PRI In The News
The Ithaca Journal: Teaching Evolution Facing More Resistance
November 26, 2005
Syracuse - Underwriter Spotlight
Alumni Magazine - Rocky Road, Two Institutions Bridge a 75-year-old
Times - Art & Entertainment: The Art of Charles R. Knight
Ithaca Journal -
"The Ticket" The Art of Charles R. Knight
Higher Ed - To Debate or Not to Debate Intelligent Design?
UNVEILING of LIFE-SIZE BRONZE COELOPHYSIS SCULPTURE
New York Times; Challenged by Creationists, Museums Answer Back
New York Times -F.A.Q.: What's Evolution? Is It 'Just a Theory'?
Elmira - Openings/Exhibits
Register: Museums answering creationists' challenges
College Harry McCue Guest of The Museum of the Earth
Ithaca Journal -
Ammonoids on display at Museum of the Earth
ITHACA, N.Y. - It took more than 70 years, but the former adversaries have finally made up.
The rift began when Gilbert D. Harris, a distinguished Cornell geologist, picked up his collection of fossils and left in a huff, setting up a rival organization here to showcase his finds and work. He named it the Paleontological Research Institution and saw it achieve global prominence, partly by publishing journals on fossil discoveries.
The discord continued even after Mr. Harris died. His daughter stated that the institution would forfeit its endowment if it ever merged with the university. And in 1961, Mr. Harris's successor told a federal agency that the institution "has no formal connection with Cornell University nor does it plan to establish any such connection."
The estrangement hurt. Cornell lost its paleontological edge and brooded as schools like Yale and Harvard raced ahead in the study of ancient life. Now, the university and institution have signed an affiliation agreement that expands Cornell's study of paleontology and its ties to the Museum of the Earth - a soaring, $11 million celebration of fossil and recent life that the institution opened in 2003 at its headquarters roughly six miles northwest of campus.
"We had this huge collection and no connection to a university," said Warren D. Allmon, the institution's fourth director. "That didn't make any sense." The collection, he added, is among the largest and most important in the nation, its three million specimens including many "from places that literally don't exist anymore."
Dr. William L. Crepet, an evolutionary biologist at Cornell, praised the new accord. "The fossil record still has lots to offer," he said. "It can be very important for testing hypotheses, for instance ideas about why some group was wildly successful." Recently, while showing the museum to a visitor, Dr. Allmon recalled the bitter feud and described the benefits of the new accord, signed in November. "He was a giant," Dr. Allmon said of the pioneering scientist. "But he was not what you would call an endearing personality."
Mr. Harris taught at Cornell from 1894 to 1934. His students described him as a terrible lecturer but a genius at field research, where many became inspired to follow his lead. He collected thousands of fossil marine invertebrates - mainly shells - in Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Europe, the Caribbean and Central and South America.
Several factors led to the estrangement, historians say. Mr. Harris and his colleagues grew mistrustful. Moreover, he consulted for oil companies and became caught up in a conflict of interest that caused a disagreement with Cornell's president.
Finally, a spat developed over fire safety. As Mr. Harris neared retirement, he planned to leave his library and fossil collection to Cornell on the condition that it furnish a fireproof building. McGraw Hall, where he worked, bristled with wooden structures and what he considered unsafe conditions. When the university balked, Mr. Harris picked up and left, erecting his own building of concrete.
He founded the Paleontological Research Institution in 1932 and filled it with thousands of fossils and books as well as laboratories and printing presses for publishing his two scientific journals, Palaeontographica Americana, which first appeared in 1916, and Bulletins of American Paleontology, which came out in 1895 and is among the oldest such journals in the world. At age 85, according to a biographer, Mr. Harris still worked the presses himself. He died in 1952 at age 88, leaving behind a daughter who never married.
The mending of relations began when Dr. Allmon moved to Ithaca in 1992 to assume the institution's directorship. He also taught at Cornell and advised graduate students. In 1995, he arranged for the institution to accept the university's entire collection of nonbotanical fossils - a quarter-million specimens, including many that the university's founder, Ezra Cornell, had purchased. The two institutions also began research collaborations.
The recent affiliation agreement, Dr. Allmon said, "formalizes what was already happening."
The university, he added, is especially eager to bolster its understanding of ancient creatures as it moves ahead on a $500 million effort, announced in 2002, to deepen its research on the fundamentals of life, including genes and other genetic building blocks.
"These are the temporal underpinnings for what genomicists identify," he said while opening drawers of fossils. "That's why students are coming out here, and why faculty are bringing their classes out here." The institute's museum displays 650 of the best fossils, plus a selection of Mr. Harris's tools, photographs and printing press.
Today, the two institutions sit in sight of each other on opposing bluffs of Lake Cayu-ga, still miles apart but no longer estranged.