Roy Chapman Andrews

by John J. Miller on August 10, 2010

in Articles,Culture

  • Sumo

May 21, 2001



By Charles Gallenkamp
(Viking, 344 pages, $29.95)

GEORGE LUCAS has always denied that his movie character Indiana Jones was based on the American explorer Roy Chapman Andrews. And it is true that in one respect the comparison doesn’t make sense: Jones was supposedly an archaeologist, and Andrews a zoologist. But Charles Gallenkamp’s exciting biography, “Dragon Hunter,” shows how Andrews mixed scientific investigation with swashbuckling adventure. And can it be mere coincidence that both Jones and Andrews were afraid of snakes?

The life of Roy Chapman Andrews is a wonderful story of American aspiration. He grew up in Wisconsin, taught himself taxidermy and resolved that one day he would work for a natural-history museum. Upon graduating from Beloit College in 1906, he scraped together the money for a train ticket to New York and interviewed with the director of the American Museum of Natural History, who promptly told him no suitable jobs were available. After all, Andrews was told, nobody with a bachelor’s degree would want to scrub floors. “Whether by a stroke of well-calculated strategy or sheer desperation,” writes Mr. Gallenkamp, “Andrews countered that he certainly would not scrub just any floors, but the Museum’s floors, he insisted, were different.”

Thus began a lifelong association that saw Andrews turn into one of the most celebrated explorers of his generation and, eventually, the museum’s director. His career began modestly, with Andrews developing an expertise in whales. He would moonlight as a lecturer, becoming rather good at it. In this role, he learned the importance of spinning a good yarn. If Mr. Gallenkamp does not tell the Andrews story as well as Andrews himself — “Under a Lucky Star” is a riveting but out-of-print autobiography — it may be because Andrews didn’t always let the literal truth handicap his storytelling.

Andrews once described, for instance, how he and a pair of Japanese sailors were trying to kill a finback whale they had wounded. Its tail smashed into their boat, tossing the hunters into bloody, shark-infested waters. In one telling, the sharks ignored the men. Like any good fish tale, though, a later version had Andrews driving the sharks away with his kicks and listening to the shrieks of a companion who lost part of his calf that day. For Andrews, writes Mr. Gallenkamp, “the line between fact and fiction was decidedly murky.”

These embellishments were hardly necessary; Andrews led a thrilling life without them. He soon dropped his focus on cetaceans and roamed the uncharted wilds of Korea, where he collected scores of animals for the museum — and was cut off from civilization for so long that, at one point, he was believed dead. Several newspapers actually printed his obituary. He then embarked on more travels in Asia, bagging ever greater numbers of animals and shipping them back to New York. Many were unknown to science at the time. Today a dozen species bear somewhere in their name the Latinate scientific label andrewsi.

His greatest achievements came in the 1920s, with expeditions to Central Asia. Museum president Henry Fairfield Osborn had theorized that the origins of modern-day mammals could be traced to northeastern Asia. This included primates, and Osborn called the region the “Cradle of Mankind.” The idea seemed plausible at the time — though we now know that if any part of the world deserves to be called the “Cradle of Mankind” it is Africa. At any rate, Osborn’s theory inspired a series of bold excursions into Mongolia.

In the forbidding Gobi Desert, Andrews demonstrated his considerable abilities as an explorer, if not as a scientist. He was simply brilliant at organizing these expeditions, from selling the concept to potential financiers like J.P. Morgan (who gave generously) to actually leading men in the field. “He thrived on blazing pathways into unknown places, but he was usually content to leave the interpretation of whatever scientific bounty his journeys yielded to specialists equipped with the training and patience he lacked,” writes Mr. Gallenkamp. In fact, museum curators for many years referred to damaged specimens as having been “RCA’d” — a reference to Roy Chapman Andrews’s pickax-wielding approach to fossil collecting.

Despite this, Andrews is generally hailed for discovering that dinosaurs laid eggs; he found whole nests of them in the Gobi. His expeditions also unearthed the first skeleton of Velociraptor (made famous by “Jurassic Park”) and many other dinosaurs and extinct mammals. As if coping with precious fossils, blinding sandstorms and extreme temperatures weren’t enough, Andrews on his expeditions had to worry about diplomatic intrigue, civil wars, marauding bandits and pit vipers. He carried a gun at all times and was often forced to use it.

Mr. Gallenkamp generally lets the Andrews story tell itself, which is exactly the thing to do. He also drops a bomb on the book’s final pages, revealing that Andrews probably was not the father of his first wife’s second child — a detail she apparently didn’t share with her former husband until many years later, to his great consternation.

Arguably it takes a certain luster off a man to learn that he’s been cuckolded, but so much about Andrews shines that it simply doesn’t matter. He was once considered the equal of Lindbergh and Shackleton for his exploits. With some luck, “Dragon Hunter” will help put him back where he belongs.

Mr. Miller is a writer for National Review.

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