Patrons of Paleontology: How Government Support Shaped a Science

By Jane P. Davidson | Go to book overview

1
THE BEGINNINGS OF
GOVERNMENT SUPPORT FOR
PALEONTOLOGY

Seventy years ago a young archaeologist named William G. Haag was working on a PhD in cultural anthropology and archaeology from the University of Kentucky. He had no prospects for a job upon completion of his degree, but like many during the tail end of the Great Depression, he had found work with the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Dr. Haag hired a crew of unemployed Appalachian coal miners to excavate ancient Native American sites that would soon be submerged by the rising waters of various Tennessee Valley Authority projects. Thirty years on, Dr. Haag would recall his experiences for me when I interviewed him in 1969 while writing a master’s thesis on the WPA and Native Americans. He told me about how a government reclamation and flood control project had turned to an archaeological survey in order to preserve artifacts that would have been otherwise forever lost. And it provided a source of reliable income for him and the men he hired. He spoke of the dignity of his crew members who felt that they were “taking Mr. Roosevelt’s money and not digging enough. We are strong miners, Professor. We can dig down that whole hill in one day. Some shovels full of dirt are not right. We are not working hard enough for the good money we are making.”1 And so, somewhat out of necessity, Dr. Haag had trained his men to be field researchers and remembered how excited they would be when a trowel turned up a shard or a flint. They would proudly come to get him to show him their finds. “Look, Professor, is this important? I think it looks like a shard.”

We strike Bitter Creek and
follow it east into a howling
wilderness where water is
scarce and bad and grizzly
bear aplenty.

—Edward Cope, Letter
written to his brother, James,
July 1872, while Cope was
working for the Hayden
Survey

Dr. Haag did not comment on whether he knew that his project and his workers were part of a centuries-old history of support for science by governments.

In studying the life of
Jefferson, I am constantly
impressed with his likeness
to Theodore Roosevelt. They
were the only two naturalists,
or even nature-lovers, who
filled our presidential chair.
Roosevelt had the greater
opportunity; Jefferson was
the greater genius. Roosevelt
lived in the full tide of
modern paleontology;
Jefferson lived (1743–1826)
before the science of
paleontology was even born.

—Henry F. Osborn, “Thomas
Jefferson as a Paleontologist”

Naming a discipline is no
mean achievement.

—Gian Battista Vai and
William Cavazza, “Ulisse
Aldrovandi and the Origin of
Geology and Science”

This book is a history of governmental support for the science of paleontology and, since paleontology was combined with geology for a long time, provides a more specific history of geology per se where that is pertinent. Primarily, however, it is a history of important contributions to paleontology that were sponsored in some way by various government supports. Virtually every important contribution to paleontology, and not incidentally the careers of every important paleontologist, was related to government support. Designed as a historical outline of what these important contributions were, who made them, and how these persons were supported by a government entity, it is also by default a history of most of the important paleontologists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, because this is the time frame in which the science of paleontology blossomed. Thus, what is covered here is not only field research but important

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