Herbivore skull found by Loomis
Loomis found this herbivore skull on a 1919 expedition. It's now in the Beneski's natural history collection.

Even on his year off, Frederic Brewster Loomis could not escape the dead. 

The year was 1923, and this Amherst professor of geology, paleontology and biology—also a member of the class of 1896—was traveling south to Florida with his family, ostensibly “to enjoy the orange and grape fruit groves, the truck farms and sea beach.” But in Washington, D.C., the vacation morphed into a business trip when he visited the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. There he found a shipment of fossil reptiles from South Africa in need of a home. He promptly arranged for them to go to Amherst. 

Nine hundred miles away and a year earlier, an orange grower in Melbourne, Fla., had discovered some unusual remains in a swamp on his property. He had reached out to scientists at the Smithsonian, where Loomis, during his stop in D.C., got wind of the find. On arriving in Florida, the professor got in touch with the grower, who invited him to stop by to have a look. At the swamp, Loomis declared the specimen to be “the teeth of the Columbian mammoth,” and, as he later recounted, “We all got busy and dug out nearly a complete skeleton.” 

They set aside the skeleton for a local museum and returned to the dig, uncovering a second mammoth. That one would quickly become the centerpiece of Amherst’s natural history collection, housed at the time in Webster Hall. Now, almost a century later, the specimen has found renewed fame as the inspiration for the College’s mascot. The new mascot solidifies Loomis’s skeleton in a place of prominence at the College—and perhaps it will, over time, make Loomis as familiar a name as that of Edward Hitchcock,  Amherst’s third president and collector of the Beneski Museum’s dinosaur tracks.

With the mammoth’s star now on the rise, it’s a good time to reassess the contributions of Loomis—a forgotten figure in paleontology. Without him, science—and Amherst in particular—would have many fewer fossil specimens. One of them, the lower jaw of a dinosaur, is the subject of a current research project that may soon reveal a new species. So let’s take another look at the popular professor who chatted his way into homes in Patagonia, who took undergraduates on harrowing digs, and whose sparse record-keeping sometimes frustrates modern paleontologists, who, according to one, have found more evidence of what the professor ate for lunch than where he collected his specimens.  


One of the best-known—and best-documented—Loomis excursions was to Patagonia in 1911. Charles Darwin and others had already demonstrated that the region, encompassing 300,000 square miles of Argentina and 131,000 of Chile, harbored rich fossil deposits, especially of early mammals. Yet the vast area remained largely unexplored. “The Patagonia of our childhood geography was a no man’s land,” Loomis wrote in Hunting Extinct Animals in the Patagonian Pampas, his book documenting the trip. He wanted to determine whether the ancestors of modern horses, elephants and possibly even humans had originated there, an idea first put forth by Florentino Ameghino, an earlier paleontologist who worked extensively in Patagonia.

To help answer this question, Loomis brought along Waldo Shumway, class of 1911, and Philip Turner ’12, along with Billy Stein, an experienced fossil collector. Loomis’s Amherst classmates provided the funding. Departing on a steamship in July from New York, the professor and his team stopped in Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo and Buenos Aires to procure supplies. Next they bought horses near the coast in Argentina. On Aug. 20 they started their fieldwork.

Frederich Booster Loomis
Loomis in Patagonia, where his team dug up what looks like a cross between a rhino and an elephant. Page 31: Some of his U.S. specimens.

Shumway kept a terse diary detailing the expedition. Of the first day in the field, he wrote: “Walked 17 Miles. Climbed 200 feet several times. Patagonia. Upper Cretaceous. Oysters. Shark’s teeth.” 

As the expedition progressed: “Feeling rotten.” 

And, later: “Rode Paddy.” (Paddy was a horse.) “Got thrown and dragged thirty feet. Sole came off shoe and saved my life. Bruised.” 

Loomis’s diary gives a more harrowing account of the Paddy incident: Turner’s hat blew off, startling the horse, which responded by throwing Shumway, who caught his foot in the stirrup. “The horse turned 3 times around & then bolted,” Loomis wrote. “Shumway was dragged around & about 25 or 30 feet when the sole of his shoe came off & released him.” Amazingly, Shumway escaped with no major injuries.

After two fruitless months his team found fossils, and half an hour later, Loomis felt “fifteen years younger.”

Loomis and his charges wandered around Patagonia, camping near canyons in the scrubby brush and chasing down leads gleaned from the notes of earlier explorers. They ran into people who would tell them they had seen bones in some spot or other. Such tips were “exactly what we most wanted,” wrote Loomis. But many proved disappointing—until mid-October, when the team uncovered what turned out to be “a skull thirty-eight inches long, with tusks in the upper jaw fully ten inches in length.”

It was a nearly complete skull of Pyrotherium. This ancient creature—which looks like a cross between an elephant and a rhino—was heretofore known only from a few teeth that an earlier paleontologist had found in the same region. Spencer Lucas, a curator of paleontology at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, says the Loomis specimen remains “the best skull that’s ever been found” of the genus. Today it’s on display in the Beneski at Amherst. 

Loomis, an affable man, was good at talking his way into homes and other forms of shelter. One rainy day in Patagonia, his team arrived on the property of a pair of brothers. Loomis talked to one of them, ostensibly to ask permission to camp on their land. But after Loomis chatted him up for a while, the man invited the visitors in for “a cup of tea or something.” Loomis wrote, “‘Tea’ proved to be Scotch, and ‘something’ developed into a good supper”—surely preferable to a damp camp meal.

After getting word about a man “who had found a bone,” Loomis arrived at a small hill. “It did not take half an hour to be sure that the point for which we had been seeking for over two months was before us,” he wrote. “In that time I grew at least fifteen years younger.” Loomis and the students spent the next three weeks at the site, waking to calls of “Roll up your beds, boys!” from Stein, the fossil collector, before dawn, breakfasting at 5 a.m., and then setting off to find where their horses had wandered during the night. “By seven we closed up the tent and started heading for the hill, each man with his pick in his hand and a bag on his back, containing hammer, chisels, awls, brushes, cloth for bandages, flour, shellac, and a canteen of water,” Loomis wrote. 

Fossils in the Beneski Museum

The shellac was for the fossils. “While perfect in form, they were soft and fragile,” wrote Loomis, and successive coats of shellac hardened and preserved them. (Today, scientists use more sophisticated compounds.) To keep skeletons safe on their long journey to Amherst, they used cloth and flour to 
create plaster jackets, from which they would have to again be painstakingly extricated.

Loomis and his students returned to campus just in time for the start of the spring semester. In total, they brought back nearly 300 specimens, mostly consisting of fossilized animal skulls and other bones.

He has more records of what he had for lunch than where he collected stuff,” says one scholar.

Loomis published two books about his work in Patagonia: one a general account of the trip for a popular audience and the other a scientific look at the specimens he had collected. Ultimately, he decided that the Patagonian animals were not the ancestral source of mammals elsewhere—a conclusion that matches current understanding. “A lot of these animals were unique to South America,” says Lucas. “They’re not the ancestors to groups we see elsewhere in the world.” 

Mammoth bones in the Beneski Museum
The Florida mammoth, now on display at the Beneski, inspired Amherst’s mascot.

The Critic

“Loomis was very important to Amherst College,” says paleontologist Margery Coombs, an emerita professor at UMass who taught vertebrate paleontology and served as an adjunct museum curator at Amherst for many years. Loomis’s influence, she says, is most obvious in the natural history collection, which contains thousands of his specimens, not only from the digs in Florida and Patagonia but also from a dozen or so expeditions that he took with Amherst students to the American West. 

Among these specimens are holotypes of dozens of species: the first specimens collected and used to describe a new species. Also, by trading his own fossils for those at other museums, Loomis procured additional items for Amherst, including the saber-toothed cat skeleton that today slinks along near the base of the mammoth in the Beneski. “If you didn’t have Loomis, you wouldn’t have a lot of those specimens,” says Coombs. 

Loomis in the field And Loomis’s tradition of bringing students into the field carries on today. For my own fieldwork for my senior thesis in biology, for example, Professor Ethan Temeles led me and another student on an expedition to the Caribbean to study hummingbirds and flowers. (Our lodging was a bit more comfortable than that of Loomis and his charges: we stayed in a small hotel.) The experience of going out and collecting data and specimens is an invaluable one, giving a deeper understanding of both the system being studied and the vagaries of fieldwork. As Coombs says, “It’s no small thing to take a bunch of students out into the field and be responsible for them.” As the runaway horse in Patagonia proves, that was even more true in the early 20th century.

But while he was out there in the field, Loomis often neglected to write down basic information, including the locations and geologic formations where he found his specimens. In general, paleontologists of his era were less diligent about recording such details, Coombs acknowledges. And Patagonia and the American West were poorly mapped out back then, compounding the problem: “He was riding around with a wagon, going from here to there—he probably didn’t even know exactly where he was at times.” Still, his record-keeping has long vexed other scientists. “He sometimes has more records of what he had for lunch,” Coombs laments, “than where he collected stuff.” 

Location records weren’t his only weak point. George Gaylord Simpson, considered one of the great paleontologists and evolutionary theorists of the 20th century, harshly criticized his elder in the field, writing in 1984 that while “Loomis was a sincere, industrious, and likable man,” his scientific accounting of the Patagonia expedition “is so replete with dubieties and with downright errors, both as to stratigraphy and as to paleontology, that it cannot be considered a real contribution to South American geology or paleontology.” 

A field label in the Beneski of fossilized horse teeth
A field label in the Beneski of fossilized horse teeth from one expedition Loomis took to Melbourne, Fla.

Take the Pyrotherium skull. Twentieth-century scientists vigorously debated where exactly Pyrotherium fell in the tangled, branching bush of evolution. In his book about the Patagonia expedition, Loomis argued that it was most closely related to elephants and mastodons, but a few years later he changed his mind, concluding that the ancient beast was in fact a marsupial. Simpson disagreed, however, writing that, while the skull was important and impressive in its completeness, “Loomis’s description was inadequate and partly inaccurate and his conclusions definitely wrong.”

Simpson doesn’t elaborate on what he found lacking in the Pyrotherium’s description. As for Loomis’s incorrect conclusions, Simpson was writing with “the benefit of half a century of hindsight,” notes Spencer Lucas, the New Mexico paleontologist. “What Loomis wrote about Pyrotherium … is perfectly good science for its day, considering what was known.” (Today, scientists tend to classify Pyrotherium on its own separate branch, remote from all recent mammals.) Simpson even objected to the fact that a later paleontologist, visiting the same area where Loomis collected the Pyrotherium skull, referred to the spot as Loomis Hill: “That,” Simpson wrote, “gave far too much credit to Loomis.” 

Did Simpson’s criticisms go too far? Lucas thinks so. In his estimation, Loomis’s work in Patagonia remains “a substantial contribution to our knowledge of the South American record of Tertiary mammals.” And “considering that Loomis was one of the first to study the Deseadan rocks and fossil mammals in detail,” says Lucas, “the ‘dubieties’ and ‘downright errors’ Simpson refers to are relatively few.” Lucas suspects that Simpson’s disparagement was driven in part by professional jealousy.

My take is this: Loomis was a talented professor and an enthusiastic field researcher. He could probably have been more assiduous with his field notes, but to completely discount the work he did in Patagonia is unfair, considering both the discoveries that have arisen from his finds and the differing standards for field notes at the turn of the century. And Loomis’s work extended beyond the field and the classroom: he was president of the Paleontological Society in 1920, and was partly responsible for adding the Section of Vertebrate Paleontology to the Society in 1934. The section would later become the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. “He does have a place in the pantheon of American vertebrate paleontology,” says Coombs. “It’s not a huge place, but it’s definitely there.” 

A New Dinosaur?

Some Loomis specimens have led to contemporary discoveries. In 1992, paleontologists described a new species and genus of sauropod (the huge, long-necked dinosaurs that include Apatosaurus) based on specimens that Loomis collected in eastern Wyoming. But the name given to the ancient animal—Dyslocosaurus—is further evidence of the professor’s shortcomings: it combines dys (“bad”) and locus (“place”). “The provenance data,” the 1992 scientists asserted, “are unsatisfactory and raise a major question about the significance of the specimen.” Despite a “thorough search” by the authors through Loomis’s field notes at Amherst, they found no mention of the fossil; the only information accompanying it is this frustratingly vague wording: “vicinity of Lance Creek, eastern Wyoming.” 

More recently, in 2011, Robert Hunt, a University of Nebraska paleontologist, named a new carnivore genus and species, Delotrochanter oryktes, based on material Loomis collected in 1908 at Stenomylus Quarry, now part of Agate Fossil Beds National Monument.

In 2012, Sebastian Dalman, then an independent researcher living in western Massachusetts, was doing research on tyrannosaurids. Hearing that Amherst had a tyrannosaurid specimen—part of a lower jaw—he paid a visit to the Beneski. Loomis had collected the fossil in New Mexico in 1924, during the same yearlong trip that yielded the Florida mammoth. Loomis had labeled it as coming from the Ojo Alamo Formation—which would make it around 67 million years old. 

A recent study holds that Amherst’s tyrannosaurid may be a new species—to be named for Loomis.

But something about the specimen looked off to Dalman, based on how the fossilization process of the jaw had occurred: it was darker in color than most of the other fossils from that geological formation. He thought it might instead be from the Kirtland Formation, making it a few million years older—and maybe a different species.

Dalman asked Kate Wellspring, the museum collections curator at the time, to take the fossil down from the display for a closer look. Bringing it to a room in the basement, Dalman was able to see the side of the jaw that was hidden when it was on display. Immediately, he says, he saw something that was “different from any other Tyrannosaur that I have seen.” (And he has seen quite a few). 

To the untrained eye, the differences aren’t huge: two openings instead of one beneath one of the teeth, and a distinct part of the jaw where a ligament would connect. But, to Dalman, it was clearly a new species. A paper describing the evidence for that conclusion, including a few specimens at other museums, is currently going through the peer review process; Dalman expects it to be published soon. And, yes: the new tyrannosaurid will be named after Loomis.

In July 1937, Loomis died suddenly from a brain hemorrhage while fishing with his family off the coast of Alaska. He was 63, and had been slated to chair the Section of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting later that year. A newspaper article in the Springfield Union noted that “about half of the entering freshman class had elected Prof. Loomis’ course on ‘Man and His Environment,’” and three other professors would be taking it over in his stead. In one memorial tribute, fellow paleontologist Walter Granger noted the contributions Loomis had made to the Amherst natural history collections. “Truly the Amherst Museum will be Fred Loomis’ monument,” he wrote.

Amherst’s magnificent natural history museum—considered among the best college natural history museums—would not be what it is today without Loomis. And while Amherst no longer focuses much on paleontology, it has a strong track record of turning out stellar geology majors, including the current head of the Smithsonian, Kirk Johnson ’82. 

Loomis’s grave is about 2 miles from the Beneski Museum. To find it, I had to leave the main path in the cemetery, bushwhacking through mountain laurel and fighting off mosquitoes, then wandering around until I found the marker, overgrown with ferns and obscured by dead leaves. Doubtless it has few visitors these days. But Amherst has a new mascot, the world could have a new dinosaur, and Loomis’s legacy may, too, rise again from the layers of history. 


Geoffrey Giller ’10 majored in biology and French at Amherst. He is a science and environmental writer and photographer.