Thomas Jefferson was a man of many talents. He was an architect, a meteorologist, a vegetable breeder, an engineer, an inventor, a violinist, the founder of the University of Virginia—the list goes on. He was an accomplished scholar and could read and write six languages (and could speak four).
And, oh yeah, he was a founding father of the United States, author of the Declaration of Independence, and third president of the United States.*
But here I want to celebrate one of Jefferson’s talents that doesn’t get very much attention. Before it was even considered much of a field of study, Thomas Jefferson was a paleontologist. He collected and studied fossils, and was particularly interested in mammoths. An entire room at Monticello was turned into a natural-history museum that showcased his many fossils. He once stored bones in the East Room of the White House. In 1796 Jefferson wrote a scientific paper describing the bones of a large prehistoric creature discovered in the mountains near his home. The first giant sloth found in North America was named in his honor, Megalonyx jefersonii.
Because he was so open to new ideas and interested in just about everything, it makes sense that Jefferson would have been involved in the brand-new science of paleontology. If he had lived just a little later, a dinosaur might have been named after him.
* Jefferson was also a man of huge contradictions. He wrote “all men are created equal,” spent a large part of his legislative career trying to bring an end to slavery, which he called “a moral depravity,” yet he never freed his own slaves.
You can find out more about Thomas Jefferson and find photos and interactive online exhibits at the website of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation: monticello.org
Are you interested in learning some fascinating facts about dinosaurs and a few other prehistoric beasts? Would you like to read some cool stories about paleontologists (including the story of the bone wars, and how children make good fossil hunters)? Then check out my book Dino Records (written with Jen Agresta).
Ideas for discussion and activities:
1) If you wanted to name a new dinosaur after Thomas Jefferson, what would you name it?
2) Make a natural-history museum somewhere in your house. Collect rocks, bird feathers, or even animal bones. Include anything you can find outside around your home.
3) Do you know the names of any other paleontologists?