By Hans-Dieter Sues, Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology, and Diana Marsh, Deep Time Research Fellow
The Department of Paleobiology is home to one of the premier collections of dinosaurs and other fossil reptiles in the United States due largely to the efforts of Charles Whitney Gilmore (1874-1945), one of the last major figures of America’s “Golden Age” of dinosaur hunting.
When Gilmore was six years old an aunt took him to Rochester, NY to visit Ward’s Natural Science Establishment, the leading American supplier of natural history specimens to museums and universities. The visit deeply impressed the young boy and firmly implanted the idea of a career in museum work in his mind. He set out to build his own collections of rocks, fossils, bird eggs, and insects, and experimented with taxidermy, including an (unsuccessful) attempt to restuff a toy elephant.
Dinosaurian fossils first attracted Gilmore’s attention when he enrolled at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. In June 1900 Gilmore met with legendary “dinosaur hunter” John Bell Hatcher, who was working for the Carnegie Museum at that time. Hatcher had received favorable reports about the young student and hired him for a crew collecting Late Jurassic dinosaurs. (Gilmore’s mother, who was visiting her son at the time, was pressed into service as camp cook.) The fieldwork proved very successful, and Gilmore was hired as a full-time preparator at the Carnegie in 1902.
One of the founding fathers of American vertebrate paleontology, Othniel Charles Marsh at Yale University, had held an appointment as Vertebrate Paleontologist of the United States Geological Survey since 1882. Upon his death in 1899, the collections of vertebrate fossils made with support from the Survey were transferred to the U. S. National Museum. Some 80 tons of fossils were shipped by railcar to Washington, D.C. The museum now faced the gargantuan taskof sorting, cataloging, preparing, mounting, and studying these collections. It was in this context that in 1903 Gilmore first received a contract to prepare one of the Marsh collection skulls of the horned dinosaur Triceratops for the museum and then was hired as a full-time preparator in 1904.
By 1905, with the help of fossil preparator Norman H. Boss, Gilmore had mounted the skeleton of the Triceratops now known as “Hatcher,” the first skeleton of this now popular dinosaur ever mounted for display, and the skeleton of the duck-billed dinosaur Edmontosaurus. Both were initially exhibited in the Arts and Industries Building. It was also in 1904 that ground was broken for the new U.S. National Museum. In 1909, Gilmore and his colleagues moved into the new building. and, in 1911, the “Hall of Extinct Monsters” finally opened.
From 1911 into the 1920s, Gilmore led the charge to continue collecting, preparing, analyzing and mounting specimens, including the skeletons of Stegosaurus, Thescelosaurus, and Brachyceratops. He visited the quarry at Dinosaur National Monument in Utah with Norman Boss in 1923. There they collected much of the skeleton of the sauropod dinosaur Diplodocus (a well-known type of dinosaur first described by Marsh in the 1870s), which they prepared and mounted for exhibition. It was a huge and time consuming job. In 1925, Gilmore wrote, "A skeleton of Diplodocus from the Utah quarry has been occupying the attention of the preparators the past year and a half and it looks now as though another year would be required to finish the preparation. Then mounting the skeleton will follow with another year or so consumed. It will make a big show piece, but otherwise it is of but little interest." We have Gilmore’s perseverance to thank for the 70-foot-long reconstruction.
In 1924, Gilmore was appointed Curator, a position that he held until his retirement in 1945. He was married to his Laramie sweetheart, Laure Coutant. The couple and their three daughters settled in the Park View neighborhood of the District of Columbia. Gilmore died on 27 September 1945 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery two days later.
By all accounts, Gilmore was a genial and modest man. His eminent colleague George Gaylord Simpson called him “kindness personified.” The collections of fossil reptiles in the Division of Vertebrate Paleontology offer eloquent testimony of Gilmore’s devotion and efforts and will continue to be an unparalleled resource for research and exhibition.