Published: May 27, 2021

Before SUE the T. rex, there was ‘Gorgeous George'

Ben Miller, Exhibitions Developer, Exhibitions

This Daspletosaurus ruled our main hall for 36 years. Where is it now?

In 2018, Máximo the Titanosaur took over for SUE the Tyrannosaurus rex as Stanley Field Hall’s resident dinosaur. But SUE was not the first dinosaur to hold court in Stanley Field Hall, or even the first tyrannosaur. From 1956 to 1992, a cousin of T. rex called Daspletosaurus (or as it was known at the time, Gorgosaurus) was the Field Museum's dinosaur centerpiece.

From Alberta to Illinois

George’s skeleton was not found by Field Museum scientists, but by our peers at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). Starting in 1910, AMNH fossil hunter Barnum Brown led a series of expeditions to Alberta, Canada. Brown’s team had their sights on the Cretaceous-era rocks exposed on the banks of the Red Deer River. Since there were few reliable roads in the region, the AMNH team traveled on 30-foot floating barges, which doubled as mobile campsites.

Among dozens of other dinosaur fossils, Brown’s team recovered four skeletons of tyrannosaurs—the family of meat-eaters that includes Tyrannosaurus rex. At the time, scientists thought all four skeletons belonged to the same species: Gorgosaurus libratus. Three of the skeletons were on display at AMNH within the decade. Two can still be seen in New York today, while the third was traded to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in 1933. The fourth skeleton, which was larger but less complete than the others, remained in storage for several decades.

Fast-forward to 1955, when Field Museum board member Louis Ware approached AMNH with an offer to buy their spare Gorgosaurus. Ware’s counterparts at AMNH agreed, and soon the skeleton was on its way to Chicago. According to the March 1956 Chicago Natural History Museum Bulletin, it was considered the most important acquisition in recent years.

Assembling the skeleton

Chief Preparator Orville Gilpin enthusiastically took to the task of mounting the newly-acquired Gorgosaurus—now affectionately nicknamed Gorgeous George—in a lifelike pose. Gilpin challenged himself to create a completely free-standing mount, without any visible support structure obscuring the skeleton. No museum had assembled a free-standing dinosaur before, but George was a good candidate because most of the leg bones were never found. Gilpin and his colleagues sculpted the legs and feet in plaster around a steel armature, which supported the weight of the real hips, vertebrae, ribs, and skull.

Other missing parts—including the tail and the right arm—were also reconstructed, using more complete tyrannosaur skeletons as reference. Gilpin also added a sculpted set of gastralia—rib-like bones that were embedded in the dinosaur’s belly muscles. Even today, gastralia are rarely included in mounted dinosaur skeletons. Read about how we added SUE’s gastralia in 2018.

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From its snarling snout to the tip of its dragging tail, the completed Gorgosaurus was 26 feet long and 15 feet tall. Gilpin paired it with a prone Lambeosaurus skeleton, which was recovered by Field paleontologist Elmer Riggs in 1922 but never previously exhibited. This evocative predator-and-prey scene was unusual for the time, as dinosaur skeletons were usually given stiff, neutral poses.

Gorgeous George and the unfortunate Lambeosaurus were given pride of place at the south end of Stanley Field Hall. Staff artist Maidi Weibe rounded out the display with a miniature model of the two dinosaurs as they would have appeared in life. George debuted on March 27, 1956, with a special evening event for Field Museum members.

Onward and upward

George was a fixture in Stanley Field Hall for more than three decades. By 1992, however, it was time for a change. George would join Apatosaurus, Triceratops, and other dinosaurs in a brand-new paleontology exhibit called Life Over Time. The Field hired a company that specializes in assembling fossil skeletons called Prehistoric Animal Structures, Inc. to take George apart and rebuild the skeleton on the upper level. The updated mount changed the posture from an upright, tail-dragging stance to a more accurate horizontal pose, but George’s perpetual Lambeosaurus lunch remained in place.

One more big change arrived in 1999: new research by paleontologist Thomas Carr determined that George wasn’t a Gorgosaurus after all, but an example of a bigger, rarer tyrannosaur called Daspletosaurus. Gorgosaurus and Daspletosaurus lived side-by-side in Cretaceous Alberta, 75 million years ago. Like coyotes and wolves today, they may have hunted different prey to avoid direct competition.

George remained in place when Life Over Time was changed into the Griffin Halls of Evolving Planet in 2006. Whether in Stanley Field Hall or among the dinosaurs, George has been delighting and terrifying visitors for more than sixty years and counting.

Ben Miller
Exhibitions Developer