Magazine article Natural History

Four Giants of Paleontology

Magazine article Natural History

Four Giants of Paleontology

Article excerpt

In 1859, the year that The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin, appeared, changing forever the way in which we think about ourselves, our origins, and our world, Henry Fairfield Osborn was just two years of age. This son of wealthy and loving parents, who was supposed to become an influential figure in the world of railroads and high finance (or so his father thought), was destined to become instead a leading authority on the evolution of backboned animals.

For many years Osborn was a dean and professor of zoology at Columbia University and, simultaneously, a prime driving force in the growth of an institution that has been at the forefront of evolutionary studies since the 1880s--the American Museum of Natural History. Osborn was appointed president of the Museum in 1908 and served for twenty-five years.

In 1871, twelve years after Darwin's epochal publication, William Diller Matthew was born in Saint John, New Brunswick. Later, as a young man, Matthew gravitated to Columbia, where he came under the influence of Osborn, then presiding over the Department of Zoology. Osborn's passion for the study of vertebrate evolution was contagious. So at the age of twenty-four, Matthew, who had come to Columbia seeking a career in mining geology, headed instead for a paleontologist's life at the American Museum as a colleague of Osborn's.

Seventeen years after that fateful year of 1859, William King Gregory was born in Greenwich Village, New York City. Eventually he also attended Columbia. In 1899 he became Osborn's assistant, thereby initiating his own long and distinguished career at Columbia and at the American Museum, where he was one of those rare individuals on the curatorial staff--a native New Yorker.

For more than three decades the three men--the mentor and his two students--worked together at the Museum cataloging and trying to make sense of its rapidly expanding collection of fossil vertebrates. Each year, the Museum's famous bone collectors, such as Barnum Brown, would bring in thousands of specimens, newly freed from tons of rock. Osborn was interested in extinct reptiles and mammals, particularly mammals. Matthew was an internationally respected authority on mammalian evolution, and Gregory as justly famous for his encyclopedic knowledge of all the vertebrates.

These three quite naturally developed different approaches to their evolutionary studies. Osborn was by training a biologist, so his interpretation of the evolution of extinct animals was dominated by his knowledge of related modern animals. In contrast, Matthew's view of evolution, particularly mammalian evolution, was based upon his broad background in geology and especially stratigraphy--the sequence of rock strata in which fossils are found. (Matthew's father, George Frederic Matthew, was a distinguished Canadian geologist, and young Matthew became further steeped in geology under another Columbia mentor, James Furman Kemp.) Gregory was primarily a comparative anatomist who extended his comparisons to vertebrates of all geologic ages. His scholarship was indeed comprehensive, for his view of the world reached across time, space, and phylogeny.

The three men--Osborn, Matthew, and Gregory--brought to the enormously complex subject of vertebrate evolution a powerful combination of different talents and outlooks that helped shape the discipline for decades to come.

They worked both separately and together, and their collaborative studies describing previously unknown fossil species led to the revelation of many new evolutionary facts. Important assemblages of extinct creatures were worked up for publication under the joint authorships of Osborn and Matthew, Osborn and Gregory, and Matthew and Gregory. As for their individual interpretations of evolutionary processes, most of those papers were signed singly because of their separate and sometimes divergent opinions. Osborn, a large and forceful man, liked to formulate evolutionary "laws" to which he appended his own designations. …

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