With Jurassic World having grossed $1.7 billion this year, dinosaurs continue to fascinate and terrify us. There’s something so otherworldly, so monstrous, so mysterious about them. There they sit, or stand, dominating our natural history museums. Their gargantuan size and sharp features provide unnerving testimony to the different earthly realities millions of years ago. Their fossilized remnants offer compelling evidence that they are real. Their skeletons deliver reassuring proof they are dead.
All these beasts had to be discovered, recovered, reconstructed. Additionally, our obsession had to be nurtured. In many ways, one individual, the aptly-named Barnum Brown, is responsible for finding some of the greatest dinosaur discoveries and fueling our fascination with them.
Brown, who indeed was named after the great showman, was born in frontier Kansas in 1873. The parental impasse over what to name the young lad ended after a few days when P.T. Barnum’s dazzling circus visited. “There must be something in a name,” Brown, who had his own genius for self-promotion would say, “for I have always been in the business of running a fossil menagerie.”
His upbringing on America’s hardscrabble plains, combined with his future career shuttling between exotic, godforsaken fossil-laden locations and New York’s Museum of Natural History, made Barnum Brown a remarkable transition figure. Living nine decades until 1963, he synthesized the nineteenth century’s cowboy code with the twentieth century’s scientific and media mores. One part Indian Jones-like intrepid explorer, one part Stephen Hawkings-like academic supersnova, Brown would become “the most successful field paleontologist in history,” according to his biographers Lowell Dingus and Mark Norell. His most famous find became one of the world’s most iconic museum exhibits, the New York Museum of Natural History’s towering, terrifying, entrancing, Tyrannosaurus Rex. When he died, the New York Times obituary christened him “Father of the dinosaurs.”
As a Kansas pioneer during the pre-Civil War 1850s, Brown’s father saw farmers caught between the warring forces over whether Kansas should be a free state or a slave state. Preferring to be a moving target, he transported goods around the area in covered wagons. Later, the father’s crude strip-mining operation uncovered an underground universe of lost treasures. The younger Barnum would recall that the family business “unearthed vast numbers and varieties of seashells, crinoid stems and parts, corals.” He “followed the plows and scrapers, and obtained such a large collection that it filled all of the bureau drawers and boxes until one could scarcely move. Finally Mother compelled me to move the collection into the laundry house.”
Someone that obsessed, who charmed New York’s elite, effete Upper West Siders when he returned from his remote, sun-baked dry beds yielding ancient mysteries under layers of rock and dirt, was bound to be complicated. His first wife died of scarlet fever shortly after childbirth. The distraught Brown left their daughter to be raised by her grandparents. Brown remarried but, even in those more discrete times, was known as a cad. His second wife Lilian Brown got the last laugh, with a passive-aggressive, neglected-wife-of-a-workaholic memoir: I Married a Dinosaur.
Of course, Lilian probably wished her wandering husband was a bit more old-fashioned. From the time he started hunting fossils while studying at the University of Kansas in 1894, Brown demonstrated a knack for the work and for commandeering attention. His professor, the paleontologist Samuel Wendell Williston would call Brown “the best man in the field that I ever had. He is very energetic, has great powers of endurance, walking thirty miles a day without fatigue, is very methodical in all his habits, and thoroughly honest.” In 1895, the two found a Triceratops skull in Wyoming. Williston helped place his protégé at the Museum of Natural History in New York, which at the time did not display one dinosaur. Brown only earned his B.A. a decade later.
Thus began a 66-year-career that yielded tons of fossils, including more than 32 specimens displayed at the Museum today—and boxes not yet processed there half a century after his death. Living life like a movie script, Brown survived shipwrecks in Patagonia, spy adventures in Turkey, malaria in Burma, and the wrath of jilted lovers worldwide. He consulted for oil companies, advising where to drill as he sought sites to excavate. His relationship with the Sinclair Oil Company proved particularly lucrative for him and for the company, whose logo still has a green Diplodocus dinosaur. He conveyed critical geological information to the government, even helping to plan invasions during World War II in areas he had explored. And he became a pop star, mobbed by fans wherever he toured, consulting with Walt Disney during the filming of Fantasia’s dinosaur sequence, and hosting his own CBS radio show.
Through it all, “Mr. Bones,” as he was known, kept digging and collecting, obsessed with what he called his “children,” his finds. Newspapers in less politically correct times enjoyed sensationalizing his discoveries of these “prehistoric monsters,” these “beasts,” found sometimes in “primeval ooze.”
Barnum described his greatest find, in Hell Creek, Montana, in 1902 (supplemented by more in 1908), with surprising understatement, writing: “Quarry No. 1 contains the femur, pubes, humerus, three vertebrae and two undetermined bones of a large Carnivorous Dinosaur not described by Marsh… I have never seen anything like it from the Cretaceous. These bones are imbedded in flint-like sandstone concretions and require a great deal of labor to extract.”
This “large Carnivorous Dinosaur” was the dreaded Tyrannosaurus rex, “King of the tyrant lizards.” Eventually, it would take 16 teams to haul the booty, with the iconic skull of the 40 foot long, 22 foot high creature weighing 4000 pounds alone.
Clearly, Barnum Brown tapped into a primal fear and fascination. When he was younger my son Aviv loved playing with these creatures because they weren’t “real,” even though he learned they were. Young and old alike still enjoy being terrified by imagining our modern world dominated by these monsters who once lived next door. At the same time, Brown’s cinematic life shows that despite the celebrity culture’s idiocy, despite the rigor academia demands, a touch of showmanship, colorful interpreters, can bring alive scholarship. It’s fashionable to disdain such globe-trotting, publicity-hungry, academics as superficial. But we need to thank egomaniacs like Barnum Brown for helping open otherwise obscure worlds to the rest of us.
Gil Troy is a historian and the author of a new book, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.