From a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History, an exhaustive biography of an adventurous bone hunter, a leading figure in the heroic age of American paleontology.
Son of an Illinois farmer and fascinated by fossils, John Bell Hatcher (1861-1904) worked his way through Yale and impressed superiors who sent him west to where rich, new fossil beds had produced a rush of professional diggers and amateur fortune hunters. He quickly proved his value, finding and shipping east tons of precious fossils and fossil-bearing material but also showing a precision and delicacy in dealing with the specimens—which, despite being rock, are delicate—that became the accepted technique. For 20 years, he was in great demand, producing a steady stream of discoveries from digs in the United States and Patagonia despite working under often miserable conditions. Promoted to curator of paleontology at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh in 1900, Hatcher, who had health problems throughout his life, died suddenly at age 42. Hatcher’s prolific correspondence to his employers has been largely preserved, and his discoveries sit in museums across the world. This is ample raw material for an engaging biography, but Dingus (Hell Creek, Montana: America's Key to the Prehistoric Past, 2004, etc.) mostly draws on it to deliver an extremely detailed, chronological record of Hatcher’s travels, travails, and discoveries, a relentless series of itineraries, equipment inventories, expenses, business quarrels, descriptions of bones discovered, their species, and ultimate destination, often including their museum catalog number in case readers want to look them up. The author also includes a 14-page glossary of genera.
There is no lack of fascinating anecdotes, but mostly this is a dense catalog that will primarily interest paleontology buffs. Readers searching for a history of the stormy late-19th-century dinosaur discoveries should try The Bonehunters’ Revenge (1999) by David Rains Wallace.