Anyone zipping along the Trumansburg Road north of Ithaca these days can’t miss the big sign at number 1259 indicating (in large letters) The Museum of the Earth at the (written below smaller) Paleontological Research Institution. The museum – a soaring new building meant to suggest one of Tompkins County’s gorges – opened in 2003. The Tudor-style building beside it, a former Odd Fellows orphanage, has housed the PRI since the late 1960s. The institution itself was founded in 1932. The millions of objects that it collects, studies and displays are millions of years old.
The PRI was established by Gilbert Harris (1864-1952), a professor of geology at Cornell University who was one of the leading invertebrate paleontologists of his day and a pioneer in the application of paleontology to oil exploration. He established several respected scholarly journals of paleontology (which he printed on his own press) and amassed an impressive collection of fossils. But he felt that Cornell was not providing him with sufficient support or respect, and he feared that his university would waste or lose the acquisitions. So in 1932 Gilbert Harris founded an institution for the collection and identification of fossils, distinctly independent from Cornell.
The PRI became one of the important research bodies in its specialized field but it had no public mission and Cornell was officially kept at arm’s length even as individual students enjoyed access. Harris was also little concerned about financial support for the PRI. These closed attitudes were perpetuated after he retired and his student Katherine Palmer, a respected paleontologist, became director in 1952. Dr. Palmer held the directorship well into her eighties when the assistant director, Dr. Peter Hoover, took charge.
The transition also vividly shows that PRI was susceptible to a common affliction of organizations – sometimes called “founder syndrome” – when they make the inevitable changeover in leadership from the founder to a successor who was not present at the beginning. The failed installations of Kindle and Kirtley – and the ultimately successful but bumpy succession of Hoover – clearly had in common that Katherine Palmer had significant difficulty “letting go” of the institution she had been a part of for her entire professional life… It was not until poor health took her almost completely out of the picture that a truly stable succession was established.
— from The First 75 Years
In 1992 Warren Allmon, then an assistant professor of geology at the University of South Florida, became the fourth director of what he described as “an essay in dust, disorder and deferred maintenance.” Allmon earned his Ph.D. at Harvard, where he studied with the noted paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. The conditions that Allmon found at the PRI were so chaotic that he considered moving the institution, possibly to New York City or Florida. But the Finger Lakes region of New York is home to many natural wonders and has a long tradition of geological research. So the PRI remained in Ithaca and began its own metamorphosis. The most prominent changes were an active and lively involvement with the local community, a new relationship with Cornell, and especially the development of The Museum of the Earth.
While there will always be interest in snails, mollusks and other fossils, including microorganisms, the PRI / Museum of the Earth made room for some big discoveries, especially the mastodons unearthed in Hyde Park, NY and in Chemung County and the North American Right Whale that was washed ashore in New Jersey while the museum was under development and whose 44-foot skeleton is now on display.
The PRI has lately been touched by the controversy over evolution and the work of Charles Darwin, especially after Dr. Allmon’s decision to provide training for docents at the Museum of the Earth on dealing with visitors who question Darwin’s theories from a religious perspective. The museum staff strives to deal respectfully with church groups and others, but the PRI is also deeply involved in the international Darwin Day observance.
Now Warren Allmon himself has told the full story of purposeful research and personal struggles of the PRI in “The First 75 Years: A History of the Paleontological Research Institution” (an order form is here). He joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to extend this insider’s view of moving scientific work into a public spotlight, and to tell about the work of paleontologists.