THE CAREER OF JAMES E. THURSTON AND THE EXTINCTION OF THE PROFESSIONAL FIELD COLLECTOR IN NORTH AMERICAN VERTEBRATE PALEONTOLOGY
In the fall of 1929 Thurston left Canada and came to the U.S. By his own account, he came south in order to increase [his] knowledge of this subject [vertebrate paleontology]. His résumé was strong, and his timing was good. Just a few weeks before the stock market crashed, Thurston landed a job as a field collector for Chester Stock of the California Institute of Technology. Stock sent Thurston to Las Vegas to work with archaeologist Mark Harrington on the excavation of Gypsum Cave, which lasted about a year and yielded abundant remains of Shasta ground sloths and other Pleistocene herbivores. Tragically, in February of 1932, about a year after the Gypsum Cave excavation was completed, Thurston fell ill and died. He was twenty-seven years old.
James Thurston represents a highly skilled craft the professional field collector that was a very important aspect of North American vertebrate paleontology during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but which has all but disappeared today. Following World War II several factors combined to drive the professional field collector toward extinction. Among these are: (1) the expansion of graduate programs in vertebrate paleontology, creating graduate students to do the work formerly done by professional collectors, (2) a much improved highway system, allowing easier access to many fossil localities, and, (3) most importantly, more sophisticated research questions that required greater attention to taphonomic and stratigraphic details than had been the case in earlier years. Researchers needed to collect a significant amount of their data in the field, thereby rendering the academically-funded professional collector superfluous.