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Book Review Of: A Fossil-Hunter's Notebook

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a book review of:

"A Fossil-Hunter's Notebook: My Life with Dinosaurs and Other Friends" by Edwin H. Colbert. 1980. E.P Dutton. 242 pages. Original suggested retail price: $15.95 USD.

If you were a kid during the 1960's and 1970's and you wanted to learn everything there was to know about dinosaurs, you checked out everything available at the elementary school library. Deliriously happy that you were interested in reading, your parents, aunts, and uncles bought you every "dinosaur book" they could find. You started reading books intended for teenagers and adults. Among your favorite possessions were at least one title by Roy Chapman Andrews and one by Edwin H. Colbert.

A Fossil-Hunter's Notebook" is the autobiography of Dr. Edwin H. Colbert, a vertebrate paleontologist whose life spanned nearly the entire 20th century. He worked at the American Museum of Natural History for forty years: first as an assistant to a legendary scientist; after that as an assistant curator; and then for most of that time as a curator. He is perhaps best known for his study of Triassic tetrapods (especially amphibians, reptiles and early dinosaurs).

The first two chapters recall his earliest memories of small town life in Missouri up to his first couple of years at a local college. By the time he was twelve years old he was already keeping a collection of fossils. He joins the Boy Scouts in 1917 - the same year the United States enters World War I.

Chapters 3 and 4 cover his four summers (1924-1927) working for the U.S. Forest Service in Colorado and three undergraduate years at the University of Nebraska. He also worked as a student assistant at the university museum, directed at the time by Dr. Erwin Hinckley Barbour, a former student of Othniel Charles Marsh. Colbert had chosen that school because of an interest in fossil mammals which happened to be Barbour's specialty. In 1929 he is awarded a fellowship at Columbia so he moves to New York by the fall of that year.

Chapter 5 summarizes his schooling at Columbia which entailed graduate work at the American Museum of Natural History under the supervision of Dr. William King Gregory. At the time Gregory was perhaps the foremost authority on vertebrate paleontology. In 1930, Colbert accepts the position of scientific assistant to an aging Henry Fairfield Osborn, the man who founded the paleo department at AMNH, established the graduate program at Columbia, and arranged the collaboration of the two institutions among many other accomplishments. As a young man, he once met Charles Darwin. Colbert enters the publishing world co-authoring a technical article with Osborn.

Chapters 6 and 7 span the years of the Depression and World War II. Colbert married in 1933 and is hired as assistant curator at the museum the same year. However, by then the Depression was in full swing which forced severe budget cutbacks one of them being the suspension of all field expeditions. He finds part-time work at the Academy of Sciences in Philadelphia to help make ends meet.

In 1942 Colbert is selected to succeed a retiring Barnum Brown as Curator of Reptiles despite the fact his research projects have been focused on mammals. He contributes to a project studying alligators with inferences on dinosaur physiology - work which steers the next generation of paleontologists to look into the possibility that dinosaurs were warm-blooded.

The summer of 1947 is the primary subject of Chapter 8. That was the season Colbert started looking for Triassic fossils at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico. He had stopped there intending to continue on to the Petrified Forest in Arizona but another member of the expedition picks up some interesting specimens that immediately lead to a major find.

In Chapter 9 the author talks about his involvment with renovations done at the AMNH during the 1950's. He and George Gaylord Simpson had also taken over teaching of the vert paleo graduate courses after Dr. Gregory retired in 1945. In 1958 Colbert expands his writing career helping to found the journal, Curator (also its first editor). He also edits a couple of other scientific publications on top of continuing to write his own technical articles.

Chapters 10 through 15 recount his globetrotting adventures during the 1960's. He collects Triassic fossils in Brazil, Israel, South Africa, India, Australia, and even Antarctica. By 1962, his work was again shifting emphasis - more toward an interest in the distribution of Triassic faunas around the world rather than just the animals themselves. It was connected to his initial skepticism of the theory of continental drift, still disputed though gaining acceptance during those years. He would play an important role in finding a piece for that puzzle.

His book ends with an epilogue in which he looks to the future and observes that paleontologists rarely retire in the conventional sense. Colbert had just retired from AMNH by the time of his Antarctica trip in 1969-1970. In late 1969 he and his wife were still in the process of moving to Flagstaff, Arizona where he would, even years after the book's release, continue his research on fossil vertebrates.

By the end of Page 1 the reader learns that young Colbert had an great eye for detail - a prerequisite for any scientist. To a 21st century city kid his recollection of his boyhood home with its deep lot seemingly stretching to the edge of civilization might sound like another world. He doesn't get to his college years until page 35 but he holds the reader's interest with observations of early 20th century life in America.

While Colbert's descriptions of people and places are detailed in this book, he refrains from unspooling long reiterations of far-reaching theories. His review of the development of the theory of plate tectonics is relevant to his South African trip but is also brief. The reader can detect his disapproval of H.F. Osborn's imperious attitude but this is not a "tell-all book." He witnessed South African aparteid in person and reports local unrest elsewhere but he does not openly take sides. He expresses disgust toward the racial segregation he saw as a child but he does not speak out about the political issues of his time. In short this book is not a bullhorn for his personal views.

Today's autobiographies leak juicy details and launch outrageous claims with the author heroic but Colbert doesn't spend a single paragraph declaring himself the winner of anything. His achievements are presented as work he started or did with other people. He talks about learning from his students. He admits to being late to board the continental drift bandwagon. In this book he simply wanted to leave a record of his life in his own terms - a text as humble as the title.

Colbert was of course aware of his one degree of separation from Darwin (and Marsh through both Osborn and Barbour) but he also reveals a lifetime of direct links to other prominent researchers who were friends, colleagues, students, and acquaintances (Morris Skinner, Walter Granger, Teillard de Chardin, G.G. Simpson, Alfred Romer, Charles Craig Mook, Malcolm McKenna, Jim Jensen, and John Ostrom among others).

This book is not abundantly illustrated and every image is a black-and-white drawing, map, or photograph. Today's readers might see that as a negative but it is a format appropriate for the time of publication. Four or five pages can go by before the next photo but Colbert's language is so clearly descriptive that it seems supported by the right amount of illustration.

I recommend "A Fossil-Hunter's Notebook" to anyone looking for good biographies on scientists or books on the history of paleontology. By the 1950's Colbert was reaching his prime and his chosen field was maturing as well. He and his contemporaries were asking deeper questions of the past, seeking a more detailed understanding of not just the organisms but their interactions and their environments even as the earth itself was being unmasked.

I should add the reader does not get any indication of the true breadth of Colbert's publishing life in this book. The reader would have to seek out a special volume (Jacobs, ed. 1980) in order to view a listing of his nearly 400 technical articles, book reviews, colleague obituaries, magazine articles, and mainstream paleo-books. It turned out that the tribute was premature because he continued to add to his legacy for another 21 years - right up to his passing at the age of 96 in 2001.

Perhaps that volume honoring him and his work made him aware that he had been inspiring at least a generation of professional researchers. But for me and others of my generation who didn't choose science as a career but still appreciate it as something more than a hobby, Edwin H. Colbert is still remembered for his mainstream books too. I wonder if a lot of today's freshman paleo students immediately recognize his name. They will certainly become familiar with it in the technical literature if they have a future in the Triassic. Years from now, one of them might even work with someone who once met him.

Jess

Jacobs, L.L. (ed.). 1980.

Aspects of Vertebrate History: Essays in Honor of Edwin Harris Colbert. Museum of Northern Arizona Press.

Edited by siteseer

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Auspex

This sounds like a rich read; I just ordered a copy :)

Thanks!

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Fossildude19

Jess,

Thanks for another great book review.

I've added this book to my must read list.

I am familiar with Colbert from my research into the Jurassic fish of Connecticut, (once thought to be Triassic in age) and own a hard copy of his "Fossils of the Connecticut Valley: The Age of Dinosaurs Begins", as well as PDF formats of some of his other dino papers as well.

Thank you once again for the terrific review.

Regards,

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siteseer

Thanks, Chas and Tim. I had never heard of it until several years ago when I found a copy in a local used bookstore. I decided to read it again earlier this year. I checked to see if a second edition with maybe a revised epilogue or extra chapter had been released but haven't found anything. I know Colbert did publish a monograph on Coelophysis later in the 1980's.

I'd like to read some of his book reviews and other articles. About ten years ago, I did pick up a copy of that volume honoring him.

Jess

Jess,

Thanks for another great book review.

I've added this book to my must read list.

I am familiar with Colbert from my research into the Jurassic fish of Connecticut, (once thought to be Triassic in age) and own a hard copy of his "Fossils of the Connecticut Valley: The Age of Dinosaurs Begins", as well as PDF formats of some of his other dino papers as well.

Thank you once again for the terrific review.

Regards,

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