James Deane was a doctor in Greenfield, Massachusetts, who published numerous papers in medicine and science in the mid-19th century. While he was esteemed as physician and surgeon, we remember him here because of his role in the first scientific discovery of dinosaur footprints. The records of the discovery are murky, but we do know that Dr. Deane sent letters to Benjamin Silliman at Yale, Edward Hitchcock at Amherst College, and other unnamed scientists to notify them of what appeared to be bird tracks in slabs of sandstone being laid for sidewalk near his home in late winter 1835. His magnum opus was not on a medical topic, but a beautifully illustrated book called Ichnographs from the Sandstone of Connecticut River.
He did not live to see its publication in 1861, yet this book made him a place in the history of the study of fossil traces and even in the history of photography: at least one copy has a penciled 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 true, as the honor of being first goes to John Collins Warren’s 1854 Remarks on Some Fossil Impressions in the Sandstone Rocks of Connecticut River, and even that book used a photograph of a fossil probably belonging to Deane. A single photograph was tipped by hand into the front of each copy of Warren’s book, but Deane’s book contained his illustrations (he had an artistic knack) and photographs created under his direction. Deane and Warren knew one another through the Massachusetts Medical Association and the Boston Society of Natural History, but their personal friendship apparently developed through their mutual love of fossils. When he died from typhoid fever on June 10, 1858, at the age of only 57,
Deane had completed the book’s illustrations but only part of the text. His friends, not wanting his work to go to waste, gathered his notes and illustrations. The Smithsonian had subsidized the book’s creation, so their cooperation was obtained, and subscriptions were raised from friends and scientific colleagues to pay for the printing. The book was published in 1861 under the imprint of Little, Brown and Company, in Boston. Unfortunately, between a fire at the Smithsonian that destroyed its early records, and the vagaries of keeping track of obscure books for well over a century at Little, Brown, the records of publication have been lost. Deane’s 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 who knew Deane quite well and whose property in the small town of Gill contained some of the richest fossil beds in the region. As Hitchcock and Deane had had a bruising argument over which of them deserved credit for discovery of the footprints, it is to Hitchcock’s credit that he took part. With Hitchcock and Field advising, 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.
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 30 shows reptilian footprints on either side of a swinging tail drag line amid raindrop impressions.
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: http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/190018037?rpp=20&pg=1&ft=Sandstone&pos=1#fullscreen