Book review – King of the Dinosaur Hunters: The Life of John Bell Hatcher and the Discoveries that Shaped Paleontology

When I think of turn-of-the-20th-century palaeontology, names such as Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope are the first to come to mind. Their infamous rivalry, known as the Bone Wars, relied heavily on field collectors who did the back-breaking labour of prospecting and quarrying for fossils. Most of these bone hunters are barely remembered, and John Bell Hatcher might very well have remained thus. This meticulous biography by American palaeontologist Lowell Dingus saves Hatcher from obscurity and documents both his hugely successful work as a bone hunter, as well as his later stellar but tragically short-lived career as a curator.

King of the Dinosaur Hunters

King of the Dinosaur Hunters: The Life of John Bell Hatcher and the Discoveries that Shaped Paleontology“, written by Lowell Dingus, published by Pegasus Books in December 2018 (hardback, 520 pages)

Dingus first sets the stage by introducing Cope, Marsh and the Bone Wars (for fuller historical accounts, see The Bonehunters’ Revenge: Dinosaurs, Greed, and the Greatest Scientific Feud of the Gilded Age and The Gilded Dinosaur: The Fossil War Between ED Cope and OC Marsh and the Rise of American Science). Hatcher comes into the picture midway through this scientific feud, when Marsh employs the then 22-year-old Hatcher in 1884. Following the three major stages of Hatcher’s career, Dingus has split his book into three sections. The archives of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, Princeton University, and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History contain voluminous correspondence between Hatcher and his various employers. Closely examining these, Dingus gives an almost blow-by-blow account of Hatcher’s work, enumerating the fossils uncovered, the number of crates shipped back from field locations, and all the budgetary details involved.

Numerous excerpts from letters reveal the hardships that Hatcher exposed himself to as he worked nearly year-round in the field, braving heavy rain, blizzards, and biting cold. A recurring refrain in the early stages seemed to be Marsh’s tardiness in providing funds in a timely manner, as witnessed by Hatcher’s frequent prickly admonishments. Though from a modest background, Hatcher was never afraid to speak his mind and would openly bicker with his superiors in private correspondence and scientific publications.

I admit that after the first 100-or-so pages I was bit taken aback. King of the Dinosaur Hunters is not necessarily a light read as Dingus goes into comprehensive detail. Things become more and more interesting though as you keep reading. By 1893, Hatcher, increasingly dissatisfied, left Marsh’s employ after nine years to work at Princeton University for William Berryman Scott, a disciple of Marsh’s archrival Cope. It paid off handsomely for Hatcher, as he negotiated a position as curator of vertebrate palaeontology that allowed him to oversee the curation and preparation of fossils, do research on them, and publish his own findings. Several extended stints to Patagonia followed as he collected tremendous amounts of fossil material from southern South America.

“[…] Hatcher exposed himself to hardships as he worked nearly year-round in the field, braving heavy rain, blizzards, and biting cold”

Throughout, he had frequent spats with the president of the American Museum of Natural History, Henry Fairfield Osborn, who was also a close friend of his employer Scott. By 1899 things had again come to a head and Hatcher once more jumped ship, ending up working for William J. Holland, the director of the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. This last phase of his career is where Hatcher’s star really rose as he became a fully-fledged curator, sending out his own teams of bone hunters and publishing numerous scientific papers and monographs. This is also where other famous names enter the picture, such as competing hotshot Barnum Brown (see Dingus’s other biography Barnum Brown: The Man Who Discovered Tyrannosaurus rex, co-authored with Mark Norell), and palaeoartist Charles R. Knight whom Hatcher employed to prepare illustrations of Triceratops (one of which graces the dust jacket of this book).

As discussed in my reviews of Patrons of Paleontology: How Government Support Shaped a Science, American Dinosaur Abroad: A Cultural History of Carnegie’s Plaster Diplodocus, and Assembling the Dinosaur: Fossil Hunters, Tycoons, and the Making of a Spectacle, Hatcher’s work at the Carnegie Museum was a prime example of how this branch of science was enabled by the financial support of wealthy business tycoons such as Andrew Carnegie, who did a spot of philanthropy on the side. Furthermore, Dingus’s book answers many of the questions I raised in my review of Patrons of Palaeontology on the costs of expeditions versus the costs of publications.

The picture that emerges of Hatcher is of a person who was at times testy, tempestuous, and easily offended. At the same time, he was furiously dedicated to his craft and his employer, whoever that happened to be. Though he married and had children, he barely saw his family, regularly spending 10-11 months per year crisscrossing the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains region of the US, and later Patagonia. His sudden death in 1904 tragically cut short a blossoming career that could have been even more influential.

“The picture that emerges of Hatcher is of a person who was […] testy, tempestuous and easily offended [but also] furiously dedicated to his craft and his employer.”

Even so, Hatcher left a tremendous legacy, and many of the fossils he collected are on public display to this day in prominent American museums and elsewhere. “Dippy”, the dinosaur skeleton that until recently greeted you at the entrance of the London Natural History Museum, is a cast from the Diplodocus carnegii skeletal mount that was collected under Hatcher’s supervision (see also Dippy: The Tale of a Museum Icon). In the end, Hatcher and his crews collected over 8000 specimens that represented many new species and became the basis for museum collections that are relevant to this day. And this era has been hailed as a second dinosaur rush (see also The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush: Museums and Paleontology in America at the Turn of the Twentieth Century).

Dingus, in turn, has written a definitive biography of exhaustive detail. Far more than a casual read, he provides meticulous documentation, as evidenced by a 14-page glossary of genera opening the book, current museum catalogue numbers throughout the text, appendices that list contracts and agreements between Marsh and Hatcher and year-by-year lists of all the specimens collected, and a separate bibliography for Hatcher.

This level of detail should delight palaeontologists and science historians. But what elevates this book from a mere catalogue of facts and achievements are the beforementioned excerpts and the rich reading that Dingus provides of conditions in the field, the hardships and frustrations, as well as the tremendous strokes of luck. Though remembered by vertebrate palaeontologists, this biography will reacquaint the wider public with this legendary bone hunter and convinces why Hatcher is worthy of the epithet “King of the Dinosaur Hunters”.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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King of the Dinosaur Hunters hardback, paperback or ebook

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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