Dino doctor often overlooked in history

Friday, March 02, 2018

When the story of dinosaur footprints in Franklin County is told, one man’s efforts in exploring and understanding them is often overlooked.  Dexter Marsh, the uneducated laborer, has become a folk hero in his hometown.

Amherst College professor, Edward Hitchcock, is accorded academic honor for his pursuit of the subject. The contributions of Dr. James Deane of Greenfield, however, are usually ignored. 

When I was president of the Franklin District Medical Society, I researched some of its early members.

The story of Dr. Deane lead me to write a monograph about his life work, and, in particular, about his involvement with dinosaur footprints. My paper is in the library collection of the PVMA (Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association) in Old Deerfield.

In summary, when Dexter Marsh first noticed strange markings in quarried stone, he showed them to Dr. Deane, who contacted Hitchcock. Hitchcock was dismissive of Dr. Deane’s report. Dr. Deane then corresponded with Professor Benjamin Silliman of Yale, who legitimized his inquiry.

Subsequently, Hitchcock took up his own explorations and researches. All three men collected specimens. Dr. Deane and Prof. Hitchcock each contributed to the scientific literature on the subject.

In addition, Dr. Deane produced skillful drawings of his specimens. He prepared a volume of illustrations, published posthumously. That volume is also in the collection of PVMA.

Unfortunately, in their lifetime, Dr. Deane and Prof. Hitchcock became embroiled in a bitter dispute over the right to recognition as “discoverer” of dinosaur footprints.

For Dr. Deane, study of local geology and paleontology was a side pursuit. He maintained a busy practice as an innovative surgeon, highly regarded by his colleagues, and well-loved by his patients. Notably, he introduced ether anesthesia to the community.

I have championed the reputation of this fine physician and continue efforts  to establish his place in the story of Connecticut Valley dinosaurs.  

Dr. Jane Winchester