Focus: Fossil Plants - History

The Field Museum has held and exhibited collections of fossil plants and algae since its inception following the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. However, within the Department of Geology, no curatorial program directly focused on fossil plants was set up until the appointment of George Langford, Sr. as assistant in fossil plants in 1947 at the age of 71. Until this time the study of fossil plants and the development of exhibits had been undertaken by interested members of the Botany Department such as B.E. Dahlgren or C.J. Chamberlain or by researchers from the University of Chicago and its Walker Museum. Adolf Carl Noé was perhaps the most important of these researchers. He was appointed Chair of Paleobotany in 1923 and shortly after in 1924, Associate Professor and “Curator of the Fossil Plants” at the Walker Museum. The appointment of Noé was critical to the ultimate growth of the Field Museum collections. By 1939 Noé had grown the Walker Museum collection to about 25,000 fossil plants; had published extensively on the Mazon Creek flora; was heavily consulted on the creation of the Field Museum's Pennsylvanian coal-swamp diorama; and was instrumental in the discovery of North American coal balls and in pioneering their study.  In 1965 the Field Museum's Paleobotany Collections were greatly augmented when the University of Chicago’s Walker Museum collections, including much of the material Noé accumulated, were transferred to the Field Museum.

George Langford was appointed Curator in 1950 and worked in this capacity until his retirment in 1962. Along with his arrival at the Museum, Langford brought an extensive collection of fossil plants, mainly collected from the Mazon Creek region. Langford continued to collect there until 1959 and as a result amassed extensive collections for the Field Museum.

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George Langford Sr., 1950. Photograph Courtesy of the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, negative GEO80771.

Collecting at Mazon Creek proliferated through the 1970s until 1981under the supervision of curators such as Eugene Richardson and Gordon Baird. In 1982 Peter Crane arrived at the Field Museum as Assistant Curator and continued to build the collections, but rather than focus on the Paleozoic, he developed an outstanding research program on the evolution and diversification of the angiosperms. By 1999 Crane had risen to become Vice President of Academic Affairs at the Museum before leaving to take up the Directorship of Kew Gardens in the UK. Before Crane left he instigated the transfer of the Aureal T. Cross collection from Michigan State University to the Field Museum. This collection comprised over 20,000 specimens plus approximately 65,000 palynological slides, many with associated residues and original bulk samples.

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Aureal Cross and a small portion of his collection at Michigan State University (2005)

In 2000 Jennifer McElwain was appointed Assistant Curator in Paleobotany and developed another exceptional research program, this time focused on exploring macroecological and evolutionary responses of plants to long term climatic and atmospheric change and in particular atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. Ian Glasspool, whose reasearch centers on ancient fires, was employed in 2004 as Paleobotany Collections Manager and in 2005 oversaw the move of the Paleobotany Collections from the fourth floor lightwell in the main building to the newly constructed Collections Resource Center (CRC). It was only after this relocation to a facility with the necessary expansion space that the long-running A.T. Cross transfer initiated by Crane could be completed.

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Construction of the Paleobotany facility in the Collections Resource Center