June 9, 2006
Director of Media Relations
AMHERST, Mass.—Few people realize that Amherst College holds the world’s largest collection of dinosaur tracks. A new book explores how an evangelical minister (and college president) named Edward Hitchcock assembled that collection in the mid-1800s, while arguing that the tracks were made not by dinosaurs but by gigantic ancient birds. Curious Footprints: Professor Hitchcock’s Dinosaur Tracks and Other Natural History Treasures at Amherst College ($20, paper, 121 pp., Amherst College Press, Amherst, Mass. 2006) combines a charming biographical sketch of Hitchcock, written by Nancy Pick, with Frank Ward’s stunning color photographs of the college’s broader natural history collections. In his images, Ward captures the humor in a pair of dried pufferfish and the mystery in a shrouded skeleton of a gibbon.
Edward Hitchcock (1793-1864) was a thoroughly remarkable man. Although he never attended college, he rose to the presidency of Amherst College and became one of America’s best-known geologists. He corresponded with Charles Darwin and other eminent scientists, while shaping the education of none other than Emily Dickinson. He wrote in every conceivable genre—from poetry to scientific treatise to health-food tract — and, in the decades before Darwin’s Origin of Species, made a heroic effort to reconcile Christianity with science. “I confess I find myself drawn to you,” writes Pick, in an opening letter to Hitchcock. “You were brilliant. From the backwater of Amherst, you established a reputation even in London. And yet you were vulnerable, a little tortured, often endearingly wrong.”
A 1983 graduate of Amherst College, Nancy Pick is the author of The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, named one of the best science books of 2004 by Discover magazine. She has written about Edward Hitchcock for Gastronomica and the Boston Globe Magazine. Frank Ward, the Amherst College photographer for 22 years, has taught photography there and at Smith College and is now a professor of photography at Holyoke Community College. His work has appeared in Oprah magazine, Dance magazine and The New York Times.
The images in Curious Footprints were taken in the old Pratt Museum of Natural History at Amherst, before its collections were transferred to the recently opened Amherst College Museum of Natural History.
Curious Footprints is available for $20 from Amherst College Press, 413/542-2321.