Edward Hitchcock, 150 years

Professor Edward Hitchcock of Amherst College the first scientist to study and publish on the fossil bird tracks, now known as dinosaur footprints, of the Connecticut River Valley. Courtesy of Amherst College Archives and Special Collections.

Today is the 150th anniversary of the death of Edward Hitchcock, the father of ichnology, the field he named using Greek roots that mean “the study of traces.” He was born in Deerfield, Massachusetts, on May 24, 1793, and died in Amherst on February 27, 1864, less than a year after the death of his wife, Orra. Theirs had been an extraordinarily close marriage intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally, so it is not surprising that he did not long survive her. 

Initially, when a local doctor wrote him about footprint-like impressions in sandstone sidewalk, Hitchcock thought the marks were merely a fluke. However, when he went to see for himself, he immediately realized that they were of animal origin, due not only to their shape, but to their left-right-left-right walking pattern. All agreed that the marks looked like bird footprints, and although some investigators later put more emphasis on their reptilian characteristics, Hitchcock maintained that they were the tracks of  enormous prehistoric birds until the day he died. Today, we call those birds dinosaurs.

Hitchcock taught chemistry, geology, and natural theology at Amherst College for nearly 40 years and for 10 of those years was the school’s president. He was a founder of the national geological society that within a few years changed its name to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He wrote about the evidence of glaciation so common in his region, but at the end of his life believed that his work on the “fossil bird tracks” was his most singular contribution to his beloved science of geology.

His papers today are held in the archives of Amherst College, with other family papers held by the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, in his hometown of Deerfield.

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