Perhaps it’s because we are a historical science. Maybe it’s a direct result of our small numbers. No matter what the cause, vertebrate paleontology has a rich oral history. Stories are passed down, from advisor to student, from colleague to colleague, over campfires and over beers. It keeps connects us to those who came before. If we are truly lucky, we encounter the greats in our field, face-to-face.
When I was an undergraduate, I was granted some external funding to travel to the major collections of horned dinosaurs in North America. One of these trips took me to Austin, Texas, where the remains of an animal called Agujaceratops mariscalensis (then Chasmosaurus) were housed at the Texas Memorial Museum. I had just gotten my bearings in the basement collections, surrounded by dusty specimens excavated in the 1930s, when an old paleontologist stopped by to say hello. It was none other than Wann Langston, Jr.
The name might not mean much to those of you outside the fold, but Wann Langston is one of the big names in vertebrate paleontology, with a publication record spanning seven decades. He helped name the “fin-backed” meat-eating dinosaur Acrocanthosaurus, and dug up some of the best examples of the horned dinosaurs Pentaceratops and Pachyrhinosaurus. Additionally, Wann was closely tied to the discovery and study of the largest known flying animal, Quetzalcoatlus, as well as the best specimens of the iconic (and giant) alligatoroid Deinosuchus, among many other research interests.
Growing up as a young dinosaur fan, I had read all about Langston’s work. I knew every discovery, from every angle. As I delved into the primary literature, I grew to appreciate his contributions even more. His papers–and his students’ papers–provided erudite observations on a variety of North America’s ancient inhabitants. Actually meeting the man in person was a big moment for me!
Wann invited me to lunch, and when noon rolled around I piled into the passenger seat in his car and we drove to a local restaurant. We talked about all things horned dinosaur–he actually treated me like a colleague, and not the greenhorn student that I was. The best moments, though, were when he casually wandered into the history of the field. Struck by the anecdote, I later jotted some of Wann’s recollections into my notebook.
“[Charlie Sternberg] was a prince of a guy, but a terrible bore. He could beat a dead horse!”
Wann was talking about Charles M. Sternberg–a legend of North American paleontology, and a son of Charles H. Sternberg, one of the world’s most productive and famous fossil collectors. At that moment, I realized I was only one handshake away from Charles M. and two handshakes away from Charles H. As someone steeped in paleontological history, this was a huge geek-out moment. I felt honored and enriched to be imparted with this kind of oral tradition. At that instant, I wasn’t just sharing a meal with Wann Langston. He had invited the Sternbergs along, too.
Wann Langston, Jr., passed away on Sunday, April 7, 2013. Our field lost an influential figure, whose research is used by many and who launched the careers of numerous paleontologists today. He wasn’t perfect–many of us wished he hadn’t left some specimens unpublished for as long as he did–but he was certainly a great scientist and a kind person to me and many others. Just as critically, Wann recognized the importance of grounding ourselves in the lore of our field.
As the older generations depart, we lose these opportunities to connect with history. So, here’s my advice to students of all ages. Talk to our predecessors. Learn about their own history as students. Read their papers, to get the context for their work and your own. Take a few moments to introduce yourself to a luminary of the field. If invited out for lunch, by all means do it! You will be better for the experience.