Well-known geologist and paleontologist Erwin H. Barbour (1856-1947) left an indelible mark on the history of these disciplines in Nebraska. Barbour had studied paleontology at Yale under O. C. Marsh, who held the first chair of paleontology established in the United States. Perhaps Barbour’s early exposure to giant dinosaur fossils, Marsh’s chief interest, influenced his subsequent work in Nebraska, where dinosaur remains are not plentiful, but bones of extinct elephants are abundant. The spring 1994 joint issue of Nebraska History and NebraskaLand, entitled “The Cellars of Time,” included a brief discussion of the importance of Dr. Barbour to the paleontology of Nebraska.
Barbour described and named fifteen new species of extinct elephants during his long career, usually illustrating his scientific publications with drawings and photographs. A talented artist, he also was fond of sketching imaginative but plausible portraits of vanished species as they might have looked in life. The Ice Age mammoths and mastodons from Nebraska were similar in most respects to those already known from the eastern states, but Barbour’s discoveries of far older and more primitive elephants in the Miocene bedrock of Nebraska proved a revelation.
A particularly important aspect of Barbour’s discoveries was how the elephants changed with time. Near Ainsworth in Devil’s Gulch (nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of Elephant Evolution”) he collected the remains of two new species. As director of the University of Nebraska state museum from 1891 to 1941, he guided the design and construction of Morrill Hall and conducted annual expeditions to collect fossils, especially those of elephants and their prehistoric relatives.