Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Fossils Magazine ~ Catching Lightning in a Bottle

In early 1976, ads appeared in a host of science-related journals, including the American Zoologist, The American Biology Teacher, and Science News, announcing a new quarterly publication, Fossils Magazine.  A year’s subscription was $12.  Given the readership of the journals in which these ads ran, one can assume that the editor of Fossils Magazine was casting his net broadly, seeking to attract subscribers from a broad spectrum of the scientific community, as well as from those members of the wider public with an interest in science.

The ads described the forthcoming Fossils Magazine as “the world’s first and only magazine for everybody who wants to know more about the 3 ½-billion-year history of life on Earth.”  Best of all, the publication would be “scientific, yet highly readable,” featuring cutting-edge but accessible articles by science professionals.  The ads touted the full color drawings, photographs, and maps that would grace the new magazine.

Some versions of the ads made it clear that the prospective audience for the new magazine would include amateur paleontologists with an interest in collecting fossils.  The magazine, it was stated, would identify precisely where fossils could be collected, and such information would be complemented with guidance from professional paleontologists.

The ads certainly set a high bar (e.g., “scientific, yet highly readable) for the new journal.  I first learned about Fossils Magazine a couple of weeks ago while pursuing one of my interests – postage stamps on which representations of fossils appear.  That initial issue of the magazine included an article titled Fossils On Stamps.  Once I acquired a copy of that first issue and then found those early ads, I decided to write a blog post considering the question:  Did the magazine live up to its advertising “hype?”

Volume One, Issue One of Fossils Magazine appeared in the Spring of 1976, carrying a May, 1976 publication date.  On its first page, editor John Bonnett Wexo welcomed readers, writing:
[T]his magazine is about fossils as objects – where they come from, how they were formed, what they look like, and what they are called, and how you can find them and collect them.
Importantly, he sought to guide those readers who might hunt fossils in the locations profiled in each issue to collect responsibly and to respect private property.  Further, he took great pains in this introduction to stress what I take to be his paramount goal – placing fossils into their scientific context.
We will try in every issue to capture in words and pictures both the excitement of hunting fossils and the equally great excitement of understanding more fully what they mean.
In service of the objective of making the content accessible, Wexo provided a glossary of technical terms in this first issue, a practice that was to be followed in future issues.

Wexo wrote that each issue of the magazine would concentrate on fossils from different organisms – this first had trilobites as its focus – but this would not be to the exclusion of articles touching on other topics.

What was the content of this first issue?  It included the following articles:

Fossils and the Drifting Continents, by Edwin H. Colbert
Ancient & Wonderful Eyes, by Riccardo Levi-Setti
A Portfolio of Trilobites, by Riccardo Levi-Setti
A Fossil for What Ails You, by Chester B. Kennedy
Collecting Trilobites in North America, Part One:  The East, by Niles Eldredge
Localities for Collecting Trilobites in Eastern North America, by Niles Eldredge
Fossils On Stamps, by The Editors
Cambrian Trilobites of the Mohave (A Classic Collecting Locality), by George L. Kennedy
Cretaceous Fossils at Lake Worth (A Classic Collecting Locality), by William R. Pampe
Collecting Fossils in the Old West, Charles H. Sternberg

Quite a stellar array of authors (it even includes the famous Old West collector and long-deceased Charles Sternberg (1850-1943) represented by two chapters of his 1909 autobiography describing some of his fossil collecting exploits).  Four of the authors – Colbert, Levi-Setti, Kennedy, and Eldredge – were profiled in the magazine.

Edwin Colbert, Curator Emeritus of Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, penned an insightful piece on the fossil evidence for continental drift (the concept upon which the theory of plate tectonics was built).  He had first hand knowledge of this evidence having undertaken some of the seminal fieldwork that found the fossils showing that the continents had been on the move all through deep time.

Though physicist Riccardo Levi-Setti, author of two of the articles on trilobites, including Ancient & Wonderful Eyes, was not trained as a paleontologist, he pursued trilobites with a passion and in the process became a widely known expert on these animals, particularly their eyes and eyesight.  My own library includes his detailed and beautifully illustrated volume titled Trilobites (1975, 1993).

Chester Kennedy, emeritus professor of American literature and folklore, brought his academic training to bear on the bases for the myriad medical uses to which fossils have been put.  Of the articles in this first issue of the magazine, his appears to be the one most frequently cited in later scholarly articles.

Niles Eldredge, curator at the American Museum of Natural History, extensively studied the evolution of phacopid trilobites. His articles reflected his expertise concerning the animal and also his experience collecting their fossils.  He is perhaps best known (at least to me) for his work with paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould on punctuated equilibrium as a framing construct for the working of evolution.

The articles in this issue were illustrated with a rich collection of beautiful photographs, professional drawings, and detailed maps.

So, do I think this premiere issue of Fossil Magazine lived up to the expectations that were set by the promotional ads?

No question, the ads were right.

Indeed, more than four decades after the magazine came into being, the quality of its writing, illustrations, and photographs remains impressive, certainly meeting, if not exceeding, today’s standards of magazine publication.

Speaking of current standards, I turn to the only contemporary, somewhat comparable publication serving some of the same audience, with which I’m familiar:  Fossil News:  The Journal of Avocational Paleontology.  This magazine began publication in 1995.  I subscribed for several years in the 2000’s when it was edited by Lynne Clos, up until it ceased publication in 2012 (at the time, it was published online every other month, though issues emerged sporadically in the last several years).  Four years later Fossil News was revived by Wendell Ricketts as a print quarterly.  I have read one example of the magazine in this latest incarnation.

Fossils Magazine compares most favorably to Fossil News as it existed when I subscribed and as it is published today.  Indeed, though Fossil News was, and remains, an interesting and informative publication, I think Fossils Magazine managed to attain a higher level of overall quality, particularly with the academic and scientific stature of its contributors.  Further, its potential audience was possibly broader than that of Fossil News because I suspect it may have reached deeper into the community of professional scientists. That said, the editors of both publications recognized the value of first person accounts of fossil collecting, and of the visual aspects of their magazine – superb illustrations and photographs mark both.

Might the Fossils Magazine of 1976 have influenced Fossil News two decades later?  Were the past editors of Fossil News familiar with Fossils Magazine?  They might well have been unaware of the earlier publication for the very simple reason that Fossils Magazine ceased publication after its first issue.  Volume One, Issue One, and . . . done.  Fossils Magazine “went extinct," as the Ventura (California) Gem and Mineral Society’s website states so succinctly.

I find that fact stunning.  Having done so much right, what went wrong?

There’s a hint of at least one problem in that first issue under Acknowledgements.  The ads that appeared early in 1976 described the publication schedule of the new magazine as beginning in April.  So it’s not surprising that, in this first issue that came out a month late in May, the editor would “thank our subscribers, who have waited patiently for this first issue to appear, and have thereby made it possible for us to make this a better magazine than it otherwise would have been.”

Having been a contributor myself to several edited publications, I recognize that it can be hard to get all authors to submit their pieces in a timely fashion.  So, this one month delay in launching the journal is largely understandable.  Was it perhaps exacerbated by the stature of the authors and the rigor of the content they produced?  If so, that might not have augured well for adhering to the publication schedule in the future.

That still wouldn’t explain why a journal that appeared to have so much going for it couldn’t make it beyond its inaugural issue.  Quite possibly, the striking attribute of that one issue – its high quality – rendered the magazine more vulnerable to the economic shoals on which magazines then and now can founder.

Still, for a brief moment, John Bonnett Wexo caught lightning in a bottle.  Sadly, he could not hold it.

That said, he went on to other successful publication ventures, including the Zoobooks series of which 100 million copies have gone into print.  His legacy is being supported by the John Bonnett Wexo Foundation (A Voice for Wildlife Education and the Arts).

Without a doubt, given its great promise, the demise of Fossils Magazine was a loss, particularly to our community of amateur paleontologists.

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