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History:  The Cornell Connection

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In 1865 Cornell possessed a natural history museum containing rocks, minerals, fossils, zoological specimens, an Egyptian mummy, the third largest modern shell collection (reportedly), as well as plaster copies of icthyosaurs and plesiousaurs. Located in McGraw Hall where Humanities departments such as History, Government and Anthropology currently reside, then, students of Biology, Geology and Anthropology frequented the collections.

However, as the twentieth century waned and the focus of biology shifted into ‘experimental laboratory science’ away from ‘museum specimens’, Cornell ‘dispersed’ the collection. Although Ezra Cornell purchased a number of the specimens, Gilbert Harris, a retiring university faculty-member, maintained the paleontological members, acquired throughout North, Central and South America as well as the Caribbean. Hoping but failing to receive definitive university assurance of maintaining his collections, his library and his printing press within a fireproof structure, he housed his shells in a concrete building erected in his backyard in 1932. Later, in 1936, two years after his retirement, he labeled it the Paleontological Research Institution. He maintained it financially through grants and his various oil consulting positions.


Although the research institution moved to its current headquarters, a former orphanage, in 1968, Harris’ daughter maintained the separation between Cornell and PRI, even after his death in the 1950s. For the next forty years, the institution relied on endowments from Harris’ family and grants from oil consultants subscribing to the museum, while continuing to publish Harris’ Bulletins of American Paleontology. Started in 1895, it remains the oldest paleontology journal within the Western hemisphere.

However, about a decade prior to the ground-breaking of the Museum of the Earth’s new home, Cornell slowly returned to its natural history heritage while the Paleontological Research Institution looked toward its academic roots. In 1995, PRI acquired 250,000 of the university’s nonbotanical fossils. In 2003, both organizations signed an affiliation agreement further binding their professional interactions and expanding Cornell’s Paleontology department. Additionally, the triadic position held by Warren Allmon as the museum’s executive officer, PRI's director and an adjunct associate faculty member in Cornell’s Geological Sciences department, further assisted in easing the almost century-old division, and in 2008 Cornell University named Dr. Allmon the Hunter R. Rawlings III Professor of Paleontology.

Created by acn22
Last modified 2008-11-12 11:28