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February 2001

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Foulke Discovers First Dinosaur in America

Written by Linda Foulke White and originally published in the Foulke Family Herald, November 1991

Few people had ever heard the word dinosaur in 1858, having been coined just 17 years earlier.  But one member of the Academy of Natural Sciences, William Parker Foulke, was not only familiar with the word, but responsible for discovering this country's first dinosaur skeleton.  Scientific expeditions throughout the western wilderness's great fossil beds suggested it was only a matter of time before one would be found there.  Several models existed in Sydenham, England, but based on a few scattered bones and teeth found some 20 years before throughout England.  Even with the expertise of Sir Richard Owen, the models bore little resemblance to the creatures they were to portray.

While summering in Haddonfield, New Jersey, Foulke heard of an incident that happened some 20 years earlier.  A neighbor of Foulke, a farmer named John Hopkins, was digging marl (a nutrient-rich clay used as fertilizer) when workmen unearthed a number of large bones.  While Hopkins no longer had any of the bones, Foulke was able to persuade him to renew digging.

During the past 20 years, the marl pit had become choked with eroded debris from the banks, and so overgrown that finding the site was unexpectedly difficult.  One of the original workmen was called on to help pinpoint the exact location, but after pondering the situation, he chose the wrong site.  Fortunately, on only the second day of digging, the original marl pit was found.  At a depth of about ten feet, the researchers found a jumble of large black bones heavily impregnated with iron, which constituted much of the left side of a skeleton, including part of the hip, nearly all of the fore and hind legs, 28 vertebrae and nine teeth.  No skull was uncovered.  Because many of the bones showed signs of fracture, great care had to be taken when removing them.  Each bone was sketched, measured, placed on a board, wrapped in cloth and transported three quarters of a mile to Foulke's residence by a straw-filled cart.

Dr. Joseph Leidy, the country's foremost vertebrate paleontologist at the time, a professor of anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences, was notified by Foulke of his find.  Leidy arrived on the scene insisting that digging continue, which it did through October, but little else was found.  Leidy, in honor of his colleague, christened the dinosaur skeleton "Hadrosaurus foulkii."

The bones were officially presented to the Academy of Natural Sciences in December, 1858.

See also William Parker Foulke, mentioned in the Descendents of Edward and Eleanor Foulke, of the 1898 Memorial Volume.

Copyright © 1991 Foulke Family Association.

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