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American History: June 2000 From the Editor

Originally published by American History magazine. Published Online: August 11, 2000 
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Action, Adventure, and Dinosaurs

WHEN I WAS YOUNG I was obsessed with dinosaurs, an interest that peaked around the time I was in first and second grade. One of the best fuels for my obsession was a book by Roy Chapman Andrews called, with a little bit of hyperbole, All About Dinosaurs. If any book was designed to inspire a child to become a paleontologist, this was it. Fossil hunting was not just a job, it was pretty much the greatest adventure you could hope for! Andrews wrote about places he gave evocative names like the Flaming Cliffs, encounters with Chinese bandits, and journeys through exotic locations. Consider this passage: "Bandits were reputed to be in the grasslands to the north of us. Their leader was a giant Mongol named Kula. He was reported to be a terrible man. When he attacked a caravan, he murdered every man, woman and child. We feared he might try to get our motor cars if he heard of our expedition. That would have meant a battle." If that kind of prose can't get a youngster's imagination racing, I don't know what can.

Andrews' kind of science, swashbuckling adventure not unlike that in an Indiana Jones movie (see "Fossils from the Gobi," page 42), seems more and more a thing of the past in this age of increasing specialization. I've even read that some scientists question the necessity of such fieldwork because the real discoveries are now made in the laboratory. Andrews, however, disavowed the idea that he was out seeking adventure. "I do not believe in hardships, if they can be avoided for they lessen effectiveness; they are a great nuisance," he wrote. "Neither do I believe in adventures. Most of them can be eliminated by foresight and organization." Yet for a man who didn't believe in adventures, Andrews certainly had his share of them, and he took an obvious delight in retelling his stories in book after book. There was the time in Peking, for instance, when a single airplane attacked the city during a Chinese civil war and Andrews, caught in the middle of the excitement, had to seek shelter beneath a train at the station. He emerged when he thought the attack was over, only to learn that the quiet was merely a lull in the action. "Before I could duck back under the train a bomb exploded a few feet away, directly in front of a Chinese woman. It blew her head off as neatly as though it had been severed with a knife."

Another interesting incident occurred one night when a number of armed men on horseback rode into the expedition's camp."I ordered the visitors off their horses," wrote Andrews. "Of course, they professed to be soldiers guarding the frontier but obviously they were bandits expecting easy pickings from a defenseless Chinese caravan." The men were kept under guard overnight and released the next morning without their guns. The commander at a nearby military post confirmed the visitors were bandits. "A dozen soldiers mounted on fast ponies set out immediately, caught the men and shot them before night."

Andrews died in 1960 and in the years since his death his reputation as a scientist has declined. Even the web site of the American Museum of Natural History notes, "Andrews himself found few fossils, and during his career he was not known as an influential scientist." But I'm sure there are thousands of other people like me, for whom Roy Chapman Andrews blazed a trail of excitement and wonder into the world of the imagination.


Tom Huntington, Editor, American History

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