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The Peabody’s “Bone-Digger”

Othniel C. Marsh bagged boxcars full of dinosaur bones for Yale, dodging buffalo and befriending Indians along the way.

Since the Peabody Museum of Natural History opened on its present Whitney Avenue site in 1931, visitors have gazed with wonder on the 67-foot brontosaurus (recently renamed apatosaurus) skeleton that dominates the museum’s great hall. But the man responsible for bringing the skeleton to Yale, Othniel Charles Marsh, never saw his find reassembled, because the original museum didn’t have room to display it. But if Marsh—who died 100 years ago this month—missed out on one thrill, he surely had his share during a distinguished career as America’s first professor of paleontology.

At his death, Marsh was eulogized in the New York Times as “probably Yale’s most famous scholar on account of his marvelous achievements in paleontology.” His scientific achievements were even more remarkable for a man who received his first academic appointment at the age of 35, and whose real genius was revealed far from the laboratory and the library—on expeditions to the Western plains and mountains where he and his “bone-diggers” harvested thousands of prehistoric fossils.

Born in 1831 in Lockport, New York, Marsh grew up on the family farm near Niagara Falls and became a skilled amateur geologist. But his formal education was limited until, at the age of 21, he inherited the dowry provided for his mother by her brother, the philanthropist George Peabody. Marsh then prepared for Yale at Andover and graduated from Yale College in 1860. Two years of study at the Sheffield Scientific School, followed by three more in German universities, completed his education in geology and zoology.

In 1866, Yale appointed Marsh to a new professorship in paleontology, the first in America. The chair was endowed by his uncle, who soon afterward donated $150,000 to build and support a natural history museum. Under Marsh’s direction, the first wing of the Peabody Museum, at the corner of Elm and High Street, was completed by 1876, when the English scientist Thomas Huxley wrote: “There is no collection of fossil vertebrata in existence which can be compared to it.”

Marsh led four Yale scientific expeditions from 1870 to 1873, assisted by his students. In 1871 Marsh’s party discovered the first pterodactyl found in the U.S. While exploring the Dakota Bad Lands in 1874, Marsh met Red Cloud, the great chief of the Sioux, and learned of the abuse of his people by government agents. Marsh then became the chief’s champion in Washington. After a bitter fight with the Department of the Interior brought about significant reforms, Red Cloud became a close friend of “the bone-hunting chief” and visited him in New Haven in 1883. Marsh became a popular lecturer, thrilling audiences with tales of his adventures riding for his life in a stampeding herd of buffalo and preparing Thanksgiving dinner on the plains.

In 1877, Marsh began to actively hunt for dinosaur remains and amassed boxcar loads of late Jurassic and Cretaceous forms. (The great brontosaurus, which he first described in 1879, was dug out in 1881.) Marsh was one of America’s earliest exponents of Darwinian theory, and Darwin wrote in 1880 that Marsh’s finds had “afforded the best support to the theory of evolution that had appeared” since the publication of his Origin of Species in 1859.

But when Marsh returned from his travels, he made sure he had a comfortable place to call home. With a substantial inheritance from his uncle, Marsh engaged J. Cleveland Cady to design a mansion on an imposing ten-acre site at the crest of Prospect Street. Completed in 1878, the massive four-story stone house features a large tower with a roof in the shape of a wigwam.

A lifelong bachelor, Marsh left his collections and most of his estate to Yale. His house became the first home of the School of Forestry, and its beautifully planted grounds and greenhouses—including a collection of 2000 orchids—became a University botanical garden, considered to be the first of its kind. Today Marsh Hall and the Marsh Botanical Garden (later redesigned by Beatrix Farrand) continue to be used by the forestry school for instruction and research.  the end


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