Barnum Brown and the Tyrannosaurus Rex

Barnum Brown (left) and Henry Osborn at Como-Bluff during the American Museum of Natural History expedition of 1897. At front - limb bone of Diplodocus

Barnum Brown (left) and Henry Osborn at Como-Bluff during the American Museum of Natural History expedition of 1897. At front – limb bone of Diplodocus

On February 12, 1873, paleontologist Barnum Brown was born. He is best known for his discovery of the first documented remains of Tyrannosaurus rex during a career that made him one of the most famous fossil hunters working from the late Victorian era into the early 20th century.

Barnum Brown was born in 1873 in Carbondale, Kansas, and grew up to farmers. He attended Kansas University, and there, Brown came under the influence of palaeontologist Samuel Wendell Williston, who is probably responsible for starting Brown’s enthusiasm to study fossils and geology.

During his career, he was sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History to trade fossils in general. He became known as a collector who obtained everything that was of scientific value. In the late 19th century, Brown led an expedition to the Hell Creek Formation of Southeastern Montana. From Hell Creek, he wrote:

“Quarry No. 1 contains the femur, pubes, humerus, three vertebrae and two undetermined bones of a large Carnivorous Dinosaur not described by Marsh. . . . I have never seen anything like it from the Cretaceous. These bones are imbedded in flint-like sandstone concretions and require a great deal of labor to extract.”

This “large Carnivorous Dinosaur” was no other than Tyrannosaurus rex. He managed to discover and excavate the first documented remains of its partial skeleton in 1902. An even better preserved skeleton was found six years later and both were put on display at the American Museum of Natural History. However, the skeleton found in 1902 was shipped to the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh.

In early 1923, Brown travelled with his then-wife Lilian to Yangon, the capital of what was then Burma. Brown focused his fossil prospection along areas of Pondaung Sandstone. A mandible with three teeth was recorded and catalogued at an exposure of sandstone outside of the town of Mogaung. He did not recognise the significance of his find until 14 years later, when Edwin H. Colbert, of the American Museum of Natural History, identified the fossil as a new species of primate and the earliest known anthropoid in the world. He named the holotype Amphipithecus mogaungensis, or the ape-like creature of Mogaung. There is however considerable debate regarding its status as a primate and the lack of fossils compounds this issue.

Brown lived at the tail end of an unprecedented age of scientific discovery, and was one of its more colorful practitioners. At dig sites in Canada, Brown was frequently photographed wearing a large fur coat. During World War I and II, he worked as an “intelligence asset.” During his many trips abroad he wasn’t above picking up spare cash acting as a corporate spy for oil companies. Brown’s second wife, Lilian Brown, wrote a book of memoirs, I Married a Dinosaur (1950), about her expeditions with her husband.

At yovisto academic search engine, you may learn more about ‘What Fossils can teach us‘ by Dr. Paul Sereno.

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