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Good Reads  Palaeontology  Palaeontology: General

King of the Dinosaur Hunters The Life of John Bell Hatcher and the Discoveries that Shaped Paleontology

Biography / Memoir
By: Lowell Dingus(Author)
544 pages, 24 plates with colour & b/w photos and colour & b/w illustrations
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Meticulous in its historical detail, King of the Dinosaur Hunters is the definitive biography of the quietly famous and influential fossil collector John Bell Hatcher.
King of the Dinosaur Hunters
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  • King of the Dinosaur Hunters ISBN: 9781681778655 Hardback Jan 2019 Temporarily out of stock: order now to get this when available
Price: £24.99
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About this book

The story of the extraordinary adventures behind the man who has discovered some of the amazing wonders of natural history.

Every year millions of museum visitors marvel at the skeletons of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures discovered by John Bell Hatcher. The life of the "King of Collectors" is every bit as fascinating as the mighty bones and fossils he unearthed.

Hatcher helped discover and mount much of the Carnegie Museum's world-famous, 150 million-year-old skeleton of Diplodocus, a slender-necked, long-tailed, plant-eater whose skeleton has captivated our collective imaginations for more than a century. But that wasn't all Hatcher discovered. During a now-legendary collecting campaign in Wyoming between 1889 and 1892, Hatcher discovered a 66 million-year-old horned dinosaur, Torosaurus, as well as the first scientifically significant set of skeletons from its evolutionary cousin, Triceratops. Refusing to restrict his talents to enormous dinosaurs, he also discovered the first significant sample of mammal teeth from our relatives that lived 66 million years ago. The teeth might have been minute, but this extraordinary discovery filled a key gap in humanity's own evolutionary history.

Hatcher's discoveries form the bases of some of the most beloved and well-known collections and institutions in the world – Yale, The Peabody Museum, Princeton University, the Carnegie Museum, and more. Nearly one hundred and twenty-five years after Hatcher's monumental "hunts" ended, acclaimed palaeontologist Lowell Dingus invites us to revisit Hatcher's captivating expeditions and marvel at this real-life Indiana Jones and the vital role he played in our understanding of palaeontology.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A biography of meticulous historical detail
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 10 Dec 2018 Written for Hardback

    When I think of turn-of-the-20th-century palaeontology, names such as Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope are the first to come to mind. Their infamous rivalry, known as the Bone Wars, relied heavily on field collectors who did the back-breaking labour of prospecting and quarrying for fossils. Most of these bone hunters are barely remembered, and John Bell Hatcher might very well have remained thus. This meticulous biography by American palaeontologist Lowell Dingus saves Hatcher from obscurity and documents both his hugely successful work as a bone hunter, as well as his later stellar but tragically short-lived career as a curator.

    Dingus first sets the stage by introducing Cope, Marsh and the Bone Wars (for fuller historical accounts, see The Bonehunters'Revenge and The Gilded Dinosaur). Hatcher comes into the picture midway through this scientific feud, when Marsh employs the then 22-year-old Hatcher in 1884. Following the three major stages of Hatcher’s career, Dingus has split his book into three sections. The archives of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, Princeton University, and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History contain voluminous correspondence between Hatcher and his various employers. Closely examining these, Dingus gives an almost blow-by-blow account of Hatcher’s work, enumerating the fossils uncovered, the number of crates shipped back from field locations, and all the budgetary details involved.

    Numerous excerpts from letters reveal the hardships that Hatcher exposed himself to as he worked nearly year-round in the field, braving heavy rain, blizzards, and biting cold. A recurring refrain in the early stages seemed to be Marsh’s tardiness in providing funds in a timely manner, as witnessed by Hatcher’s frequent prickly admonishments. Though from a modest background, Hatcher was never afraid to speak his mind and would openly bicker with his superiors in private correspondence and scientific publications.

    I admit that after the first 100-or-so pages I was bit taken aback. King of the Dinosaur Hunters is not necessarily a light read as Dingus goes into comprehensive detail. Things become more and more interesting though as you keep reading. By 1893, Hatcher, increasingly dissatisfied, left Marsh’s employ after nine years to work at Princeton University for William Berryman Scott, a disciple of Marsh’s archrival Cope. It paid off handsomely for Hatcher, as he negotiated a position as curator of vertebrate palaeontology that allowed him to oversee the curation and preparation of fossils, do research on them, and publish his own findings. Several extended stints to Patagonia followed as he collected tremendous amounts of fossil material from southern South America.

    Throughout, he had frequent spats with the president of the American Museum of Natural History, Henry Fairfield Osborn, who was also a close friend of his employer Scott. By 1899 things had again come to a head and Hatcher once more jumped ship, ending up working for William J. Holland, the director of the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. This last phase of his career is where Hatcher’s star really rose as he became a fully-fledged curator, sending out his own teams of bone hunters and publishing numerous scientific papers and monographs. This is also where other famous names enter the picture, such as competing hotshot Barnum Brown (see Dingus’s other biography Barnum Brown, co-authored with Mark Norell), and palaeoartist Charles R. Knight whom Hatcher employed to prepare illustrations of Triceratops (one of which graces the dust jacket of this book).

    As Davidson showed in her book Patrons of Paleontology, and as will be explored in much more detail still in the forthcoming Assembling the Dinosaur, Hatcher’s work at the Carnegie Museum was a prime example of how this branch of science was enabled by the financial support of wealthy business tycoons such as Andrew Carnegie, who did a spot of philanthropy on the side. Furthermore, Dingus’s book answers many of the questions I raised in my review of Patrons of Palaeontology on the costs of expeditions versus the costs of publications.

    The picture that emerges of Hatcher is of a person who was at times testy, tempestuous, and easily offended. At the same time, he was furiously dedicated to his craft and his employer, whoever that happened to be. Though he married and had children, he barely saw his family, regularly spending 10-11 months per year crisscrossing the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains region of the US, and later Patagonia. His sudden death in 1904 tragically cut short a blossoming career that could have been even more influential.

    Even so, Hatcher left a tremendous legacy, and many of the fossils he collected are on public display to this day in prominent American museums and elsewhere. “Dippy”, the dinosaur skeleton that until recently greeted you at the entrance of the London Natural History Museum, is a cast from the Diplodocus carnegii skeletal mount that was collected under Hatcher’s supervision (see also Dippy). In the end, Hatcher and his crews collected over 8000 specimens that represented many new species and became the basis for museum collections that are relevant to this day. And this era has been hailed as a second dinosaur rush (see also The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush).

    Dingus, in turn, has written a definitive biography of exhaustive detail. Far more than a casual read, he provides meticulous documentation, as evidenced by a 14-page glossary of genera opening the book, current museum catalogue numbers throughout the text, appendices that list contracts and agreements between Marsh and Hatcher and year-by-year lists of all the specimens collected, and a separate bibliography for Hatcher.

    This level of detail should delight palaeontologists and science historians. But what elevates this book from a mere catalogue of facts and achievements are the beforementioned excerpts and the rich reading that Dingus provides of conditions in the field, the hardships and frustrations, as well as the tremendous strokes of luck. Though remembered by vertebrate palaeontologists, this biography will reacquaint the wider public with this legendary bone hunter and convinces why Hatcher is worthy of the epithet “King of the Dinosaur Hunters”.
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Lowell Dingus, Ph.D., is a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History in New York as well as at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. He has directed numerous significant fossil exhibits and has led various paleontological expeditions around the world, including the Patagonian excavation that uncovered the first fossilized skin from an embryonic dinosaur. He has coauthored several books, including Walking on Eggs and The Mistaken Extinction. Lowell lives in New York City.

Biography / Memoir
By: Lowell Dingus(Author)
544 pages, 24 plates with colour & b/w photos and colour & b/w illustrations
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Meticulous in its historical detail, King of the Dinosaur Hunters is the definitive biography of the quietly famous and influential fossil collector John Bell Hatcher.
Media reviews

"From a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History, an exhaustive biography of an adventurous bone hunter, a leading figure in the heroic age of American paleontology. There is no lack of fascinating anecdotes. Will interest paleontology buffs."
– Kirkus Reviews

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