“People always assume I was obsessed with dinosaurs as a kid, but I wasn’t,” says Lukas Rieppel, whose book, Assembling the Dinosaur: Science, Museums, and American Capitalism, 1870-1930, is now under contract with Harvard University Press. But it could not have hurt that the new assistant professor of history spent a good part of his childhood in the Dinosaur Hall of the Field Museum in Chicago, where his father is a curator of evolutionary biology.
Unlike his dad, Rieppel has always been oriented toward the humanities, majoring in Renaissance literature and history as an undergraduate at McGill University in Montreal. Then one day Rieppel picked up a copy of David Quammen’s popular The Song of the Dodo, and the book ignited his passion for the history of science. He proceeded to attend graduate school at Harvard, where he earned a Ph.D. in the history of science in 2012, along with an A.M. in organismic and evolutionary biology.
Bridging the history of science and the history of capitalism in the United Ststes, Rieppel’s book examines the significance of dinosaurs in American culture. He tells the story of the discovery of the first dinosaur fossils in England during the 1820s and ’30s, of new species in New Jersey at midcentury, and of creatures the likes of which scientists could never have imagined, including brontosaurus, stegosaurus, tyrannosaurus, and triceratops, in the American West during the 1870s.
“We have hired Lukas to build the department’s strength in the important and exciting new field of the history of capitalism, as well as to forge new connections between the histories of science and capitalism,” says Cynthia Brokaw, history chair. “The growth of capitalism is clearly one of the great themes in American history, and understanding how capitalism developed in the U.S. is all the more important in the current global economic context.”
“Many of the most important dinosaur fossils found in Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah were discovered by miners and became a part of the extractive economy, much like other natural resources that could be taken out of the earth and sold,” says Rieppel. “The discovery of dinosaurs precisely corresponded with the intense growth of capitalism during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, when the country’s GDP grew to exceed that of France, England, and Germany combined. By the turn of the 20th century, dinosaurs became a symbol of America’s enormous economic might and power.”
Paleontologists reconstructed fossil bones into freestanding skeletons with the help of plaster, steel, and paint, and installed spectacular displays in natural history museums. Department stores, world’s fairs, the cinema, and other popular venues also featured American dinosaurs. “More abundant and bigger than in Europe, these creatures came to represent this country’s natural superiority to the Old World, fitting easily into a narrative of American exceptionalism that extends back to Jefferson’s interest in the American mastodon,” Rieppel says.
“The great industrialists, many of whom had acquired their fortunes in extractive industries, sought to claim cultural authority by founding and supporting a host of new high-cultural institutions, natural history museums among them,” Rieppel says. Marshall Field, Andrew Carnegie, and J.P. Morgan endowed three museums with arguably the biggest collection of dinosaur fossils: Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, the Carnegie Natural History Museum in Pittsburgh, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, respectively. “Carnegie even had a dinosaur named in his honor, the Diplodocus carnegii,” Rieppel says.
This fall, he is teaching a survey of U.S. history called “Making America Modern, 1877-1930,” which has a thematic focus on capitalism. In the spring, he plans to teach “Nature on Display,” an undergraduate seminar exploring representations of nature in art, literature, science, and mathematics from the 18th through the 20th centuries, and “Science in the Marketplace,” a course whose premise is that “science and capitalism came into being at the same time and are inextricably entwined. You can’t understand one without the other.”
Rieppel also has a longstanding interest in debates about evolutionary theory and its relationship to social, political, and economic concerns and recently submitted his article “The Problem of the One and the Many in Modern Biology” for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.
In the future, he says, he may pursue a project on the history of authenticity. As bourgeois financiers and industrialists grew increasingly wealthy during the 19th century, they sought to convert economic wealth into cultural capital by investing in artworks by European masters, a boom that created a huge incentive for the creation of forgeries. “I am interested in how authenticity came to be seen as not just important but a defining feature of artworks, as well as the development of increasingly scientific methods of authentication,” he says.
Rieppel comes to Brown from Northwestern University in Chicago, where he served a year as a postdoctoral fellow jointly appointed by the History Department and the Science in Human Culture Program. “This is a great move for me professionally, and also personally,” he says. The new assistant professor of history will be living in the South End of Boston with his partner, Christine, who works as an architect.
“Brown is obviously a great university,” he says, “It has an amazing library, and there is a large group of people who are interested in science and capitalism, both in the history department and elsewhere. The University has such a wealth of resources and so many scholars with whom to engage — I don’t even have to leave campus.”