History of the Paleontology Division

The Division of Paleontology was formed from the merger of the invertebrate paleontology collections of the Department of Invertebrates with those of the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology in 1998. Today the two departments operate as a cohesive unit supporting the growth of paleontological research and education and the preservation of the paleontology collections at the Museum.

The American Museum of Natural History was founded in 1868. At that time, the Museum possessed only a small collection of vertebrate fossils, and it was not until the arrival of Henry Fairfield Osborn in 1891 that the Paleontology collections began their first period of substantial growth. Osborn was responsible for hiring several outstanding vertebrate paleontologists, including William Diller Matthew, William K. Gregory, Walter Granger, Jacob Wortman, and Barnum Brown. In 1895, the Museum purchased E. D. Cope's collection of c. 10,000 North American fossil mammals; the remainder of his fossil collections was sold to the Museum after his death in 1897. The Cope collections, containing many important type specimens, became the core of the paleontological collection.

Under the guidance of H. F. Osborn, who became Museum President in 1908, the vertebrate paleontology collections grew through many expeditions. Notable among these were the dinosaur specimens collected in the Rockies and Alberta by Barnum Brown; the 1901 expedition to Egypt's Fayum Basin; and the Central Asiatic Expeditions of the 1920s. In 1916, the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology began a long association with Childs Frick, the son of steel magnate Henry Clay Frick and a longtime American Museum trustee. Using his personal resources to employ a small army of collectors, Frick accumulated a collection of over 200,000 fossil mammals, which formed the basis of a series of monographic studies on mammal evolution. The collection was donated to the Museum after Frick's death in 1965.

After Osborn's death in 1933 the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology was fortunate to employ a series of outstanding curators, including Edwin H. Colbert, George Gaylord Simpson, Bobb Schaeffer, Malcolm C. McKenna, and Richard H. Tedford. Financial assets of the Childs Frick Corporation, which were donated to the Museum along with Frick's fossil collections in 1968, assisted in the construction of a new, 10-story collection and office building, which opened in 1973. A second collections facility, the C.V. Starr Natural Sciences Building, was opened in 2000; two floors of this latter building are devoted to the fossil reptile and bird collection with space on a third floor housing the fossil invertebrate type collections.

In recent years, the Museum's vertebrate paleontologists have reestablished the long standing ties between the Museum and Central Asia, making a remarkable series of discoveries in Mongolia that are providing new insights into the evolution of birds, dinosaurs, and mammals. Similar close field research and training collaborations are underway in China, Chile and other countries. The Department maintains a prolific output of research in vertebrate systematics and evolution, focusing on mammals (John Flynn, Meng Jin, Michael Novacek), reptiles (Eugene Gaffney, Mark Norell), and fish (John Maisey).

For much of their history, the fossil invertebrate collections were grouped together with living invertebrates in the Department of Invertebrates. Unlike the comparatively slow early growth of the fossil vertebrate collections, the fossil invertebrate collection at the Museum got off to an explosive start with the acquisition of the massive collection of James Hall, numbering over 100,000 specimens. In 1877, Robert Parr Whitfield was hired as the Curator of Geology; his main responsibility was to care for the Hall collection. Robert Whitfield collected and studied a wide variety of fossil invertebrates from North America. He was assisted by Louis P. Gratacap and Edmund Otis Hovey during the earliest part of the 20th century. H.E. Vokes, Associate Curator (1937-1943), was a specialist in Eocene and Pliocene mollusks. He undertook extensive fieldwork in the US and New Mexico and collected with Barnum Brown in Alberta and Montana.

Norman D. Newell, curator and curator emeritus (1945-2005), specialized in the systematics and evolution of Paleozoic bivalves, but perhaps more importantly helped to establish the study of paleoecology and mass extinction. Roger L. Batten, who joined the staff in the early 1960s, was instrumental in continuing fieldwork and expanding the collection of invertebrate fossils. Currently, the Department is overseen by two leading invertebrate paleontologists: Niles Eldredge (1969-present) who studies the systematics of trilobites and evolutionary theory and Neil H. Landman (1982-present), a specialist in modern and fossil cephalopods.