Patrons of Paleontology: How Government Support Shaped a Science

By Jane P. Davidson | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

The Costs of Doing
Business

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 support built the science of paleontology. The term “government” is used herein in a rather general way to include anyone or any entity with political power. Thus, government could mean a local duke or squire, a pope, a king, or later on, such entities as professional societies supported by rulers, parliamentary bodies (such as state legislatures or the US Congress), geological surveys, and of course museums that were under some kind of government aegis. Geologists and paleontologists naturally turned to such venues of support from the very beginning of scientific interest in fossils. Certainly by the 1500s scientists were looking at the physical structures of the planet, what we would call geology, and they were also looking at fossils. Fossils were at that point rather misunderstood and unknown commodities. Scientists did not really comprehend much about them. They thought that these items were curiosities that needed study because they resembled living organisms, albeit stone. Some fossils, like belemnites and ammonites, however, did not look like anything living known at the time, but somehow they seemed organic in morphology. While there was a good amount of ignorance and confusion to go around, people were interested in fossils nonetheless. Fossils automatically found their way into what would come

-xiii-

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