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1 Early days at the ROM

Being a palaeontologist at the ROM was the best job in the world. And what a rare chance it was landing such a dream vocation.

Before joining the ROM, I was teaching science at a high school in London. Working on my PhD as a part-time student, I conducted my research evenings and weekends. Nearing completion of my thesis in my third year, I began sending off letters, searching for a palaeontological position.

The fossils I worked on were ichthyosaurs, shark-like reptiles that swam in the sea while dinosaurs roamed the land. The specimens I studied were from the early Jurassic, mostly housed in London’s Natural History Museum.

Ichthyosaur skeleton, from Holzmaden, Germany, showing body outline preserved as a carbonaceous film.

Among these ichthyosaurs was one collected by the legendary Mary Anning, of Lyme Regis in Dorset, who was only twelve when she unearthed it, in 1811.Comprising mostly of a massive skull, over a metre (yard) long, it was recognised as being new to science.

Mary Anning’s first ichthyosaur

The only positive response I received from all my letters was from Gordon Edmund, Curator of the Department of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the ROM. While no position was presently available, he was hopeful this would change during the next fiscal year. He asked me to send him a list of referees to support my application.

The telegram offering me the position followed eight months later. Arriving in the afternoon rather than morning led to one of the greatest regrets of my life. Recounting the remarkable events of that day will be left for another time.

Arriving at the ROM on my first day, in August 1969, I decided to take a brief tour of the galleries before reporting to the Department.

The dinosaurs were displayed in a large gallery on the first floor. Most were exhibited behind glass, in large wooden display cases. These skeletons were exposed on one side, with the other still embedded in rock. I later learned that they were referred to as wall-mounted specimens and some would be freed from the rock and assembled as free-standing skeletons. I already knew that I was going to be working on the new gallery where they would be displayed.

I could have spent much more time in the dinosaur gallery, but wanted to see the rest of the museum. After a quick tour through the natural history sections, I explored the galleries of ancient cultures. The extensive collections of artefacts, ranging from suits of armour and Egyptian mummies to ancient Chinese statues, left no doubt in my mind that I was in a world-class museum.

With so many specimens to prepare and mount for the new gallery, several new technicians were hired and trained for jobs in the lab. Among these was Rudy Zimmerman, a former World War II Luftwaffe pilot. His remarkable experiences included flying the rocket-propelled Messerschmitt--163 and approaching the speed of sound. A gifted mechanic, Rudy became a permanent staff member.

Rudy’s flying exploits led to an extraordinary encounter when we were collecting fossils in Manitoba, a few months after the gallery opened, but that story will wait for another time.

Among my gallery responsibilities was assembling two marine reptile skeletons—a 14--foot (4.3 m) long mosasaur and a slightly smaller plesiosaur. This involved my learning how to weld. I also investigated the likely postures of one of the dinosaur skeletons, using a steel scaffolding to hold the leg bones in different positions.

Another of my jobs was writing the explanatory text for the dinosaur and marine reptile displays, and for the skeletons of Ice Age mammals in the adjoining gallery. Time was also spent helping to assemble some of the dinosaurs in the gallery, and in adding simulated Mesozoic plants to the dioramas. Regardless of all the demands, I still found time for ichthyosaur research.

One of the great advantages of working at the ROM was having so many fellow curators, in different fields, to discuss and exchange ideas. With my interest in marine animals, I soon became acquainted with Bev Scott, one of the curators who worked on fishes. With over a million specimens in his department, this was one of the major fish collections in the world.

Bev introduced me to Joe Mandarino, head of the mineralogy department, which had a specialized instrument—an electron probe—for measuring the concentrations of different elements. They had been working together on a project detecting mercury in fish specimens, and for good reason.

Back in the ’60s, people in a coastal town of Japan were dying from eating fishes that had been contaminated with mercury, dumped into the sea by local industries. Named Minamata disease after the town, the same situation was now occurring in northern Ontario.

The ROM’s large collections of Ontario fishes dated back to the 1800s, raising the possibility of detecting contaminated specimens in certain localities that could be correlated with nearby pulp and paper plants.

In the rapidly changing times in which we now live the large collections of biological specimens, housed in museums around the world, are recognized as a vital source of data for documenting the environmental changes taking place on our warming planet.

Thanks to Joe Mandarino, I was able to use the electron probe to analyse a thin section cut through a dinosaur tooth. This revealed that the globular material I had seen under the microscope, enclosed inside the blood vessels of the tooth, was high in iron, as is blood. This supported my conclusion that the globules were dinosaur blood cells.

Thin section cut through dinosaur tooth

The ROM was a cordial place to work, where people related well to one another. Former staff members from the good old days will remember the times we enjoyed together, like the party our department hosted every Christmas. So many people visited our palaeo lab in the basement to join in the merriment, including the occasional director. And the Board of Trustees Christmas gathering was attended by the entire ROM staff.

There was also the annual 24-hour Run for the ROM relay, which attracted participants from across Toronto. Teams from local banks and businesses joined in the race, competing to raise the largest donations for the museum.

A tent city sprung up in the U of T’s Varsity Stadium, close to the ROM, to house the participants. The enthusiastic audience in the stands ranged from friends of the runners to members of the Board.

I joined the ROM Hares team, along with my very best friend and fellow curator, Allan Baker, of the bird department. The second team, the ROM Tortoises, was for the slower runners. Alan Hollet, a keen runner in our team, was the Egyptian department’s technician.

The first Run for the ROM was in 1982, the same year I joined the Egyptologists in Egypt, where they were excavating 1,500-year-old mummies. The evidence of disease and of wear in the skeletons I examined were not the only remarkable experiences I had during my field trip in the desert.


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