How Barnum Brown Discovered ‘T. rex’ and Became History’s Greatest Fossil Hunter

Barnum Brown changed paleontology and pop culture forever by discovering Tyrannosaurus rex.
Barnum Brown changed paleontology and pop culture forever by discovering Tyrannosaurus rex. / Background: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images News/Getty Images; Portrait: Wikimedia Commons

More than 66 million years after its demise, the Tyrannosaurus rex specimen was back on its feet. Teeth the size of chef’s knives lined the jaws of its skull, which stood 18 feet off the ground. Its puny arms made the rest of its frame look bulkier in comparison. The Meridian Daily Journal dubbed the carnivore “the king of all flesh eaters” when it debuted to the public in October 1915, and though its organic form had long since decayed, the prehistoric creature was still capable of inspiring fear in those who passed under its shadow. 

The T. rex displayed at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History had looked less impressive when it was discovered in Montana’s Hell Creek 13 years prior. Buried beneath sand and encased in blue sandstone, it would have resembled ordinary rock to the untrained eye. But paleontologist Barnum Brown knew he was looking at something special. He had spent most of his adult life traveling the country, coaxing the remains of extinct giants from remote hillsides. Few people alive had seen more dinosaur fossils than he, so he was confident he had stumbled upon something new—a gargantuan carnivore the likes of which had never been seen outside fairytales. A three-year excavation confirmed his hunch. 

The first discovered fossil of T. rex made the species an icon and ignited a cultural obsession with paleontology that has yet to fizzle out. It also cemented Barnum Brown’s legacy as one of the most influential fossil hunters of all time. In a cutthroat climate that saw paleontologists and museum directors elbowing for the spotlight, that title wasn’t earned easily.

The Greatest Showman

Barnum Brown was marked for greatness from a young age. Born on a Kansas farm on February 12, 1873, the third child of Clara and William Brown went weeks without a name. Nearby Topeka was plastered with advertisements for P.T. Barnum’s traveling circus at this time, as were cities throughout the Midwest. The colorful posters still loomed large in 6-year-old Frank Brown’s mind when his baby brother arrived. As his parents argued about what to name their new son, Frank offered a suggestion: “Let’s call him Barnum.”

Young Barnum’s life bore no resemblance to that of the enterprising circus showman, but he would live up to his name. He showed little interest in farming the family’s property and preferred combing the grounds around his home for fossils. His father ran a modest strip-mining operation on their coal-rich property, and the plows and scrapers unearthed ancient treasures. Corals and seashells from a forgotten seabed littered the landscape. Barnum collected enough fossils to stuff every drawer in the house.

His compulsion to collect natural wonders reflected both his namesake and the man he was destined to become. He wrote years later, “There must be something in a name, for I have always been in the show business of running a fossil menagerie.”

Barnum Brown doing field work in Montana in his fur coat,  circa 1914.
Barnum Brown doing field work in Montana in his fur coat, circa 1914. / Wikimedia Commons

In 1890, a teenage Brown defected from rural life to enroll in the University of Kansas. His studies extended beyond the classroom and into the fields where he longed to be. Paleontology was a new science at this point, with early players still figuring out the rules in real time, but Brown showed a keen instinct for locating fossils and wresting them from the earth. This earned him nicknames like “Mr. Bones” and “Father of the Dinosaurs” from his peers. Though the work was often dirty, Brown showed up to digs looking his best. 

“He dressed up in fur coats and wore fine clothing while on prospecting trips in the middle of nowhere because he wanted to prove to himself that he was not destined to stay in the family farm forever, but instead had become the dashing explorer of his childhood dreams,” David K. Randall, author of The Monster’s Bones, tells Mental Floss.

An Uneasy Partnership 

At the end of the 19th century, hundreds of extinct dinosaur species were waiting to be discovered—including T. rex. But talent alone wasn’t enough to excavate these beasts. Significant cash was required to fund the expeditions, and fortunately for researchers, paleontology had become a pet interest among millionaires. 

New York aristocrat Henry Fairfield Osborn became head of the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Vertebrate Paleontology in 1891. The son of a railroad magnate, he was positioned to use his wealth and connections to pull the museum ahead in the fossil race. Up to that point, the so-called Bone Wars had been led by rivals Edward Drinker Cope of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and Othniel Charles Marsh of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale, and AMNH was desperate to catch up. By making the institution a major player in the area, Osborn hoped to gain a reputation worthy of his social status at the same time.

Though he wasn’t equipped to dig up fossils himself, he had a knack for finding people who were. Osborn invited Barnum Brown on a try-out expedition out west to test his skills in the field. The young paleontologist was still enrolled in college at the time, but he didn’t hesitate to drop out and take the opportunity. The decision ended up paying off for both Osborn and Brown: On a dig in Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin, Brown unearthed a Coryphodon skeleton that was intact save for its hind limbs, making it the most complete specimen found at the time. 

A rendering of 'Coryphodon' by paleoartist Heinrich Harder, circa 1920.
A rendering of 'Coryphodon' by paleoartist Heinrich Harder, circa 1920. / Heinrich Harder, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

With assistance from Osborn, Brown moved to New York and enrolled in a graduate program at Columbia University. In the city he met Marion Raymond, a public school teacher and the daughter of a respected lawyer. The two married, and in 1908 they had a daughter named Frances.

Married life didn’t cure Brown of his taste for adventure. Osborn continued sending him to remote locations with the goal of recapturing their luck in Wyoming. That discovery wasn’t a fluke. Over the next several years, Brown added new treasures to the museum’s fledgling collection, such as the towering sauropod Diplodocus. But these fossils weren’t enough for Osborn. Competing museums were amassing impressive specimens at a similar pace. With funding from Andrew Carnegie, Pittsburgh’s natural history museum uncovered a Diplodocus skeleton that was bigger than the one in New York, and Osborn scolded Brown for not getting to it first. 

“Dinosaur fossils became trophies in the eyes of [the] Andrew Carnegies of the world,” Randall says, “capable of making their institutions—and by extension themselves—the most popular and important in the world.” 

Osborn knew the only way for AMNH to stand out was to acquire something truly extraordinary—a crown jewel that would attract visitors from around the world. 

To Brown, what the world thought of his work was less important than the work itself. Preparing to leave an expedition in Patagonia in 1900, he wrote: “For many months I had been out of touch with civilization. There were no cables, and mail often reached me via Liverpool. The Spanish [–American] War had been fought and won, but I was happy following the life work I had chosen.” 

Brown and Osborn had a contentious relationship. Even after putting AMNH’s paleontology department on the map, Brown continued to earn measly wages, forcing him to ask his employer for a more stable position and a higher salary. Osborn, meanwhile, had no qualms about taking full credit for Brown’s accomplishments in the press. Despite these tensions, the two men were aligned on one matter: the drive to discover bigger, more awe-inspiring dinosaurs. With this goal in mind, Brown set off for a Cretaceous-era time capsule in Montana in the summer of 1902.

King of Monsters

Brown knew they had to be close. After stumbling upon the remains of an unidentified carnivorous dinosaur in a rocky hillside years ago, he and his team were on the verge of freeing it from its sandstone tomb. Getting there hadn’t been easy; when plows proved useless against the unyielding rock, they blasted away the surface layer with dynamite. On the hottest days, temperatures crept up to 110°F. The heat, combined with exhaustion and cold beers from the local saloon, made the badlands appear to shimmer on the horizon. 

“It was hot tedious work and when we completed we left a scar on Mount Sheba thirty feet long, thirty feet wide and twenty five feet deep,” Brown later recounted in his memoirs. “And worth all our effort for this dinosaur proved to be the type specimen Tyrannosaurus rex.” (A “type specimen” is the specific organism on which an official scientific description of a new species is based.)

Its significance soon became apparent. Even with the excess rock chipped away, the fossilized pelvis weighed more than 4000 pounds. Later analysis revealed the beast had stretched up to 40 feet long and weighed between 11,000 and 15,500 pounds in life. Paleontologists had excavated large carnivorous dinosaurs in the past, but none that would have been a match for Brown’s latest find. Henry Osborn christened the new species with an appropriately superlative name, combining the Greek term for “tyrant lizard” and the Latin word for “king.”

The skull of the 'T. rex' specimen discovered by Barnum Brown.
The skull of the 'T. rex' specimen discovered by Barnum Brown. / John Parise, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Though the discovery was groundbreaking, the fossil itself left much to be desired. Only a partial skeleton was recovered, and when it arrived in New York, Osborn deemed it unfit for display. Still, he knew a more complete specimen could garner the crowds and acclaim he envisioned. He sent Brown back to Montana with the directive to one-up his once-in-a-lifetime find.

While other paleontologists would spend decades searching for T. rex, Brown was able to locate two more within years of digging up the initial fossil. They were also embedded in the Hell Creek Formation, and unlike the first specimen, they were in promising shape. He even found a 1000-pound skull filled with curving, serrated teeth—further evidence of the dinosaur’s predatory nature. 

A Star Is Born

After laying dormant in the ground for millions of years, T. rex would have to wait a bit longer to debut to the public. The American Museum of Natural History embarked on the painstaking process of shaving rock from fossil and rearranging the bones to recapture their living form. Little was known about how the species may have looked more than 66 million years ago, so it ended up standing taller in death than it had in life. Museum staff members mounted its vertebrae vertically, lifting its huge head too high and positioning its tail dragging. (Paleontologists now agree that T. rex walked with its spine and tail parallel to the ground.) The result was a behemoth that barely fit beneath the museum’s ceiling.

The exhibition whipped the media into a frenzy when it opened to the public in 1915. The breathless coverage matched the species’ hyperbolic name. “So big is the mere skeleton of the monster as it rears aloft in the museum that it dwarfs into insignificance the largest man or animal brought near to it,” The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote. “Tyrannosaurus rex was capable of destroying any of the contemporary creatures on the globe.”

Even as the press died down, the public’s fascination with the prehistoric carnivore stayed strong. 

“More than any other fossil—and more than nearly any other object that can found in a museum—the [T. rex] changed popular culture by bringing science and the concept of prehistoric life into the reach of the everyday person,” Randall says. “Suddenly it became understandable that these alien-like life forms once ruled Earth, and that the climate and land masses we see today may have once looked much different.” 

Early Hollywood cast the beast as an antagonist in films like 1918’s The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, 1933’s King Kong, and 1940’s Fantasia (Brown served as a consultant on the latter). The AMNH specimen was the only one on display until 1940, which meant that every T. rex depicted on film before then was indirectly or directly modeled after it.

Bigger carnivorous species were eventually discovered, but Tyrannosaurus rex never lost its status as King of the Dinosaurs. It reached new levels of fame in the 1990s with the publication of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park and Steven Spielberg’s subsequent movie adaptation. Instead of the living dinosaur, both the book cover and film poster depict the silhouette of aT. rex fossil. When designing the image, Chip Kidd used AMNH 5027—the same specimen Barnum Brown dug up for the museum to display—as his reference. 

Friendly Competition

As T. rex rose to celebrity status, its discoverer remained anonymous outside certain circles. Newspapers like The New York Times credited Osborn with the find—likely at his request. If this bothered Brown, he didn’t go out of his way to show it.

“Brown, unlike Osborn, didn’t seek out the spotlight and in many cases was never mentioned in the stories about his discoveries,” Randall says.

He had bigger concerns in the years following the T. rex expeditions. In 1910, his wife Marion succumbed to a sudden illness, leaving him a widower and single father. He left his daughter in the care of Marion’s parents and retreated into his work, traveling from Canada to Asia over the subsequent years. 

Barnum Brown excavating an incomplete Ceratopsian dinosaur fossil in Texas, circa 1940
Barnum Brown excavating an incomplete Ceratopsian dinosaur fossil in Texas, circa 1940. / Roland T. Bird/Stringe/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It was in this period of his life that he found himself competing with the Sternberg family. Paleontologist Charles H. Sternberg often brought his sons George, Charles, and Levi into the field, and together they made a formidable team. Their discoveries included a mummified Edmontosaurus—one of the best-preserved dinosaur specimens known to science at the time. 

Though he wasn’t worried about getting credit in the press, being the one to get to these fossils first mattered to Brown. Rivalries were nothing new in the paleontology world. The Bone Wars primarily fought by Cope and Marsh defined the study’s early period, with the two men resorting to destroying bones and smearing the other’s reputation. The conflict between Brown and the Sternbergs never devolved to that level, and in the heat of their competition the two parties maintained a mutual respect. George Sternberg even worked for AMNH under Brown’s guidance early in his career. Brown wasn’t happy to be missing out on fossils, but the friendly rivalry was a welcome motivator and distraction from his grief.

The Gift of Reinvention

After discovering the most famous dinosaur of all time, a less ambitious paleontologist may have taken the opportunity to slow down. Not Barnum Brown: As he watched his aging peers transition from digs to desk jobs, he continued spending time in the field.

The race to stuff museum halls with fossils petered out following World War I and the Great Depression, which required him to rethink his work. Without the funding to dig up dinosaur bones, he used his experience to find oil reservoirs for businesses with money to spend. This enabled him to work as an industrial spy for oil companies during wartime, and later as an intelligence asset for the pre-CIA Office of Strategic Services.

“He had the gift of reinvention that allowed him to [put] his farm life behind him, and that was a trait that propelled him into becoming a spy as well,” Randall says. 

Though he always treated his fossils as the main attraction, he lived up to his namesake by dabbling in show business later in life. He hosted his own weekly radio show on CBS, and when he toured the country fans lined up to meet the legendary dinosaur hunter. After being denied credit for his work for years, Brown had become one of paleontology’s first celebrities, paving the way for public-facing pop-science stars of the modern era. He never eclipsed the star power of T. rex, but few people ever would. 

Additional Source: Barnum Brown: The Man Who Discovered Tyrannosaurus Rex, by Lowell Dingus and Mark A. Norell