Joseph Leidy and Charles Knight were prominent American academics who committed their lives and reputations to the young field of paleontology. Much like O.C. Marsh and Edward Cope, Leidy participated in the cutthroat race to produce the most prolific and authentic findings on dinosaur fossils in the United States. Charles Knight was a painter who combined his knowledge of anatomy with paleontology to postulate what the extinct creatures might have looked like and to bring them to life on canvas.
Joseph Leidy was born on September 9, 1823 into a German household in Philadelphia. After studying medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Leidy became a professor of anatomy at the University and a contributing member of Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences. Leidy was considered a gentleman naturalist, a term used to describe self-taught men devoted to studying the natural world but who lacked academic credentials. He helped discover, name and reconstruct Hadrosaurus foulkii, the first complete dinosaur skeleton to be displayed for the public, and he had a reputation for being able to correctly identify even the smallest fossil. Leidy also mentored the promising Edward Cope and was one of the first American scientists to defend and support Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection presented in On the Origin of Species.
However, the growing field of paleontology proved to be too small for men like Leidy, Cope, and Marsh; by 1870, Cope and Marsh were bitter rivals. Cope was humiliated when Leidy confirmed Marsh's accusation that Cope's sketch of Elasmosaurus platyurus placed the head on the wrong end of the skeleton. Lacking the financial and institutional support to compete with his rivals as well as the lust for the fight, Leidy largely withdrew from paleontology and committed himself to Protozoology, the study of single-cell microorganisms. Joseph Leidy died on April 30, 1891.
Although not a scientist, Charles Knight was an extremely influential figure in early American paleontology. Born on October 21, 1874, the artist spent much of his life painting nature scenes, but achieved fame rendering illustrations of dinosaurs using recently discovered fossils. Beginning with a paleontologist's reconstruction of a skeleton, Knight studied the anatomy and movements of contemporary animals and used his observations to put flesh on extinct creatures' bones. Knight's paintings became many Americans' initial exposure to what dinosaurs may have looked like alive and interacting with one another. Leaping Laelaps, his work portraying the predatory Dryptosaurus, was one of the first illustrations to depict dinosaurs as fast-moving, aggressive creatures. Critics, who recognized the necessity of paleontological guesswork in light of the meager fossil material available at the time, criticized Knight's tendency to attribute lizard-like features to creatures who may, in fact, have been more ornithological.
At a time when paleontology was growing and dinosaurs were becoming increasingly popular, Knight gained nationwide recognition for his creative depictions of prehistoric life. Today, his works, including everything from sketches to murals, are displayed across the country in prestigious museums and private collections and are featured in countless books, magazines, and films. Charles Knight died on April 15, 1953.
Click here to browse a photo gallery of Charles Knights artwork.
My American Experience
Do you remember first learning about dinosaurs? Have you been to Dinosaur State Park? What do you know about dinos in America? What do you think makes prehistoric creatures so fascinating?