Deane’s “Ichnographs from the Sandstone of Connecticut River”

Dinosaur fossil book013Nineteenth-century Greenfield, Massachusetts, physician James Deane published numerous papers in medicine, but he had an equal love for the science of interpreting fossil footprints, of which he was an early discoverer. His magnum opus was Ichnographs from the Sandstone of Connecticut River was published in 1861. He did not live to see the publication, nor even to finish his manuscript, yet it made him a place in the history of the study of fossil traces and even in the history of photography: one extant copy has a penciled-in comment inside the front cover stating that it was the first book in the United States to use photographs for scientific illustration. This is not quite accurate: it was the second. The honor of being first goes to John Collins Warren’s 1854 Remarks on Some Fossil Impressions in the Sandstone Rocks of Connecticut River. The similarity in topic is not quite so coincidental as it may seem, for the two men knew one another through the Massachusetts Medical Association and the Boston Society of Natural History, and Deane sold specimens to Warren from time to time–but that is a story for another day.

When he died from typhoid fever on June 10, 1858, at the age of only 57, Deane had completed the book’s illustrations but not the text. His friends, not wanting his work to go to waste, gathered his notes and illustrations. They obtained permission from the Smithsonian to use the illustrations created under their subsidy, as they had originally supported the project, and their commitment to buy copies of the printed book. That, along with subscriptions from Deane’s friends and scientific colleagues, was enough to move the project ahead.

The book became a cooperative enterprise. The task of bringing coherence to the mass of notes and pictures fell to Thomas T. Bouve, of Hingham, MA, long-time member and later president of the Boston Society of Natural History (which eventually became the Boston Museum of Science). Bouve enlisted the help of Amherst College’s famed Edward Hitchcock, the first scientist ever to study and publish about the fossil footprints, and Roswell Field, a farmer whose property in the small town of Gill contained some of the richest fossil beds in the region. With Hitchcock and Field advising him, Bouve pieced the work together. Augustus Gould, the respected Harvard conchologist (shells) and malacologist (mollusks), wrote a brief explanation to the reader of how the book had come into being. Henry Ingersoll Bowditch, prominent physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and an active abolitionist, wrote a short biography of Deane. The book was finally published in 1861 under the imprint of Little, Brown and Company, in Boston.

Title page of Deane’s book. Photograph by Michelle Langan.

Its 61 pages and 46 plates make up a coffee-table-style book lavishly illustrated with lithographs and photographs. Deane admitted freely that he was no geologist and was largely ignorant of the subject when he first wrote to Edward Hitchcock 1835 about the mysterious footprints his neighbor had found, but over the years, he picked up a good deal. He learned much from Hitchcock, including the need to compare fossil tracks to those of living animals. Plate 21 in the book shows the tracks of a living crocodile, for comparison to similar looking fossil tracks.

Plate 21 shows the tracks of a modern crocodile. Photograph by Michelle Langan.

Plate 30 shows reptilian footprints on either side of a swinging line created by a dragging tail. There are also raindrop impressions on this slab.

Plate 30, fossil reptile prints with tail drag mark. Photo by Michelle Langan.

In its online catalogue, the Metropolitan Museum of Art describes the photographs as “salted paper prints . . . made by an unknown photographer working under Deane’s direction.” The Met’s catalogue is well worth a look, as you can zoom in on illustrations to see up close the delicate insect trails in a sample of the “direct photographs from the original stones.” Bouve wrote that “perhaps none have excited more astonishment upon the minds of beholders” than this particular set of “delineations of the tracks of insects, or possibly of small crustaceans.” They are astonishing today, too, not only for the fossils but for the minuscule level of detail that the photographic images’ high resolution supports:

There is more to say about this book, but that will wait for another post.

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