Focus: Fossil Mammals - History

Like the other fossil vertebrate collections at Field Museum, the Fossil Mammal Collection began with specimens acquired by the museum through the purchase of the Wards Natural Science Establishment exhibit at the Columbian Exposition. The Exposition was a worlds fair held in Chicago in 1894. In 1898 the new Department of Geology hired its first paleontologist, Elmer Riggs, whose research focused on fossil mammals. After a number of years collecting and studying dinosaurs to give the new museum’s displays a jump-start, Riggs spend the remainder of his career working on fossil mammals. He built a great collection through the collecting expeditions he led. One of the premier collections he amassed came from nearly five years spent during two separate expeditions to Argentina and Bolivia in the 1920s. This collection continues to attract researchers from all over the world.

Bryan Patterson joined Riggs in the 1930s. For the next 20 years he was a prolific collector and researcher of fossil mammals, eventually leaving the museum to finish out his career at Harvard. Highlights of Patterson’s tenure include work in the Paleocene and Eocene of the western US, primarily Colorado, and also his work in the Early Cretaceous Trinity Formation in Texas.

Succeeding Patterson was Bill Turnbull who rose from preparator to Curator in the mid-1950s and spent decades collecting in the Eocene rocks of the Washakie Basin in Wyoming. With his life long collaborator, Ernie Lundelius at the University of Texas, Bill spent many seasons collecting fossil mammals in Quaternary cave deposits of Australia. Bill no longer goes out in the field, but his research projects in the Eocene and Quaternary continue.

In the early 1980s John Flynn succeeded Bill Turnbull and joined him collecting in the Washakie Basin until 1996. John also had active research and collecting interests in the Tertiary of South America particularly Chile, and in the Triassic and Jurassic of Madagascar.

In 2007 Ken Angielczyk succeeded John Flynn and began a very active overseas collecting program, including South America and Africa, focusing in the latter on Karoo-style basins. Ken studies nonmammalian synapsids, a group which used to be considered a type of reptile. Because of this history, this collection has always been part of the Fossil Reptile Collection.