Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Great Minnesota Brachiopod Caper of 1892

I've been looking to write something on Frederick Sardeson for a little while now, but Weiss (2000) has taken care of his biography in great detail, and there's enough going on there that to summarize it would still give you a long, long post. Instead, as I was working this particular incident stood out and volunteered to serve as a microcosm of his career. I present the Great Minnesota Brachiopod Caper of 1892. Weiss (1997) also got there before me, but this is a much more compact bite to take.

First, our cast of characters as they were in 1891–1892:
Christopher Hall, the head of the University of Minnesota's Department of Geology;
Frederick William Sardeson, former law student turned geology graduate student under Hall;
Charles Schuchert and Edward Oscar Ulrich, up-and-coming geologists/paleontologists out of Cincinnati; and
Newton Horace Winchell, the head of the Minnesota Geological and Natural History Survey.

And the situation:
Winchell was not a paleontologist, but he had a lot of fossils. In order to deal with them, he assembled a group of paleo-hotshots. For our purposes, the most significant are Schuchert, a budding brachiopod expert, and Ulrich, who could deal with a wide range of fossil groups. They'd already worked together on projects for the surveys of other states, so were experienced in this line of work. Winchell's team described hundreds of fossil species, with the culmination of their work being the great multi-volume "Geology of Minnesota" series. It is the creation of this series that led to Sardeson getting bluffed out of six brachiopod species by Ulrich and Winchell. For brevity, let us describe the events like this:

  1. Winchell brings in Schuchert to describe the numerous brachiopods.
  2. Hall directs Sardeson to bring Schuchert up to speed on the local brachs. Hall had previously worked with Winchell on the survey and dislikes him, although he is generous enough in this case.
  3. Sardeson and Schuchert have an informal deal that Sardeson will not publish any new brachiopod taxa until Schuchert has his work out.
  4. The "Geology of Minnesota" series is taking a long time to complete. The draft of the brachiopod chapter (Winchell and Schuchert 1895) is pretty much ready to go by late March of 1892, though, and Schuchert leaves town. In the meantime, Sardeson has nearly completed his graduate work, and has prepared a joint publication with Hall on the local Paleozoic rocks. An essential part of this is Sardeson's biostratigraphy, which incorporates a number of undescribed taxa. Hall insists that descriptions be published in advance of the joint paper.
  5. Ulrich finds out that Sardeson is preparing descriptions of new species, including brachiopods, which he promised not to do per point 3. This manuscript will be ready to go by early April. Winchell is not pleased by this turn of events.
  6. Winchell and Ulrich opt to extract part of the manuscript prepared by Schuchert to preempt Sardeson. It just so happens that the Winchell family owns a journal and Winchell himself is the editor (The American Geologist, which later kind of turns into The Pan-American Geologist). This is convenient. However, Sardeson's descriptive work, coincidentally enough due to be published in a journal edited by Hall (Bulletin of the Minnesota Academy of Natural Sciences), is almost ready for publication. There isn't enough time for Winchell and co. to preserve priority, or is there?
  7. Fittingly enough, on April 1, 1892, Ulrich provides Sardeson with a fake preprint of the extracted article, bluffing that it has already been mailed out. This has not happened, and in fact only two copies of the April 1 preprint are known to exist: Sardeson's copy and a copy kept by Ulrich.
  8. Sardeson's own article is mailed out April 6.
  9. An actual preprint of Winchell's article is mailed out April 21, with a note on the title page that it was first distributed April 1, 1892. The note does not explain that the distribution consisted of the single copy supplied to Sardeson.

The immediate result is that perfidy is rewarded, at least as far as Sardeson is concerned; the community takes it at face value that the April 1, 1892 date on the Winchell and Schuchert article is legit. Sardeson is "scooped" on six brachiopods: Orthis minnesotensis, taken by Winchell and Schuchert's Orthis meedsi; Orthis petrae, taken by Orthis proavita; Rhynchonella sancta, taken by Rhynchotrema inaequivalis var. laticostata; Streptorhynchus subsulcatum, taken by Strophomena scofieldi; Strophomena halli, taken by Leptaena charlottae; and Zygospira aquila, taken by Hallina nicolleti. The episode does not reflect well on any of the participants: Hall forced Sardeson into the mess, Sardeson broke his word to Schuchert, and Winchell, Ulrich, and to a lesser extent Schuchert came up with a new twist on the time-honored game of "screw over the grad student". For good measure, Winchell's team also appropriated the framework of Sardeson's biostratigraphic zones without giving him much credit. In the long run, the episode blows over as another quaint example of academic hardball. Hall is more or less forgotten today. Schuchert works with the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Museum of Natural History before moving on to Yale for the long term, where he becomes the god of brachiopods and eventually makes up with Sardeson. Ulrich goes on to the USGS, where he continues working on the lower Paleozoic and unsuccessfully proposes two additional periods out of the Cambrian and Ordovician (the Ozarkian and Canadian). Winchell successfully guides the Survey work to completion, retires to archeology, gets a number of things named after him, and is now more or less the only geologist based out of Minnesota that anyone has ever heard of. Sardeson embarks on a tempestuous career.

Sardeson was the one left holding the bag, which becomes something of a pattern for him. He was a fascinating paleontologist who combined aspects of 19th century heroic geology with brilliant insights on topics such as paleobiology, paleoecology, and biostratigraphy, along with very un-19th-century ideas on when to name new species. Over several decades he amassed a collection of thousands of fossils from the Ordovician of Minnesota, carefully plotted stratigraphically. Unfortunately, for all of his gifts, he also had an uncanny knack for marginalizing himself through sarcasm, paranoia, and professional contempt. (I'm not going to get into chicken-and-egg, but the events of 1892 probably did not increase his trust in others.) He quarreled with most of the geologists he encountered and entered into several long-running feuds which, despite whatever justification, did him more harm than good. He came up with the earliest name for what we now call the Platteville Formation and Decorah Shale (Beloit Formation, 1896), but was ignored in favor of the Platteville Formation, coined years later by a USGS geologist (Bain 1905). He was prevented from working on the geology of the St. Croix Valley by Ulrich and Charles Walcott (not counting the fact that Sardeson and Ulrich were not exactly buddies, Ulrich had staked out that area as part of his turf, and Walcott was wary of anyone who might show him up in his Cambrian sections, and Sardeson did not mind showing people up). He was dismissed from the University of Minnesota in 1913 and ended up blacklisted from all of the geology journals except the eccentric Pan-American Geologist. Through it all, he displayed superhuman perseverance. He was publishing up to 1940, into his 70s.


Bain, H. F. 1905. Zinc and lead deposits of northwestern Illinois. U.S. Geological Survey, Washington, D.C. Bulletin 246.

Sardeson, F. W. 1892. The range and distribution of the lower Silurian fauna of Minnesota with descriptions of some new species. Bulletin of the Minnesota Academy of Natural Sciences 3(3):326–343, 408–413.

Sardeson, F. W. 1896. The Galena and Maquoketa shales. Part 1. American Geologist 18:356–368.

Weiss, M. P. 1997. Falsifying priority of species names: a fraud of 1892. Earth Sciences History 16:21–32.

Weiss, M. P. 2000. Frederick William Sardeson, geologist 1866–1958. Minnesota Geological Survey, St. Paul, Minnesota. Bulletin 48.

Winchell, N. H., and C. Schuchert. 1892. Preliminary descriptions of new Brachiopoda from the Trenton and Hudson River groups of Minnesota. The American Geologist 9:285–294.

Winchell, N. H., and C. Schuchert. 1895. Sponges, graptolites, and corals from the Lower Silurian in Minnesota. Pages 55–95 in Lesquereux, L., C. Schuchert, A. Woodward, E. Ulrich, B. Thomas, and N. H. Winchell. The geology of Minnesota. Minnesota Geological and Natural History Survey, Final Report 3(1). Johnson, Smith & Harrison, state printers, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

No comments:

Post a Comment