Unearthing the joint history of the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology and Columbia University
by Maya Naunton on
Early on in the IMLS Museums of America grant project to conduct a survey of the materials in the archive, we came across multiple visually rich collections. One collection consists of mounted photographs that was fully rehoused and described as part of this grant effort. Another related collection consists of oversized and fragile, scrapbook-like pages combining ink, pencil, and charcoal drawings, and photographs illustrating anatomy and related animal groups.
The original purpose of the material was unclear, but after talking with retired department staff, it became apparent that it supported the department's efforts to train generations of paleontologists beginning at its founding in 1891. Used in different capacities through the years, the collection is presently described on a basic level, and we hope that future grants will allow us to fully stabilize, study, and increase access to this resource.
After further research it became apparent that the department has a longstanding commitment to education and a close connection with the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Columbia University. This connection dates to the inception of the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology with the hiring of Henry Fairfield Osborn in 1891 and continues to this day.
While Osborn was teaching at Princeton University in the 1880s he was approached by Seth Low, initially Columbia University Trustee and then its President. Low wanted to transform Columbia from a small college that it was at the time to a first-class university. With that in mind, Low started negotiations to have Osborn create a new biology department that Osborn would organize and administer.
At the same time, Osborn was being hired by the American Museum of Natural History to create a department of Mammalian Paleontology (soon to become the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology). As a result of these negotiations, Low, the president of Columbia University and Morris Ketchum Jesup, the president of AMNH, came to an agreement that Osborn was to teach vertebrate morphology and evolution at Columbia, while creating the Vertebrate Paleontology Department at AMNH, and that the museum would serve as the center for college’s advanced research in vertebrate paleontology.
Thus, starting in 1891, Osborn was working simultaneously to establish the biology department at Columbia, while he was at the same time creating the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History. In addition to being a head of the new biology department at Columbia, Osborn became the first dean of the new Faculty of Pure Sciences from 1892 to 1896 and in the early 1890s Low appointed Osborn a member of the board of trustees of the new Columbia University Press.
After defining the program in the new biology department and hiring the faculty, Osborn was partly responsible for raising money for graduate fellowships, a library, and the development of a new biological laboratory, Schermerhorn Hall.
Some of the faculty that Osborn hired for the new biology department at Columbia became members of the staff at the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology, such as Bashford Dean, and some of Osborn's students at the university came to work in the museum in turn. Those included William Diller Matthew and William King Gregory. Other prominent paleontologists that Osborn taught at Columbia included Richard Swann Lull, Francis B. Sumner, and Clive Forster-Copper.
Among the talented people that Osborn brought with him from Columbia to AMHH was Lindsay Morris Sterling. Sterling had been making drawings for Osborn's comparative anatomy courses. When she came to AMNH she worked closely with the scientists on staff to illustrate their work. She eventually became the head of the artistic staff in the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology.
By agreement with Columbia, the museum furnished a well-appointed lecture room and laboratory as well as facilities for students doing research. Columbia's graduate courses and graduate research studies in vertebrate paleontology were carried out in a large room on the fifth floor of the Department of Comparative Anatomy.
Osborn taught and directed research in Columbia from 1892 to 1909 while also being the head of the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology at AMNH from 1891 to 1910.
In 1899 Osborn turned over his Columbia lectures on vertebrate zoology to Bashford Dean and James H. McGregor who were both employed by the AMNH. Starting from 1910, William King Gregory, one of Osborn's Columbia students who was also hired by the Vertebrate Paleontology Department, taught the graduate courses in vertebrate paleontology, and supervised the research of doctoral candidates in this field.
Gregory subsequently became a curator in three separate departments in the museum and a chairman of two departments.
This became a sort of a pattern, where gifted and promising graduate students of paleontology were in turn hired by the AMNH while also teaching at Columbia.
Following this pattern, Edwin H. Colbert, who was a student at Columbia and then an employee of AMNH, started teaching at Columbia in 1938 and after second World War, Colbert, and George Gaylord Simpson (a prominent paleontologist also employed by the AMNH) were appointed to professorships in the Graduate Faculty at Columbia.
The partnership between AMNH and Columbia University continues to this day through the Richard Gilder Graduate School (RGGS) and the Columbia Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. This collaboration includes an array of disciplines now within the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences (vertebrate paleontology, invertebrate paleontology, paleoceanography, mineralogy/petrology/meteoritics) and with three other departments (Anthropology, Astronomy, and Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology).
Ronald Rainger, An Agenda for Antiquity: Henry Fairfield Osborn and Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, 1890-1935, The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa and London, 1991
Edwin H. Colbert, A Fossil-Hunter's notebook, E. P. Dutton, New York, 1980
Edwin H. Colbert, Digging into the past, Dembner Books, New York, 1989
Edwin H. Colbert, William Diller Matthew: Paleontologist, Columbia University Press, New York, Oxford, 1992
Natural History, Notes, 1931, p. 563