James Deane, Fossil Footprint Pioneer

james deane from orig photoOver the last couple of years, Dr. Robert Herbert has been researching and writing about the four primary figures in the 1835 discovery of dinosaur footprints in western Massachusetts. This is an event worth celebrating. I’m happy to announce that the last of these papers, the first serious study ever of Dr. James Deane, is now available on line on the Mount Holyoke College web site and can be accessed here:  https://ida.mtholyoke.edu  (click View/Open near the bottom of the page)

One of the interesting aspects of this particular story of discovery is how many amateur geologists were involved. While Edward Hitchcock is extremely well documented (although still awaits a true biography), the other figures — Dexter Marsh, Roswell Field, and James Deane — were not nearly so well known in their day and left few papers behind. Fortunately, there is just enough material for Bob Herbert to make sense of their lives, at least as they pertained to the “fossil footmarks,” so a picture of the whole story is beginning to emerge.

Deane was only in his late 50s when he died in 1859, leaving behind a set of spectacular photographs and other illustrations of the dinosaur footprints and other ichnofossils. He had not completed the writing for his planned book, for which he had an arrangement with the Smithsonian. However, his colleagues and members of the Boston Society of Natural History realized that the book was still worth publishing, so they raised subscriptions and had the book published by Little, Brown and Co. in 1861. It looks as if 200 copies were printed, if the prospectus was completely fulfilled.

I will put links to all the relevant papers — Hitchcock, Marsh, Field, and Deane — on one page sometime. In the meantime, I’ll let the MHC site do the introduction:

“This is the first biography of Dr. James Deane (1801-1858) of Greenfield MA, a pioneer in the discovery and interpretation of the first dinosaur prints ever found. He conducted two careers simultaneously, one in medicine––he published several key articles on surgery in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal––and the other in paleontology, where he also published importantly. In 1835 he informed Amherst’s Edward Hitchcock, the state geologist, of the sandstone prints of a prehistoric animal then thought to be a large bird. Hitchcock founded the new science of Ichnology (stony bird tracks) and took the lead, but in the early 1840s Deane began publishing new finds and the two became rivals. Deane’s posthumous book of 1861, Ichnographs from the Sandstone of Connecticut River, was among the first to publish salt print photographs of fossil “bird” prints, subsequently identified as dinosaur tracks.”

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