Last Sunday, my son, who is home for his rapidly waning semester break, and I met a couple of friends in New York City where we enjoyed breakfast at good enough to eat followed by a visit to the nearby American Museum of Natural History. We dedicated ourselves to the fossil halls on the fourth floor of the museum. The halls were teeming with families. While we stopped in front of one of the big cladograms, we overheard a young father matter-of-factly telling his young children that “birds evolved from dinosaurs” as he gestured toward the dino family tree. Even if the museum was crowded (last Sunday was dreary and perfect for indoor excursions), we didn’t mind jostling shoulders with so many for whom evolution is a fact, not a controversy. We remarked that it was refreshing to see so many kids there, and that “evolution” was not a dirty word in their parents’ vocabulary.
The fossil collections at the AMNH are impressive, and among my favorite tidbits were the placards describing “Personalities in Paleontology.” These guys, like Barnum Brown, were the great fossil hunters of the early 20th century. Although not as flamboyant, my great-great uncle, Oliver Perry Hay, was a paleontologist of the same era and was an associate curator for a few years at the AMNH. At some point, I plan on populating the his Wikipedia entry, but in the meantime, here’s an excerpt from my old blog (published 10/2005 and edited somewhat).
This illustration of Diplodocus was prepared by the artist Mary Mason Mitchell in 1910 under the direction of Oliver Perry Hay (1846-1930). Hay was not an employee of the Smithsonian Institution, but he held the title Research Associate, and had office space at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.
Hay, Oliver P. 1910. On the Manner of Locomotion of the Dinosaurs, Especially Diplodocus, with Remarks on the Origin of the Birds. Proceedings of the Washington Academy of Sciences, vol. 12, pp. 1-25.
This summer marked the 100th anniversary of my maternal grandfather’s excursion through France via bicycle. In June 1905, at the age of 21, he, along with two college classmates, boardedThe City of Glasgow, a cattle boat, in Baltimore, Maryland, to work their way across the Atlantic to England. After traveling through the United Kingdom for several days, he and his chums crossed the English Channel and disembarked at Calais, France. From there, they journeyed to Marseilles in southern France by “wheel,” then traveled by train from Arles to Bordeaux then on to Paris where the little band had a few adventures. They left France by way of Le Havre, crossed the channel to England, then returned home by steamer to New York City then back to Illinois.
My grandfather kept a journal of his travels. This diary provides a glimpse at a time past and into the thoughts of a man whose familial legacy was known to me, but whom I never really knew because he died before I was born. Based on recollections of my mother, aunts and uncles, I knew my grandfather was a pillar of the community and attended the local Presbyterian church-goer. However, my grandfather as a young man offered decidedly jaundiced observations on religion. This makes me wonder if he practiced his faith in its benign form as described by Richard Dawkins’ article, Opiate of the Masses, published in Prospect,
As with many drugs, refined Gerin oil in low doses is largely harmless, and can even serve as a social lubricant on occasions such as marriages, funerals and ceremonies of state. Experts differ over whether such social use, though harmless in itself, is a risk factor for upgrading to harder and more addictive forms of the drug.
Religion was not viewed as any kind of all consuming occupation of thought on either the maternal or paternal side of the family even as it served as a social lubricant in our community. My maternal grandfather vehemently believed that tolerance of others’ creeds was not enough, but that acceptance was the ideal. He eschewed dogma, and thus had no use for fundamentalism of any stripe. His stance carried over to his children and might explain why I was quickly yanked out of a Sunday school class after telling my mother and father that I had a heated argument with a Sunday school teacher over the question of “Does God hear the prayers of the Jews?” The instructor stuck to his surprisingly fundie-for-a-Methodist assertion that ol’ Jehovah did not hear the prayers of his chosen people. Not long after the incident, the Sunday school teacher was no longer instructing 10 and 11 year old students. This experience left an indelible imprint on my young mind: religion could be pretty f*cked up and set me on the path of atheism.
My grandfather mentioned “Uncle Perry” in his diary. Oliver Perry Hay was my grandfather’s father’s brother, and thus my great-great uncle. When I was a kid with paleontological aspirations, I remember my mother saying that her father’s uncle was a paleontologist. As an undergraduate in the days before the Internet, I looked up Uncle Perry in Who’s Who of American Scientists in the college biology library and learned a little more about him. I learned even more about my relative this past summer, when my mother gave me the old monograph, Descriptions of Some Pleistocene Vertebrates Found in the United States, 1920, Proc. United States National Museum, 58: 83-146,written by Uncle Perry and his memorial biography, written by his son, William P. Hay. She believed I, among all the family, would most appreciate these old papers, and she was right.
Uncle Perry’s primary interest was vertebrate paleontology. He published numerous monographs, including articles on evidence for early man in North America. His most significant contribution to the field was an authoritative two volume bibliography and catalogue of Pleistocence vertebrates. This remains an important reference in the field. Uncle Perry’s chronology follows:
- born in Saluda, Indiana, on 22 May 1846.
- moved with family to farm near Bradford, Illinois
- 1870: A.B., Eureka College, Illinois
- 1870-1872: professor of natural sciences, Eureka College
- 1873: A.M., Eureka College
- 1874-1876: professor of natural sciences, Oskaloosa College, Iowa
- 1876-1877: graduate student at Yale University
- 1879-1892: professor of biology and geology, Butler College
- 1884: Ph.D., Indiana University
- 1884-1888: assistant, Arkansas Geological Survey
- 1890-1891: president, Indiana Academy of Science
- 1891-1894: assistant, Indiana Geological Survey
- 1895-1897: assistant curator of zoology, Field Museum of Natural History
- 1901-1907: assistant, then associate, curator of vertebrate paleontology, American Museum of Natural History, NYC
- 1902-1905: associate editor, American Geologist
- 1902: publishes his Bibliography and Catalogue of the Fossil Vertebrata of North America
- 1907-1911: returns to Washington; pursues private investigations in paleontology
- 1908: publishes his The Fossil Turtles of North America
- 1912-1917: research associate, Carnegie Institution, Washington, D.C.
- 1917-1926: associate, Carnegie Institution
- 1923-1927: publishes his The Pleistocene of North American, in three volumes
- dies at Washington, D.C., on 2 November 1930.
As noted in the time line, Uncle Perry attended Eureka College. It was convenient for him and moreover, according to his biography:
He was probably influenced in this selection by the fact that he had united with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and looked forward to entering the ministry of that demonination.
However, he was not to join the ministry:
Toward the end of his college course, his dreams of the ministry had faded away, and he had applied himself more and more to science.He supplemented the meager courses of the college by reading such scientific books as he could buy or borrow, and before he graduated had impressed his professors with his ability and promise in this field of work.
As outlined above, Uncle Perry’s graduate training was somewhat prolonged, but he became a professor of geology and biology at Butler University. In addition to courses in his specialties, he also taught chemistry and physics. However, he did not remain at Butler:
In 1892, his position at Butler having become untenable because of his views on evolution, (italics, Doc Bushwell), he resigned and removed to Chicago.
Apparently, Uncle Perry’s advocacy of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution was more than Butler University of that time could bear, and so, he moved on. All in all, his departure was probably for the best, given the path his career took. Here was a boy who grew up on a central Illinois farm, and knew no other educational outcome than the ministry. Apparently, little Eureka College opened his eyes. That he embraced the concept of evolution in the late 19th century and pursued his interests so tenaciously is a testament to a man of rational thought, someone whom I am honored to call a relative.