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Origin and development of the Orton Museum collection

In 2024, the Orton Geological Museum will celebrate its sesquicentennial. The Museum occupies a portion of Orton Hall, the first building constructed in Ohio to house a museum. The building, which was named in honor of The Ohio State University’s first President and Geology professor, Edward Orton, was completed in 1893, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Orton Museum’s renowned collection of fossils, minerals, rocks, building stones, and meteorites was initiated by Edward Orton in 1874, shortly after he arrived to serve as the University’s President. Orton’s early entries in the historic catalog indicate that he initially sourced specimens in a variety of ways, and was able to rather quickly build a diverse collection that broadly reflected the state of geologic knowledge prior to 1900.

Edward Orton (1829-1899) was an influential academic figure who first arrived in Ohio in 1865 from upstate New York to serve as a faculty member, and eventually President, at Antioch College. Beginning in 1869, Edward Orton worked as an Assistant Geologist at the Geological Survey of Ohio under the leadership of its Chief Geologist, John Strong Newberry. In 1873, Orton accepted an appointment at the Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College, which was shortly thereafter renamed The Ohio State University (with “The” as part of the official name) at his behest. Once he took over as President and established a core faculty, the University began to accept students and offer classes. The University’s geology collection was initiated at nearly the same time.

Edward Orton was an extraordinary individual, and patriarch of a remarkable family that has left an indelible, positive impact in Ohio and beyond. For example, we remember his son Edward Orton Jr. (1863-1932), for establishing Ceramic Engineering at Ohio State, as the core donor of the collections of the Orton Memorial Library of Geology, and for purchasing and creating Camp Mary Orton (named for his first wife, Mary Princess Anderson Orton, 1857-1927). Camp Mary Orton was originally organized as a summer camp and retreat for young mothers and children in need. Edward Orton’s philanthropy toward his academic home in central Ohio is nothing short of amazing. Many of the geologic specimens, from far-flung areas of the world, that Orton acquired for the incipient museum collection were purchased using his personal funds from a business run by his acquaintance from upstate New York, Henry Augustus Ward (1834-1906). Ward founded Ward’s Natural Science Establishment, which specialized in supplying museums and educational institutions with specimens and equipment for the natural sciences. Ward’s prepared many of the iconic skeletal mounts of vertebrate animals from the late 1800s and early 1900s that we see today in museums around the world. One of those iconic mounts is the Orton Museum’s famous Megalonyx, which we affectionately call “Jeff.”

Edward Orton drew upon his association with John Strong Newberry (1822-1892) and the Geological Survey of Ohio to help build and expand the University’s geological collection. During Newberry’s tenure as Chief Geologist, 1869-1882, the Geological Survey produced a wealth of information on the general geology of Ohio, its fossil vertebrates and plants, and its coal, oil, and other resources. Capitalizing on the skills of the Assistant Geologists E.B. Andrews, Edward Orton, and F.B. Meek, as well as Local and Special Assistants E.D. Cope, G.K. Gilbert, James Hall, Herman Hertzer, O.C. Marsh, R.P. Whitfield, and N.H. Winchell, Newberry’s time with the Survey marked the time of greatest documentation of Ohio’s rich fossil heritage. Newberry’s beautifully illustrated papers, along with those of other geological corps members and assistants, published in early Reports of the Geological Survey of Ohio (1873, 1875), stand as a monumental achievement from this early phase in the development of paleontology in North America. Many of the scientific voucher specimens described and illustrated in these classic volumes were reposited for future reference in the Orton Geological Museum. Photographs of a select number of these specimens adorn the pages of Fossils of Ohio (Ohio Division of Geological Survey Bulletin 70, published in 1996).

Among other things, J.S. Newberry is remembered as a founding officer of the Geological Society of America, and an incorporating member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Scientifically, he is perhaps best known for his descriptions of many Carboniferous-age plants and especially his groundbreaking studies on Devonian and Carboniferous fishes of Ohio. It is widely understood that fossil fishes of these strata are among the diverse known of any age and location, and Newberry was responsible for most of the initial documentation of these important faunas. Between 1853 and 1899, Newberry described approximately 100 species of fossil fishes from the Delaware Limestone, Columbus Limestone, Ohio Shale, and Bedford Formation-Berea Sandstone (all Devonian), and from the Upper Freeport Coal (Carboniferous). Among contemporaries, his work was regarded as of such importance that in 1890, Sir Arthur Smith Woodward wrote, in a commentary published in Nature, that “Nearly all of importance that has hitherto been written concerning the Palaeozoic fishes of the United States has proceeded from the pen of Prof. J.S. Newberry...” What Woodward did not state explicitly was that nearly all that was known was derived from the Paleozoic fishes of Ohio, which were described by Newberry. Beginning about 1874, Newberry began depositing his fossils, and some of the Geological Survey of Ohio’s legacy collections, in the Orton Geological Museum. As a result, the Orton Museum now retains one of the world’s most important collections of Paleozoic fish fossils.

In 1882, Edward Orton succeeded J.S. Newberry as Chief Geologist of the Geological Survey of Ohio, and the Orton Museum collection continued to grow as Survey geologists used the Museum as a permanent repository for scientific voucher specimens and additional materials on which their publications were based.

Today, the Orton Geological Museum houses a large collection, estimated at more than 1,000,000 specimens, derived from all the world’s continents, its many ocean basins, and from outer space. Among this vast collection are more than 7,000 “type” (scientific name-bearing) and illustrated fossils, and several thousand voucher specimens described in the many theses and dissertations written by Ohio State’s magnificent cadre of alumni and friends. The Orton Museum continues to grow through the generous financial and in-kind support of devoted alumni, current students, faculty, friends, and colleagues.