Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor)
10 Dec 2019
Written for Hardback
If you visited the London Natural History Museum sometime before 2015 you will have been greeted by the skeleton of a sauropod dinosaur: a plaster cast of Diplodocus
affectionately nicknamed Dippy. Dippy has left the building but is not the only such cast in existence. Historian Ilja Nieuwland here traces the little-known history of the philanthropic campaign that saw Scottish-born business magnate Andrew Carnegie donate plaster casts to museums around the world. Drawing on a wealth of archival material, he examines Carnegie’s reasons and the response of the recipients and the general audience, adding a valuable and surprisingly interesting chapter to the history of palaeontology as a discipline.
This book slots in beautifully with several recent books on the history of American palaeontology around the turn of the 19th century. Carnegie’s campaign is part of a larger story of business tycoons using dinosaur fossils to impress and I am reviewing this book back-to-back with Assembling the Dinosaur
. Furthermore, this book starts off pretty much where the biography of American fossil collector John Bell Hatcher ended (see King of the Dinosaur Hunters
). One of the last things Hatcher did before his death was to contribute to making the first plaster cast that Carnegie would donate.
But let us back up a little. Who was Andrew Carnegie, and why was he handing out plaster casts of dinosaurs as if they were going out of fashion? In very short, Carnegie was born in Scotland in 1835, after which his family emigrated to Pennsylvania when he was 12. His career is the classic rags-to-riches story: making his fortunes first in oil and then in steel production, he rapidly became one of the world’s wealthiest people. Not content, he retired early and set off on a programme of philanthropy, funding museums, the arts, and especially libraries. He was particularly keen to resolve global conflict through the creation of an international tribunal. To that end, he mingled, and loved to be seen mingling, with politicians and royalty. Carnegie’s philanthropic activities thus served an ulterior motive.
In 1886, Carnegie funded the building of a library in his hometown of Pittsburgh, which brought him in contact with William Jacob Holland, the chancellor of the local university. Holland urged Carnegie to think bigger and the library turned into a number of scientific institutes, including The Carnegie Museum of Natural History, headed by Holland. And this is where Diplodocus
enters the story.
The infamous Bone Wars between Cope and Marsh had at this point died down somewhat and had yielded large sauropod fossils. As also documented in Patrons of Paleontology
and especially The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush
, a shift in power was taking place in palaeontology from individual scientists to large institutes financed by wealthy patrons such as Carnegie who used palaeontology as a public relations exercise. And Carnegie was keen to get himself one of those newfangled sauropods for his museum, to compete with displays in other museums. It was Hatcher who found and described Diplodocus carnegii
(see also Bone Wars
A chance visit by the English king Edward VII to the Carnegie household in Scotland resulted in what Nieuwland dryly describes as “His Majesty notices a drawing”. Yes, the King would very much like one of these skeletons for the British Museum. Carnegie wasted no time and after deliberation with Holland, the latter suggested that making a cast might be more feasible than trying to find another complete specimen in the field. And while we are at it, Holland suggested, we could make multiple casts and give them to other heads of state. And so it came to pass.
From here on Nieuwland's book proceeds largely chronologically. While the original went on display in Pittsburgh, the first cast was unveiled very successfully in London in 1903, followed over the next decades by Germany, France, Austria, Italy, Russia, Argentina, Spain, and Mexico. Nieuwland goes into great detail here, mining historical archives, correspondence, and newspaper articles to reveal how these gifts were received, what the media had to say about them, and how they played into the contemporary imagination in satire, art, and journalism.
I admit I was initially a bit sceptical about the book’s pitch: how interesting can it be to read about the history of a plaster cast? As it turns out, really interesting. Nieuwland has a knack for presenting a lively and atmospheric picture of the 19th century. His introduction sets the tone when he ruefully remarks that: “This was perhaps the last time in human history in which unfettered trust in scientific method and advances could be considered commonplace, and one in which the pursuit of scientific knowledge carried a prestige it never regained.” Rare period photographs liven up Nieuwland’s narrative further.
casts, however, are but a token in this story. It was interesting to see how subsequent unveilings went mostly little reported and hardly noticed. The Parisians, who absolutely adored “their” Diplodocus
, are the exception and stand in stark contrast to the Austrians who felt the cast was almost foisted upon them. But this did not bother Carnegie in the least, they were just a means to an end. Once his requirement – that the request for a cast was publicly communicated by a head of state – was met, the actual gifting and unveiling of the cast was a formality left to Holland and his team to sort out. And even receiving heads of state were usually not present here. Partially the novelty of these donations quickly wore off, partially newer and larger fossils demanded attention (Germany, for example, unearthed large fossils in East Africa, see African Dinosaurs Unearthed
Similarly, the biology of Diplodocus
is not the focus of this story, nor was it something that particularly interested Carnegie. Nieuwland describes his book as an “object biography”. The one episode where the science intersects with these casts was when some American palaeontologists started questioning its life reconstruction, arguing for a more reptilian, sprawling posture. This argument was enthusiastically embraced in Germany and nearly resulted in a diplomatic spat between the US and Germany over whose approach to palaeontology was superior, combining scientific with political and ideological arguments.
American Dinosaur Abroad
offers a fascinating and well-researched look into palaeontology at the turn of the 19th century, and how interest in dinosaurs reverberated, and was used, outside of scientific circles. If you have any interest in the history of palaeontology as a discipline this book shines a light on a little-known episode.