Friday, August 13, 2010

Charles Emerson Beecher

This post is devoted one of the Peabody Museum's illustrious progenitors, Charles Emerson Beecher. He was born in Dunkirk, NY in 1856. While the geographic setting of one's hometown does not always destine one to a particular career path, it may well have affected Charles Beecher's future.

For those of you not familiar with Dunkirk, NY I will provide this brief introduction. Dunkirk (located in SW NY) is the type locality for the Dunkirk Shale Member of the Perrysburg Formation, Canadaway Group. Still not ringing any bells? Conoodonts? Oil shales? Arthrodires? Anyways, the Dunkirk is one of New York states many Devonian formations. While not as fossiliferous as some of the others, it still may have been enough to start Beecher down the path that would lead him to paleontological greatness.

Beecher began collecting fossils as a youth and had amassed quite a collection by the time he headed off to college at the University of Michigan. After getting his B.S. in 1878 he began working for James Hall at the New York State Museum in Albany. During his time in Albany, Beecher began studying and publishing on a number of different groups including recent molluscs, early spiders and shrimp.  Shortly before leaving Albany he donated his collection (which had by then grown to about twenty thousand specimens) to the NYSM.

Othniel Marsh persuaded Beecher to come down to New Haven and oversee the Peabody Museum's invertebrate collection in 1888. He continued his studies here and was awarded a Ph.D. after his extensive work with the brachiospongiids. He proceeded to conduct extensive research and teach classes at the Sheffield Scientific School and Yale University until Marsh's death in 1899. At this point, he took over as the curator for the geological collections. It was Charles Beecher who helped arrange the mounting of the Brontosaurus that currently resides in our great hall.

It was also in 1899 that Beecher donated his collection of fossils (all amassed after his previous donation to the NYSM) to the Peabody Museum, "in grateful recognition of the honors and favors conferred upon [him] during [his] connection with the University." This particular collection contained over one hundred thousand specimens, and it included several hundred types. (I'll discuss the philosophy of types in a later post).

It wasn't until 1893, however, that an event occurred for which Beecher is still well known. W. S. Valiant discovered a very thin layer of rock in the Utica Formation in which trilobites and their soft parts (legs, antennae, etc) were preserved in pyrite. He invited Beecher to have a look. Beecher studied these pyritized trilobites extensively, and he wrote fifteen papers on trilobite classification, morphologies and diversity following this discovery. He was working on an extensive treatise of trilobite classification when he was unexpectedly killed by "an affection of the heart."

His tragically early death cut short a promising career and a brilliant intellect.

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