2007 GSA Denver Annual Meeting (28–31 October 2007)

Paper No. 10
Presentation Time: 10:50 AM


ROWLAND, Stephen M., Department of Geoscience, University of Nevada Las Vegas, Box 454010, Las Vegas, NV 89154-4010 and TANKE, Darren, Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, Drumheller, AB T0J 0Y0, Canada, steve.rowland@unlv.edu

James E. Thurston (1905-1932) was a Canadian collector and preparator of vertebrate fossils. He began his career in 1923, collecting dinosaurs in the Edmonton Formation of Alberta, under the tutelage of Charles M. Sternberg of the Geological Survey of Canada. Thurston worked with Sternberg for four field seasons, followed by a year as a technician in the Department of Zoology of the University of Alberta. The latter position provided him an opportunity to become skilled in mammalian osteology. This was then followed by nearly two years as curator of the Calgary Public Museum, where Thurston worked on fossil material from the Edmonton, Belly River, and Paskapoo formations.

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.