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The first fossil fish collections were acquired in 1877 (W.C. Redfield Collection) and 1899 (J. Terrell Collection). The holdings grew rapidly with major accessions in 1901-1907 (D.S. Dodge, E.D. Cope, C. Sternberg, J.S. Newberry, and W. Kepler collections), so that by 1907 there were about 8,800 specimens. The specimens were organized by Bashford Dean and catalogued by Louis Hussakof (the latter also undertook the first AMNH expeditions for collecting fossil fish in 1906-7). In 1909, living and fossil fishes were brought together in a separate Department of Ichthyology under the auspices of Bashford Dean and later under William King Gregory. Fossil fish were transferred to the Department of Geology and Paleontology in 1944 under Edwin H. Colbert, and the collection saw much growth and reorganization following the appointment of Bobb Schaeffer in 1946. Undoubtedly the most significant acquisition during this period was the William Patten collection of over 4,500 primitive fishes including ostracoderms, placoderms, and sarcopterygians. In 1973 the collection was moved to its present location in the lower level of Building 1A.
Following the appointment of John Maisey in 1979, a major NSF-supported reorganization of both the collection and its catalog was undertaken (including computerization). The holdings also grew significantly with the addition of several collections from Ohio Wesleyan University, Dr. H.R. Axelrod, and the University of Kentucky. By 1984, the fossil fish collection was estimated to contain over 27,500 specimens. Such growth reflects the highly visible institutional commitment to research on early primitive vertebrates. Current research activities (2006) include the evolution of primitive jawed vertebrates and the earliest sharks, CT scanning and digital imaging technology, and Cretaceous fossil fishes from North and South America.