca. One could not find a better depiction of government support for paleontology and geology if one went out and tried.

There is a time coming and
now not very distant, when
the vagaries of the anti
geologists will be as obsolete
as those of the geographers of
Salamanca or as those of the
astronomers who upheld the
orthodoxy of Ptolemy
against Galileo and Newton:
and they will be regarded as a
sort of curious fossils, very
monstrous and bizarre and
altogether of an extinct type.

—Hugh Miller, The
Testimony of the Rocks

I reckon among my readers a
class of non-geologists who
think that my geological
chapters would be less dull if
I left out the geology.

—Hugh Miller, The Cruise of
the Betsey

Government support has always been connected to the sciences of geology and paleontology. This book is an account of why and how that happened. in general this connection began in the sixteenth century and grew, by the century’s end, into a fairly well-established practice. This study is the story of working relationships between geologists, paleontologists, and governments, but moreover it is an account of how government . . .

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