The gift

By December 26, 2022Education, Science

A couple of days ago, someone asked me what was the best Christmas present I ever received. It got me thinking about all the stuff I had been given over the years: diecast Matchbox and Dinky cars, plastic kits of aircraft and ships, a Hornby Dublo train set and envelopes of money, and the occasional book. Nothing in that list really stood out until I thought of the one book that may have changed my life.

Like most inquisitive kids, I read a fair bit, and like many kids under the age of ten, I was fascinated with dinosaurs and knew the names of lots of them. I still occasionally see kids as young as 5, who can tell their parents the names of dozens of dinosaurs. From the age of about 6 onwards, I had a series of large format, thin (each had 48 pages) paperbacks of the How and Why Wonder Books which were an American series produced from 1960 onwards. These were turned out in large numbers on many topics and were designed to teach children about science and history1. I can remember the few volumes I had; they were: Dinosaurs; Rocks and Minerals; and Primitive Man.

Some time later, I also obtained a little pocket book entitled ‘Fossils: a guide to prehistoric life’ which I read and reread so much that it had to be repaired with much sticky tape. It was published in 1962, the year I turned 8. In addition to dinosaurs, it listed and illustrated all sorts of invertebrate fossils such as trilobites, brachiopods, gastropods, ammonites, corals and sundry others. It was written by Frank Rhodes, a famous American palaeontologist, and illustrated with coloured drawings by Raymond Perlman2.  Rhodes only died a couple of years ago and was a former president of Cornell University in the United States3

Despite all the groundwork being laid by the books listed above, the book that changed my life and set me on the road to becoming a professional palaeontologist was another American book. My parents owned a small ‘ladies’ wear’ shop which they operated from the late 1950s until they retired in 1989, and every season they would travel to Sydney and go around the manufacturers buying clothing to sell in their shop. I would accompany them as I was too young to be left on my own. While we were in Sydney we’d do a bit of other shopping as well. On one of these trips we went to a bookshop and I wandered around until I saw a massive tome entitled ‘The Fossil Book: a record of prehistoric life’4  by Carrol Lane Fenton5  and Mildred Adams Fenton6. I grabbed it and opened it up and was amazed at the huge number of illustrations, and the amount of detail explaining each group of fossils. It made such an impact on me that I can still remember this event as if it was only a few weeks ago, when it was in fact well over 50 years ago. The book was expensive and I had to put it back on the shelf as we left the bookshop to go back home. The Fentons were a husband and wife team who, although they both had degrees in geology, seemed to make most of their living from publishing popular science books, mostly on geology and palaeontology5

Some weeks later, my parents asked me what I wanted for Christmas and I told them. Christmas day arrived and there it was. Of course, I was overjoyed, and spent much of the next year poring over the book. This book still sits on a bookshelf in what passes for my professional library, still with its dustcover, and enveloped in a repurposed ladies’ wear plastic bag with which my mother covered all my school text-books.

One of the other books that set me off was entitled ‘The Geology of the Hunter Valley’ by Beryl Nashar7. At the time this book was bought for me (1964-1965) when I was about 10 or 11, I had no idea that Beryl Nashar would turn out to be the head of the geology department at the university where I did my undergraduate degree in geology. This book was pivotal for me because, although it was about general geology of the region in which I lived, there was a short section listing some fossil localities, many of which were Carboniferous in age8, and which were replete with brachiopods, a few bivalves and corals and occasional trilobites. I used to coerce my parents into going for picnics, of which they were very fond, at or near some of these localities. Have you ever been for a picnic in a disused quarry? It is not quite the site one chooses for a picnic except to placate an enthusiastic fossil-hunting child.

While I will never know what my life would have been like if I had never seen this book by the Fentons, I suspect it would have been much the same, as I was a driven person. Despite that, it was still the best Christmas gift I ever received, and the only one from my childhood I still have. The fact that I did obtain a copy is, of course, solely down to my parents who enthusiastically supported my desire to be a palaeontologist. Considering that my father left school at 14 to start work in a hardware store (CWS) and my mother at 15 to work in a drapers (Hustler’s), it seems odd that I became a professional scientist. It may have been the fact that they both were denied education by attitudes and circumstances that they realised its value. Whatever it was, I am eternally grateful.



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