Thursday, 17 July 2014

More Highlights from ‘The Rarest of the Rare.Stories behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.’

The museum was transformed from an academic backwater to a world class player by the appointment of Louis Agassiz, the famous and inspirational Swiss expert on fossil fish in 1848. He established the Museum of Comparative Zoology with a hard won grant of $100,000 from the Massachusetts Government on the understanding that the museum would be open to the public.

Ironically, one of his purposes was to discredit Darwin’s recent theories of evolution.
His son, Alexander, became the museums’s director after his father’s death in 1873 and stayed in the post for 40 years. He had previously made a fortune from copper mining in Michigan and donated over 1 million dollars to the museum during his life … that’s the sort of Director a museum needs.

Alexander did accept Darwin’s evolutionary theories but disagreed with his views on atoll formation. Darwin believed they were the result of sinking volcanoes. Agassiz disagreed and visited most of the coral reef regions of the world at great expense. He was wrong. Darwin ‘s theories are now accepted as correct.

Alfred Wallace, the English naturalist, who came up with a theory of natural selection independently at the same time as Darwin, visited the museum in 1886 and found it, ‘far in advance’, of the British Museum which he said displayed, ‘countless masses of unorganised specimens in gloomy halls’.

Harvard purchased a major meteorite collection in 1883. Current thinking at the time was that meteorites came from volcanic eruptions on the moon.

In 1927, Thomas Barbor took over as Director, an ambition he had nurtured from the age of 13. He installed electricity, revamped the exhibits and placed specimens he considered worthless on the museum lawn for anyone to take away. He was a big fellow and his autobiography, ‘Naturalist at Large’, was a pun on his size.

He is most famous for the ‘frog toss’. He argued with a fellow naturalist about the origin of life in the West Indies, insisting that the islands were once connected. His colleague insisted that animals spread from one island to the next by sea (on rafts) or by air (carried by hurricanes). To prove the point, his colleague climbed the 5 storeys of the museum with several live frogs which he tossed out of a window, one by one. Barbor and an assembled audience watched the carnage from ground level and noted that each frog was killed by the impact. A few minutes later the stunned frogs recovered and hopped away. In fact, both scientists were correct.

Zoologist Harold J Coolidge collected specimens for the museum by shooting them – including whole families of gibbons and a giant gorilla that is still on display. He saw the error of his ways in later life and was a founding member of the World Wildlife Fund.

James Watson ,who discovered the structure of DNA with Francis Crick ,was an Assistant Professor at Harvard in 1916. A traditional biologist, later to become a good friend, described him at the time as, ‘the most unpleasant person I have ever met. He had a conviction that biology must be transformed into a science directed at molecules and cells and rewritten in the language of physics and chemistry. What had gone before, ‘traditional’ biology ,my biology ,was infested with stamp collectors who lacked the art to transform their subject into a modern science. He treated the other 24 members of the Department of Biology with a revolutionary’s fervent disrespect.’

Charles Doolittle Walcott made his name by discovering and working on the Burgess Shale in Canada while at the Smithsonian Institute. He became a world-class palaeontologist and Secretary of the Smithsonian despite never finishing school. Aged 20, he gave up his job in a hardware store and moved to Trenton Falls, New York State, where he built up an impressive collection of fossils, including 325 complete trilobites, 190 crinoids and 6 starfish. Louis Agassiz bought the collection for the museum for the princely sum (in those days) of $3,500.

‘Darwin’s Sand Dollar’, is a prize historical fossil, which Charles Darwin collected in Patagonia while on the Beagle, and sent to Louis Agassiz for identification.

Twelve fossil butterfly species have been identified from 35 million year old rocks from Florissant, Colorado. Examples of eight of these are in the museum collection and were first described by the museum.

Harvard sent an expedition to Australia in the 1930s to collect extant marsupials. They also returned with 6 ton blocks of stone that had been dynamited from the ground in North Queensland ,containing a massive Pliosaur specimen. The 9 foot long skull, with teeth as big as bananas, took several years to prepare and the blocks containing the rest of the animal were untouched for more than a decade. The skeleton was about 60% complete and reconstructed under the guidance of the famous Harvard Palaeontologist Alfred Romer. It was set in plaster and is still on display. However current research suggests Romer added 8 too many plaster vertebrae to compete the skeleton and it should be 30 feet long, not the present 42 feet.

Alfred Romer was the author of Vertebrate Palaeontology’, the standard textbook on the subject for over 50 years. He was also an active field collector, especially in the Permian Red Beds of Central Texas. The museum owns the type specimen of Dimetrodon, an almost complete skeleton that Romer found. The purpose of Dimetrodon’s sail-like membrane that runs along its body, is still under debate. Main theories are that it had a function to heat and cool the body or that it had a sexual display function.
When Romer was in Argentina, police illegally seized all the fossils he collected. They were later returned. International fossil politics are not a new phenomenon!

More highlights to come!!

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