James Deane

James Deane was one of the earliest people to write about fossil dinosaur footprints.  In the history of the discovery of dinosaur footprints, Deane is known primarily for his argument with Edward Hitchcock, of Amherst College, over which of them should receive credit for priority in discovery (a tale for another day) and for his book on the subject.

He was born to a farming family in Colrain in 1801, the youngest of eight children, and moved to Greenfield around 1820 to apprentice as a lawyer with a prominent Greenfield attorney named Elijah Alvord. After two or three years, Deane decided to go into medicine instead of law, but life with the Alvords was pleasant, so he continued to live there while studying with a local physician, Amariah Brigham (who later became well known as a psychiatrist). In 1829, he moved to New York to study at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, then part of Columbia College (today, Columbia University). He returned to Greenfield in 1831 to establish his medical practice, in which he became widely respected.

When his neighbor Dexter Marsh showed him a slab of rock with what appeared to be fossil bird tracks embedded in it, Deane wrote the state geologist, Edward Hitchcock, professor at then-young Amherst College. Despite Hitchcock’s initially skeptical response, Deane persisted in trying to persuade him that the tracks had been made by a living creature and were not due to some other geological process. When Hitchcock finally came to view the tracks for himself, he realized at once that Deane was correct, and made the study of the “fossil bird tracks” the centerpiece of his geological work for the rest of his life. Hitchcock published the first article on the tracks in the American Journal of Science in January 1836. Often called Silliman’s Journal because of its close identification with its founder and editor, Benjamin Silliman, of Yale, this was the most highly regarded scientific publication in the United States at the time, with a reputation extending to Britain and Europe.

While Deane lost to Hitchcock the opportunity to be the first to publish about the tracks, he continued to hunt for the footprints and read widely to educate himself in geology. In 1842, at the request of Silliman, he sent plaster casts of the tracks to Gideon Mantell of the Geological Society of London, accompanied by a letter explaining how he thought they had been produced. By this time, he had learned much from Hitchcock, and it is not clear which ideas in this letter were his original thoughts and which were Hitchcock’s. The Society credited Deane as “original observer” of the tracks, at the same time thanking Hitchcock for his pioneering work in deciphering their meaning and creating a taxonomy.

Deane died of typhoid fever, a bacterial disease spread by contact with contaminated food or water, in 1858. He left behind him fully prepared illustrations and photographs for a book on the tracks, but the unfinished text had to be completed by colleagues, including Roswell Field and Edward Hitchcock. Most of the writing was done by Thomas Bouve, president of the Boston Society of Natural History (which later grew into today’s Boston Museum of Science). The book was published by Little, Brown Publishers under an arrangement with the Smithsonian Institution in 1861. According to the Smithsonian, it is the second American work to use photographs as scientific illustration, and the first to make extensive use of them. Interestingly, the first book here to use photographs in this way was also about the fossil footprints of the Connecticut River Valley, but that, too, is a tale for another day.

Photographs courtesy of Ed Gregory. Original of James Deane photo is held at the Historical Society of Greenfield in Greenfield, MA.

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