Dinosaurs — Serious Monsters

Everybody loves dinosaurs now, but there was a time when they caused a lot of heartache among the scientists who examined the fossil remains of the ‘monsters’ who lived long ago. In particular, the men of the Royal Academy of Science and the Geological Society of London were perplexed by the spectacular findings of a young girl named Mary Anning.

In 1811, she found a fossil of a ‘crocodile’ like no other in the cliffs of Lyme on the coast of England. It was later named ‘Ichthyosaurus’ (the ‘fish-lizard), by the scientists who examined it. Many of these men of science were perturbed by the reality that the best ‘fossil hunter’ was an uneducated girl, but they were really thrown by the havoc such ancient creatures threw into their world view.

Some tried to find a way to make the Bible’s story of the Noah and the great flood jibe with the fossilized remains of ancient creatures and others had to accept the conflict between their faith and their scientific observations. If dinosaurs existed and creatures evolved then the MONSTERS that Mary Anning found were evidence of evolution!

Like most contemporary Americans, I have fond childhood memories of dinosaurs. The Museum of Natural History in New York — before it was renovated and updated into a user-friendly/interactive experience — was one of my favorite places. It was simply CREEPY with gigantic dinosaur skeletons and dim lighting.

That brings me to Henrietta — my personal dinosaur.

In sixth grade I had a very innovative and creative teacher, Marion Greif (Since the high school reunion we are Facebook friends, but I still think of her as Miss Greif and not Marion.) One of our more memorable assignments was to buy a whole chicken (head and all) boil it until the flesh fell off and reassemble the bones.

I remember being the only kid, or one of very few, to get the assignment done on time. This was particularly tough because my partner in the task disappeared once the chicken started to boil.

I assembled the skeleton with wire and glue and mounted it on a piece of mahogany that was, inexplicably, hanging around the house. Miss Greif gave me a good grade for getting it done, but commented that it looked a lot more like a dinosaur than a chicken.

Maybe it was just the mahogany base? But maybe I’d hit on something important because back then we learned that dinosaurs were like lizards and today they are described as the ancestors of birds. Henrietta, yes that was her name, remained in the basement of my childhood home for years. I’m not sure what happened to her when my parents moved — so much for the ancient remains of my childhood.

Ancient peoples found fossils of creatures that not longer walked the earth and some of these monsters became the stuff of myth and legend. Just imagine, working in a quarry, gathering the raw materials to build a temple to one of your gods and finding the fossilized remains of a giant winged creature.

Very serious monsters!


  1. Beth M.

    Scientists, paleontologists, historians and even Steven Spielberg have all changed our perception on how we view dinosaurs today. We can now be voyeurs into a time that, as you said, is part of our evolution. Many of these amazing, fairly unknown monsters are now brought to life in such an interesting and captivating way that we now have a connection to these monsters – making them something more to be in awe of as opposed to only fearing. It sure makes going to the museum a heck of a lot more fun!

    • Winston

      Speaking of Spielberg and Crichton’s Jurassic Park it makes me think of scientists that are trying to bring dinosaurs back to life through genetic sequencing to then, supposedly, “grow” them at will. Seeing those monsters around would sure make a trip to the park interesting – not!

      But the question of ethics quickly comes up about what is right and wrong to bring back into existence after a species has become extinct. This also leads me to start thinking about cloning and what this world would be like if we could clone monsters. Would that be a monstrous act?

      • Candy

        Talk about Dr. Frankenstein’s children!
        Cloning a gigantic beast is a recipe for disaster — and mega-hit movies.

  2. Winston

    One thought that occurs to me about dinosaurs is the question of reanimation – does man have the right to reanimate man (a la Shelley) or for that matter a different species (dinosaurs). And not only can you create it, but can you then control it? What evil can and will be unleashed and can it be contained? Fear is always the subject that comes up with monsters and is what lends so much to their story. I think the question of fear is at the root of all monsters.

  3. Marion Greif

    Good old Henrietta… I thought all of the reconstructed chickens looked like dinosaurs; exhibited together, they always reminded me on the Museum of
    Natural History’s dinosaur exhibit. The “ancient” remains of your childhood
    may be dug up someday, and people will wonder about Henrietta and her
    life. I’m flattered by what you said, thank you. Practically everyone remembers
    the chicken project. Every doctor/father I meet (sometimes 40-50 years later),
    inevitably brings it up, and moans and groans. There were many like your partner,
    but also many who became doctors because of the chicken. When I retired, I took
    one of the last chickens home (the student’s mother wouldn’t let it come back home.) It is a “cat chicken.”So when we sell the house, it, too, will become an artifact of the future. One of my favorite comments was from a younger sibling, who said that his brother’s chicken made him less afraid of monsters. 🙂

    • Candy

      I LOVE the idea that one of Henrietta’s kin made a child less afraid of monsters. I had thought that the square of dark wood mounting is what made my chicken so dinosaur-ish. Now, I’m picturing a bunch of them together is a mini version of the Museum of Natural History. What a sight! Thanks again for being one of the teachers I remember.