May 24, 2023

How did palaeontologists connect before the internet?

Brigid Christison

Imagine it: you are a Very Serious Scientist, just getting in to your well-paying, tenure-track researcher job at a respectable American college. It’s somewhere between 1940 and 1960. You pour your coffee and get a stack of mail from your secretary, organized in order of deadlines and urgency. Right at the top sits the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology News Bulletin. Without so much as a passing glance to the rest of your priorities, you eagerly tear it open to find the latest updates in the world of palaeontology.

You flip through the introduction (you’ll read that later), skipping to the field work section. You nod approvingly as you get to the blurb from your own college, about your latest excursion and discoveries. Absently, you note that the Canada section is longer this year. The updates from the Soviet Union are especially interesting, if only you could see their field sites for yourself! Satisfied from your brief world tour, you chuckle as you read another hilarious poem about duckbilled dinosaurs. Finally, you flip through the bulletin until you find what you’re looking for: the finalized date of the next annual conference.

A landscape image of small, undyed, ageing paper bulletins on a metal shelf. The bulletins are stacked with their spines outward like books, and there are enough of them to fill almost two feet of shelf space. Displayed in front of them is a front-facing bulletin that says "SOCIETY OF VERTEBRATE PALEONTOLOGY" at the top. In the centre is the logo, a March pit behind three Eryops vertebrae over a circle. Underneath the large logo it says NEWS BULLETIN Number 23 April 1948.
SVP News Bulletins at the Yale Peabody Museum. Taken by Brigid Christison.

The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) was established in 1940 to allow palaeontologists to communicate and collaborate with their peers. SVP still holds annual conferences that allow researchers of all career levels to meet, present, and talk about vertebrate palaeontology. These annual meetings allow attendees to keep up with the newest research and advancements in the field. People form networks, meet future colleagues, win research awards, and generally get to spend several days immersed in learning about evolution and ecology. 

Between conferences however, how is a Scientist like yourself supposed to keep up with progress in the field? In 1941 SVP stopped holding annual meetings and began circulating quarterly news bulletins. Between 1941-1945 (WWII) these were essential for creating connections within the Society. The bulletins contained practical information member addresses (for professional correspondence), job postings, and expense reports. They also included news from both members and institutions involved with SVP, including museum renovations, member obituaries, and field work updates (broken up by state within the US and then by country). For many members, these bulletins were the best way to keep up with the goings-on in the society even after the war.

A black and white image of a T rex reconstruction outside a light coloured brick building. The caption, in typewriter font, reads "Life-size model of Tyrannosaurus recently unveiled at the University of Wyoming"
An example of some of the news you might see in an SVP News Bulletin. From the June 1964 issue. Taken by Brigid Christison, original photographer unknown.

For example, you (the Very Serious Scientist) could take a look at the ongoing field work at an institution, then reach out to the scientists there via the member directory to arrange to see the specimens they collected. You could also learn about new tools for conducting research, post requests for copies of hard-to-find research papers, and connect with the only other expert in your extremely niche subfield of study. The bulletins allowed members spread out across North America and abroad (mainly Europe, China, and the Soviet Union) to keep up with their colleagues even as the Cold War kept them isolated from each other.

Importantly for, the bulletins were also full of palaeoart: poems, comics, and short, humorous stories, written or submitted by members. Many of the poems that we’ve featured on were found by flipping through the collection of SVP bulletins at the Yale Peabody Museum (thanks to Dan Brinkman for the access!). These lighthearted works of palaeoart had a variety of topics and authors and ranged from doodles or limericks to more elaborate reconstructions and ballads that allowed members’ personalities to shine through.

a single page cartoon illustration of a grinning Captorhinus laying eggs in a shallow hole on the side of a swampy beach. A pointy headed, four legged reptile is whispering to a Diplocaulus as they watch from the water, and says "Don't look now, but that Mrs. Captorhinus is laying her eggs on dry land!" "On dry land" is underlined. Beneath the cartoon is the caption "II. Origin of Reptiles."
A sample cartoon from the June 1954 issue. Taken by Brigid Christison. Artist unknown.

Palaeoart is a huge reason that SVP members today remember the bulletins so fondly. There’s a certain charm to the poetry and illustrations that were created not by artists, but by palaeontologists. Even in the most absurd circumstances, you’ll find an attention to scientific accuracy that otherwise may have been sacrificed in order to create a coherent rhyme or rhythm. The entire reason that exists is that we believe these poems serve as a form of undervalued science communication.

Artwork(illustrations and poetry) became rarer in the bulletins towards the 1980s and90s, likely for practical reasons; as SVP grew, the bulletins became longer, and some things needed to be cut. Another likely reason is the shift from using typewriters to computers, which would have made it easier to print multiple copies of each edition but often made the inclusion of graphics more difficult. In 1996 the bulletins became available online, and by 2002, much to the disappointment of the members I spoke to, they went completely digital before ending in 2008 with volume no. 195. These digital copies are not available on the SVP website, and it’s unclear if they are preserved anywhere.

A picture of a typewritten poem, Observation to a Whale by Julia Pepper. Click the link in the caption to be redirected to our blog post on this poem, where you can listen to it in an mp3 file.
Observation to a Whail, by Julia Pepper. Listen to and learn about the poem in our blog post here.

Christopher J. Bell is attempting to compile a complete series of SVP News Bulletins, from their first publication in 1941 to their last physical publication in 2002(volume 181). For anyone looking to do research on the history of palaeontology in the second half of the 20th century, these bulletins are essential primary sources. They contain valuable historical information like how the science has changed over the decades, biographical and career information about scientists themselves, shifting perspectives on evolution and ecology, and much more. Unfortunately, none of the SVP news bulletins have been digitized, and they are difficult to access if one does not know, or have access to, the private libraries inside certain institutions. The digital bulletins from 2002-2008 are not available online either.  

As one of the few sciences with a fan base, palaeontology is in a unique position where it is often easier to find palaeo news from the perspectives of non-scientists rather than researchers. This is great when it comes to public education, but from a career perspective it can be difficult to find practical information or to connect with other people in the field, especially if you’re unable to attend the annual conference.

A satirical cartoon of student protestors with signs that say "stamp out paleontology," "bring back dinosaurs," ban pyrites disease," "piltdown man was a dirty capitalist plot!" "down with duckbills," "t rex is unfair," and "bones are for dogs." the caption reads, "There's only one thing that worries me about the Berkeley Meetings"
Kids these days, amirite?

Though much of the information that would have been included in the bulletins is accessible online, it’s decentralized and run by individuals rather than organizations. For example, the “Unemployed/Underemployed Paleontologist Support Group” on Facebook is a great way to find job listings, but only if the job posters and applicants both know about the group. The website formerly known as Twitter was also a vital source of news for palaeontologists, but as social media platforms fall apart it’s becoming more and more difficult to keep up to date with the latest palaeo news.

The Very Serious Scientists of today need centralized access to information, sure, butwe also need a creative outlet for silly cartoons and bad poetry. A new and improved news bulletin would go a long way to help members connect with eachother and find out about opportunities to assist with their research. A new bulletin would need to hire writers and editors of course, which would be another boon to us underemployed palaeontologists of the 2020s.

Further Reading

Note: this blog post was updated in December 2023 by the author and contains a few new paragraphs.

We are extremely thankful to Christopher J. Bell, Dan Brinkman, David Polly, and Darren Tanke for answering our questions on the topic.

Consider this a formal plea: the preservation of these important documents through full collection and digitization is essential to studying the history of palaeontology. If you've got a generous palaeo-history grant and want us to digitize and write about the bulletins, please contact us!

Wilson, J. A. (1990). The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology 1940-1990, a Fifty-Year Retrospective. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 10(1), 1–39.

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