Roswell Field Addresses the AAAS

In August 1859, the 13th annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science was held in Springfield, Massachusetts. It was quite the gala event that took over the town. There were speeches in the daytime and grand dinners and parties at night.

The meeting was organized and led by the scientific luminaries of the day: Alexander Dallas Bache (who was, incidentally, a great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin), Joseph Henry, Louis Agassiz, James Dana, Benjamin Silliman, Charles T. Jackson, Edward Hitchcock (as Vice President that year), H.D. Rogers, James Hall, Joseph Leidy, and many more — the men who were making the monumental effort of putting American science on a strong institutional footing so that scientists here would no longer have to feel inferior to their British and European counterparts. Departments and specialties were growing in the colleges and universities. American science was becoming  professionalized.

This push toward professionalization makes it all the more surprising that Roswell Field was able to present his paper, “Ornithichnites,” at the meeting, because Mr. Field was not a professional scientist. What little we know about Field shows him to be a farmer–or one who owned a farm, at any rate–who harvested logs for lumber and had his hands in a number of local commercial and civic projects. It so happened that his land on the banks of the Connecticut River in Gill, Massachusetts, contained some of the richest ichnofossil beds known at the time. Mr. Field dug up “fossil bird tracks” (dinosaur footprints) on his own, leased the land to quarriers, and may have hired men to quarry the footprints, fish fossils, insect trails, and structural formations such as raindrop impressions, water ripple marks, and mud cracks. With all this so near his house, Field was considered by many to have seen the greatest number and variety of fossil tracks as compared to any scientist of the day (a claim he was not too shy to make himself), including Edward Hitchcock, whose scientific studies of the tracks were unparalleled. Field and Hitchcock knew one another through Field’s sales of fossils to Hitchcock’s museum at Amherst College.

Field’s presentation was not a simple show-and-tell. He had a theoretical announcement to make: The tracks should all be classified as reptilian, he said, not ornithic, and the creatures were all quadrupeds. For this, Roswell Field is often credited with attributing the tracks to dinosaurs. He never uses that word in the paper, although he certainly knew it, so the claim may be an overreach, but he still made the connection to dinosaurs a step or two away from the bird theory and closer to the reptilian image of dinosaurs that prevailed for over a century.

While field geology is probably more open to amateurs than many other sciences, it is hard to imagine someone with Roswell Field’s background today making such a presentation at a prestigious scientific meeting. Professionalization makes sense, of course. There is so much to be known in each small area, and often such specialized equipment is needed, that amateurism is too limited to get us very far; yet amateurs can make real contributions to science, finding fossils being an easy example. Just as important, the more people are engaged in science at any level, the better they can participate knowledgeably in national conversations on education and policy.

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