Tag Archives: History of Science

The 12+ labors of Ralph B. Shead

For me, History is filled with people and things. I have never really indulged in the movements and theories and isms that seem to infect the past presently. For a historian this is a professional character defect, for me it is what brings history alive and allows us to find our connections to it.  It is likely why I spent so much time learning archaeology and paleontology. I believe it is ultimately what lead me to the history of science so I could talk about all of that at once.

When I first came to OU and was getting settled across campus with the few people I had some connection with I was shown around the Sam Noble Natural History Museum. On the second floor back in the hallway to the VP lab and collections there are these two enormous paintings (13.5 feet long by 3.5 feet high). After taking in the scale and content of these behemoths I immediately looked for the signature. “Ralph B. Shead ’42” and “Ralph B. Shead ’34 (or 39 it is obscured by the frame I believe it is 34).

Who was this artist? What else had he done, and why was he doing these things at this scale? This was years before I started the digitization and scanning project and information was slow in coming. I wouldn’t even find a photo of him for 2 years. When I started scanning and updating an internal manuscript on the history of the museum I gleaned a little more information.

You can see his Mammoth Mural in the background (Source: Unpublished manuscript by Wann Langston, Jr. )

You can see how hard it is to piece this stuff together. Langston missed Shead’s retirement by a few years which is understandable because Langston was working at the National Museum of Canada from 1954-62.  Shead stayed at the Museum until 1960 or 61 and he wan’t simply the museum artist.  In addition to his museum technician and painting work he served as the Oklahoma sate superintendent for the WPA during the 30s (when the bulk of his work was completed). The WPA records and receipts over in our Western History Collection indicate that some paint and supplies were purchased as part of the “Fossil Bones” project making at least the two paintings upstairs technically WPA art.  Through some interesting turn of events another giant (13-footer) painting now resides down at the Texas A&M Biodiversity Heritage prep lab. The irony behind this is that its subject matter is Norman’s native (Permian) son–the Cotylorhynchus. 

The Cotylorhynchus  painting falls  under the WPA years as well and was complete with the aid of a plaster or clay model he created.

Shead at work on Cotylorhynchus painting (Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History)
Ralph B. Shead with his plaster (clay?) model of Cotylorhynchus (Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History)

Shead also created other plaster models for reference, and I believe he was the one who fashioned/oversaw the plaster for the Procamelus (now Aepyicamelus) skeletal reconstruction that accompanied the skull until it disintegrated.

More plaster models. (Source: Unpublished manuscript by Wann Langston, Jr.)

The bulk of Shead’s work predates the formation of the WPA by a year. They were the “missing” and then “rehomed” paints from the previous two posts. They are also impressive in scale and scope as well, and add three more paleontology paintings to Shead’s portfolio. Ralph’s great-nephew told me that the marine reptiles  mural wasn’t one of Ralph’s. Conrad said he was certain that it was a  signed  just as the Mammoth was, of course the place where his signature would have been was unfortunately damaged when it was removed from the wall. It doesn’t look quite like other works by Shea, and was painted on sheetrock and not canvass like Shed’s other works, but he did paint most everything that was in the museum. If anyone out there has a photo of this with the signature intact please send it along.

The moving of these paintings led to some renewed interest in some old emails and leads that were passed to me for follow up. Chasing down contacts I was able to locate the final “missing” mural that I was aware of living peacefully over in the Geology Graduate offices in Sarkey’s. It is another of Shead’s giants too, this one of a Carboniferous landscape painted in 1938 (during the WPA funded period)

There were also some Shead paintings reportedly hanging out in the microbiology department so I went in search for them. There were three, two in an classroom/lab and one in the herbarium office. These were as surprising as the marine reptile mural because I had never seen mention or reference of them. I photographed them to add to my ever-growin Shead dossier. When I was processing the images later that evening I noticed that there were no signatures on the microscope or fungi ones, but I assumed they had been covered by the frame (looking back now I don’t think that is the case, I just need to look harder).

The other one was even more surprising because while it is a Shead painting, it wan’t painted by Ralph.

I had no idea there *was* a Robert Shead and that added a whole new layer to the simple project of documenting Ralph B. Shead’s work. I found even less on Robert Shead (1908-1999) than his older brother Ralph. Robert had a son who ended up working at an internationally acclaimed interior design firm in Dallas. That son’s, (David LaForge Shead) obituary outlined his work followed in his parents’ footsteps studying art and design at OU. I haven’t been able to track down Robert’s years at OU yet. William Shead confirmed all this and added that Robert had a lucrative interior design company in Oklahoma City. He even served as a designer during his war service years, boasting that he has designed the interior of MacArthur’s private plane. He also confirmed that the fungi and the microscope were Robert Shead paintings and not Ralph’s.

Ralph B. Shead from OU 1916 yearbook
Shead in 1915 (OU Yearbook)

Ralph however received his certificate of art in 1916, 14 years before Stovall arrived at the university, and became *the* name associated with all things museum and paleontology related. David Levy’s  The University of Oklahoma: A History, Volume II 1917-1950 only mentions Shead in a single sentence: “Ralph Shead, a professional artist who became a long time employee of the museum, designed displays and created historic murals.” (214).  At least two of which include a Jurassic scene and the background for the oreodon exhibit. Not only did Shead paint the background but  he did the figure sculpting for the diorama as well.

Jurassic Background (Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History)


Oreodon display. These fossils were prepped and mounted by WPA workers and are still in these positions in their new habitat in the current museum. (Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History)

Pretty short-shrift for someone who produced four 13+ foot paintings, three slightly smaller ones, and served as acting director of the museum between 1952 and 54 (Stovall died in 1953) after the “new” Museum was opened in 1951.

University Museum 1951. (OU Yearbook, 1951)

The paleontology paintings aren’t even the largest scale that Shead worked with while painting at OU. There is an enormous geological map of Oklahoma painted with various labor scenes around it that I will be spending some time with next week photographing more completely and attempting to do some digital repairs on it.

Photo by author

Shead wasn’t bound to the art studio during his tenure at the museum. As WPA superintendent part of his work included accompanying the visitors and press to sites worked under WPA funding. Here here is during the “This Project Pays your Community” public tour week in the Cimarron County Dinosaur Quarry.

Mr. Held, pres agent, Ralph Shead, Miss Fullerton, Mrs Stafford, J.W. Stovall (left to right)(Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History)
Cimarron County. Dinosaur Eula Fullerton, Director P&S Division and Ralph Shead, Supt. Paleo project (Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History)

Similarly, Shead’s fieldwork was not simply administrative. There were times when Shead as a “museum technician” was involved in the dirt of the excavation, and like his paintings he worked with dinosaurs and extinct mammals.

Ralph Shead (right) with WPA foreman Mannie Capansky and the “brontosaur” femur. (Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History)
R.B. Shead excavating elephant 3 miles SW of Weatherford Sept 4, 1941. (Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History)

Later in 1941 Shead published a 7 page informational booklet on the Bear Zuni Fetishes from the Spiro Mounds archaeological excavations. Spiro was another scientific University WPA project. OU Anthropology students Shawn Lambert and Lucius Martin presented a poster highlighting the OU WPA artists and their illustrations for the Spiro project and publications. Interestingly this poster hangs in the same paleontology hall as the first two Shead paintings that I saw.

While I was working on this collection of Shead work, I contacted his great nephew William who not only lives in Norman, but lives at the original Shead address. The original house burned in the 1930s and the current house is a gorgeous faux adobe Mexican colonial partially designed by Ralph with the interior designed by Robert. It is definitely my favorite house in Norman.

I spent the afternoon surrounded by even more of  Ralph’s art in his old house catching up on the Shead family history which is as fascinating as I had figured and in a surreal way similar to threads of my mother’s side of my family. Just to add all the smaller pieces of Shead’s work here to what is part of the University it is obvious that Shead painted all the time. Some of these landscapes are from the areas in the panhandle area which William said Shead really liked.  I am going to make it a habit of visiting more often and next time I will have my big camera, but for now, having all of Ralph’s extant work together, even if it is just digitally. is a pretty fulfilling feat.  There is at least one more that was given to a family psychologist friend. Either set of these would be an impressive portfolio, when lumped together is simply staggering.

Most are normal “house-art” sized (16×20 or so) except the Mexican scene, it is at least 48×60. I want to try and get some better photos of at least that one for a print.

I don’t know much more about the artist that was born in New Madrid, Missouri in 1892; What was he up to between 1916 and 1933 when he started painting for Stovall and the museum? Shead’s WWI draft card lists him as a school teacher in Jenks in June of 1917. William said he thought Shead was pursuing a master’s degree in art in Indiana before the family called him home to help during the depression. A few newspapers have him exhibiting art at the Herron Art Museum and the Indiana State Fair. He  is mentioned as living in Indianapolis with his brother Walter (newspaper reporter) in the reports of Laurance’s death in 1933.   An article in the Inianapolis Star  (January 8, 1935) lists Shead as having attended Washington University in St. Louis, MO, the Grand Central School of art, and the School of Design in New York.  It mentions his OU museum murals and a potrait of Bishop Francis Kelly of the Catholic diocese of Tulsa and Oklahoma City which all seem to have been completed in 1934.

Indianapolis Star Tue. Jan 8, 1935

His plans to return to Indianapolis in 1935 changed when he became the WPA Oklahoma state superintendent that same year.  When the WPA folded, Shead became the assistant director of the University Museum, serving as “acting director” from 1952 to 1954 when the Hungarian-born archaeologist Stephan Francis Borhegyi took over the museum directorship.

The Oklahoman. December 27, 1948.
Shead in Sooner Magazine in 1957. (Vol 29 . no. 8 pp 8-10)

According to William Eugene Hollon’s A History of the Stovall Museum of Science and History (1956), during the late 1940s through the early years of the 1950s Shead was the only full-time museum employee. He serve as assistant director and head of exhibit preparation at the renamed Stovall Museum  until he retired in 1960. He continued to paint the rest of his life finally laying down his brush in 1969.

The Oklahoman Thursday Feb 20, 1969

Shead is buried next to his parents and brother (not Robert) in the the St. Joseph’s Catholic section of the Norman IOOF cemetery on Porter St. in Norman, less than 50 yards from J. Willis Stovall and his wife.  There is an American Legion medallion next to his headstone. There were even a story tied to the headstone.

The large Shead stone was created by Shead’s father James. He was skilled with concrete and decorative planters and birdbaths are part of the front garden at the house.

The family stories are not without tragedy either. The brother Laurance that is buried here was a fairly successful theatre manager at the Garden Theatre in Paterson, New Jersey who was known to help anyone down on there luck. One such patron, a prospective singer from Georgia named Louis Kenneth Neu took advantage of his kindness, accompanied Laurance to his apartment for a party, and eventually hit him from behind with an iron and stole his wallet. Laurance died of his injuries and Ney was later apprehended and executed in New Orleans for the murder of Laurence Shead and a wealthy Tennessee businessman.

Their mother Mary is, so far, the longest-lived Shead, and her story ties the family to one of the most significant geological stories in North America.  Her Father’s Grandfather, a LaForge survived the New Madrid Earthquake only to catch pneumonia from wading through the slush that was once his farmland when the Mississippi River flooded. He later succumbed to his illness ultimately making him another victim of the quake.

His surviving work is impressive by any standard, and that isn’t taking into account all the already (really) lost “displays” and “historic murals” that served as backdrops for all the dioramas throughout the museum. His work isn’t simply art or background, paleontology or archaeology. His work crisscrossed all aspects of the museum, its collections, and ever expanding subject areas (which I think is why I have been drawn to finding out more about him). They also remain some of the strongest physical links to the history of the university museum outside of the collection artifacts themselves.


The Age of Wonder

As a trudge steadily onward towards the completion of a PhD, and comprehensive exams in a few months I will be topping off my reading with some curated history of biology-esque works that will provide a bit or mortar to hold my foray into field science post Darwin to the premodern foundations and their recourse of shaking off the prefix. The first in (what I hope to be) a long line of reviews, overviews, notes, and general idiosyncratic fancies (more for myself to study for comps than anything) is Richard Holmes’ 2012 book The Age of Wonder. 

This book is absolutely marvelous and should be read by anyone proclaiming to have an interest in the enlightenment and/or the history of science. While each chapter focuses on a particular “scientist” there is a common thread in the form of Joseph Banks that weaves the accounts together. In film there is the phenomena of the “Kevin Bacon Number” regarding how many steps it takes to trace any actor through a series of relationships back to Kevin Bacon. Within this book, and well within the Royal Society (and beyond) the equivalent would be a Joseph Banks Number. There will be more on Banks much later when I read his biography).

The Age of Wonder that Holmes explores is that beautiful and sublime (in the original sense of the word) period in which science, literature, and art were at their most inseparable, volatile, and sometimes desperate: The Romantic Period. Romantic Science to Holmes runs specifically between the beginning of Cook’s (and Banks’) Endeavor voyage to mark the transect of Venus across the sun from Tahiti to the beginning (or end, rather) of FitzRoy and Darwin’s world cruise with the HMS Beagle. With those bookends in mind Holmes deftly runs through biography, politics, art, and literature to offer one of the more complete pictures of the period, and some of the most famous names that ever graced the Royal Society’s attendance sheets. There are numerous images of the people and some of the events. The first image is The Orrery by Joseph Wright of Derby. While this is the only one of Wright’s paintings included, I have decided to used three of his here because I think that they go far to capture the mixture of all that was Romantic science. (that it quite different from “science of the Romantic period, you see?)

A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery. Josephy Wright of Darby, 1766

At its heart, and one of the reasons it will forever be close to mine, is that it revolves around field observations, either by exploring geographically, cosmically, or laboratorally. It is about science as a verb, not a passive noun. It is about the elite men of means who can afford leisure collecting trips–both for knowledge and for specimens–and it is about the brilliant minds from the working class that broke into a new kind of social mobility. Without forcing it Holmes is able to talk about class and even gender. Race, as part of this new holy trinity of writing that seems to steer many authors to the breakers of what is in vogue, isn’t absent from Holmes’ work, but it is not treated as a check box that must be included for his work to pass the tangential trifecta. It appears where necessary and in relation to each of his subjects’ position, field, and/or temperament.

Holmes captures the wonder of the age. The fear of the unknown, the filling in of the map of Africa by early explorers such as Mungo Park who unfortunately was one of a long line of explorers that disappeared into the blank spaces between the known.  Two generations of Herschels draw back the curtain of night and expand the understanding of the sky and the beyond. Humphry Davy is n there twice (he would be pleased). Once for his work on the inhalation of gas, and the other for his work on a safety lamp for the mining industry. Practical and theoretical science are always in play in each of these chapters more of less without Holmes needing to create the dichotomy. One of my favorite quotes is from Banks’ diary: “March 1769; It is however some pleasure to be able to disprove that which does not exist but on the opinions of Theoretical writers, of which sort most are who have wrote anything about these seas without themselves been in them.” (11).  “Go and see” became the maxim that replaced “sit, think, discourse.”

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump. Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768

The practical becomes commercial, and no less political when the Balloonist start to break the chains of gravity in the 1780s. Davy’s mining lamp made the leap to industrial benefit as well, but with much less spectacle than the aeronauts crossing the English Channel, swooping down on fields, and creating all manner of mischief. True to the gothic nature of the period this chapter has the most death in it. That is to to say it has the most descriptive death accounts, the numbers were higher in Mungo Park’s expedition and the terrible disease that wreaked havoc on Cook and Banks’ return voyage through the West Indies accounted for my bodies. (Here I will note, as Banks did, that it was the West Indies not the Pacific that had given the expedition its hardest health blow).

Mary Shelley’s modern Prometheus has a stand alone chapter for category’s sake. The literary troupe that she was a large part of feature fairly prominently throughout the other chapters as well, but this one focuses on the “wonder” of science from the opposite direction. This view sews up Holmes path from the awesome to the awful. The warning that it became to science run amok with stage and screen completely removing the greater commentary on people such as Victor Frankenstein and those from who he was modeled.

The Alchemist
The Alchemist. Joseph Wright of Derby 1771, reworked 1795

The final chapters deal with a changing of the guard (to coin a phrase) by all accounts, figurative, literal, and political.  The importance of science to the Royal Society’s “Young Turks” becomes a sticking point, a rallying cry, and a thorn in a side depending on one’s position.  The professionalization of scientific disciplines and the broader draw of smaller (more inclusive) societies began to pull membership and interest away from the stuffy, snobbish, and decidedly Edwardian Royal Society. Members wanted to do more and eat less–the “feast of philosophy” debate. Royal Society funding was capricious and subsequent presidents more so. Individuals and like minded partners moved to open the path for a more democratic (from their perspective) means of maintaining science.  In effect it was more Babbage than John Herschel who led the charge as John had to operate under the elder Herschel’s shadow and legacy. As the quiet, hard-working Michael Faraday eclipsed Davy as the conduit of science to the masses the full takeover was nearly complete.

Many non elite folks were fed up with the Royal Society, Babbage may or may not have said this.

As we struggle with definitions and control over content and access in this ever-growing digital age, there are many parallels to this push out from the umbrella of one central hub of knowledge (The Royal Society) to forms more readily accessed at the working levels of the respected disciplines. The speed at which these changes happened were reflected in literature and art. (think Turner’s steamboat, and then his delving into pure color and movement).The internet is nearly available to all and places like Davies back country Cornwall aren’t quite so behind. Is this emerging branch of digital humanities a continuation of the great democratization of science [or information]? Who will be the next Babbage to vehemently rail against the Davys shaking their fist at those who try to upend the system that created their celebrity (and fostered their genius)? These are the more broad questions this historical perspective raises.

A note on Style: What Holmes does in this book and how it is formulated and presented to the public is something that historians of any ilk would do well to emulate. It is biography, but it is not just biography. The buzzword issues of the generation are there when they appear historically, not forced in because it was happening at the same time 4000 miles elsewhere. I have gone back and forth on including this book’s epilogue and I have decided that it might behoove us all if I do, at least it part:

“…But science is now also continually reshaping its history retrospectively. It is starting to look back and rediscover its beginnings, its earlier traditions and triumphs; but also its debates, its uncertainties and its errors. No general science history would now be considered complete without a sense of the science achieved centuries ago by the Greeks, the Arabs, the Chinese, the Babylonians. [he lists the beginning of History of Science departments around the world]…Similarly it seems to me imposible to understand fully the comtemporary debates about the environment, or climate change, or genetic engineering, or alternative medicine, or extraterrestrial life, or the nature of consciousness, or even the existence of God, without knowing how these arose from the hopes and anxieties of the Romantic generation. But perhaps most important, right now, is a changing appreciation of how scientists themselves fit into society as a whole, and the nature of the particular creativity they bring to it. We need to consider how they are increasingly vital to any culture of progressive knowledge, to the education of the young (and not so young), and to our understanding of the planet and its future. For this, I believe science needs to be presented and explored in a new way. We need not only a new history of science, but a more enlarged and imaginative biographical writing about individual scientists. Here the perennially cited difficulties with teh ‘two cultures’ and specifically with mathematics, can no longer be accepted as a valid limitation. We need to understand how science is actually made; how scientists themselves think and feel and speculate. We need to explore what makes scientists creative, as well as poets or painters, or musicians.. That is how this book began. The old, rigid debates abd boundaries–science versus religion, science versus the arts, science versus traditional ethics–are no longer enough. We should be impatient with them. We need a wider, more generous more imaginative perspective. Above all, perhaps, we need that three things that a scientific culture can sustain: the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe. And that is how this book might possibly end.” (468-469)