It’s been 20 years since Jurassic Park dazzled movie audiences with its lifelike, and sometimes terrifying, portrayal of dinosaurs. The film became the 13th-highest-grossing of all time, earning $1 billion at the box office and launching a craze for all things Mesozoic.
Princeton men played a role in popularizing these creatures in the first place. Starting in 1874, a geological museum in Nassau Hall housed a mounted dinosaur skeleton — only the second ever displayed in the world. Campus scientists took sides in the infamous “Bone Wars,” a kind of gold rush to find vertebrate fossils in the American West. And alumni were among the first museum professionals to hire artists to depict extinct animals living in their authentic habitats. A hundred years before Jurassic Park, these efforts helped make prehistoric creatures very famous.
Central figures in this golden age of paleontology after the Civil War were two best friends from the Class of 1877, William Berryman Scott and Henry Fairfield Osborn. As undergraduates they got the idea to launch a series of bone-collecting expeditions to the Rocky Mountains. Both men later became Princeton professors — Scott for a lifetime, Osborn until he was lured away in 1891 by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where he amassed the largest collection of dinosaur fossils anywhere.
Few people did more than Osborn to popularize dinosaurs. It was he who first announced Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor (shown as especially ruthless killers in Jurassic Park). And he put numerous dinosaur skeletons on public display, including an unforgettable 1907 tableau of Allosaurus dining on Brontosaurus. “In making the American Museum the great center of paleontology in the United States, he created whole dinosaur halls,” says University of Pennsylvania paleontologist Barbara Smith Grandstaff *73. “Other museums copied the way he showed dinosaurs.”
Osborn and Scott collaborated throughout their careers, a friendship that left a lasting monument in Princeton’s ambitious biology-geology building of 1909, Guyot Hall, which they helped to create. To educate the public, its entire first floor comprised a museum; outside were sculpted gargoyles of extinct creatures that Scott and Osborn had helped reveal to the world.
Scott and Osborn came of age at President James McCosh’s Princeton. Deeply pious, the Scottish president — a scientist — encouraged the study of paleontology as a way to understand God’s design of life on Earth, trying to mesh Genesis with Darwin. McCosh believed that life had evolved but was sure the Deity was directing things. In conservative Princeton, his position was considered quite daring; across town at Princeton Theological Seminary, formidable Professor Charles Hodge (“the Presbyterian Pope”) wrote a book in 1874 called What Is Darwinism? (answer: atheistic nonsense, as the orderly cosmos proves). “At this time, I was an ardent anti-evolutionist,” Scott later recalled. No wonder: He lived with Hodge, his grandfather. But views gradually were shifting, and Scott eventually adopted McCosh’s position.
With funding from a trustee, McCosh established a geological museum in Nassau Hall. (It occupied today’s Faculty Room; later its contents moved to Guyot Hall.) Wrapping around the mezzanine were 17 colorful murals that showed prehistoric life and depicted the phases in the geological history of the planet. The artist was an Englishman, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, whose life-size dinosaur models had caused a sensation at the Crystal Palace in London in the 1850s. “His paintings showed ancient life in a vital, dynamic context,” says Robert McCracken Peck ’74, senior fellow of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia and a biographer of Hawkins. “They were continuously on display in Nassau Hall for 30 years — and then for 90 more in Guyot.” Their prominence, Peck says, “gave them enormous power to convince people of the reality of deep time.”