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'Tyrannosaurus Sue' uncovers passions and controversies of paleontology


'Tyrannosaurus Sue'
by Steve Fiffer
(W.H. Freeman & Co.)

May 16, 2000
Web posted at: 1:56 p.m. EST (1756 GMT)

(CNN) -- The story of the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex fossil ever discovered begins on a weather-beaten farm in South Dakota.

The tale twists and turns through bureaucracies, universities, courts, a prison and a prestigious auction house before ending at a museum in Chicago. The narrative contains elements of Indiana Jones and Perry Mason, "E.T." and "Romeo and Juliet."

Author Steve Fiffer has assembled these disparate pieces into a compelling account of a man and his first love. The man is Peter Larson, a maverick fossil collector. The love of his life is a bag of bones. A very large bag of very large bones. The relationship between Larson and the remarkable fossil he unearthed in 1990 is the core of Fiffer's book "Tyrannosaurus Sue."

By exploring that relationship, Fiffer rescues the story of Sue from the arid annals of academia and the equally antiseptic arena of the law. He turns the scientific squabbling and legal wrangling over the T. rex fossil into a compelling human drama.

As a result, the reader comes away from the book with a deeper understanding of what motivates men and women to devote their lives to the pursuit of petrified bones.

A bitter battle dissected

Fiffer also throws an often-unflattering light on the business of trafficking in dinosaurs.

The fossil named Sue is one of the most famous discoveries in the history of paleontology. It is certainly the most infamous. The find led to acrimonious lawsuits, criminal prosecutions and an unprecedented bidding war. The fossil that should have cemented Larson's scientific and financial position ended up bankrupting him, and breaking his heart.

Larson wasn't the first person to see Sue. It was a free-lance fossil hunter, Sue Hendrickson, who spotted the fossil embedded in a hill on the barren Dakota plain. She was working for the Black Hills Institute, the commercial fossil enterprise Larson runs with his brother Neil. But Peter Larson named the dinosaur, led the team that pulled her from the ground, and spent nearly two years studying the bones as they were painstakingly extracted from the rock that held them for nearly 70 million years.

"After 21 months of touching Sue and talking to her," Fiffer writes, "Larson had put flesh on her bones, brought her back to life. She was no longer a fossil to him. She was a living being sharing stories of her past, the most intimate details of her existence. Their relationship transcended the physical; it was spiritual as well."

A timeless story

The story of Larson and Sue is replete with the ingredients of a classical tragedy: greed, envy, betrayal, star-crossed love. "Tyrannosaurus Sue" contains them all, leavened with keen insights on the history of paleontology, the politics of its modern practices and the murky state of the law pertaining to fossils. Fiffer deftly untangles the competing passions and weaves them into a lively, occasionally humorous, and ultimately tragic tale of lost love.

The publication of "Tyrannosaurus Sue" coincides with the unveiling of the fossil at its permanent home, the Field Museum in Chicago. The sale of Sue was not the end of her story. Fiffer chronicles the ingenious methods the museum employed to obtain the fossil, including its groundbreaking partnership with McDonald's and the Walt Disney Company, which some academics consider to be modern corporate equivalents of the T. rex.

There is little doubt the museum's exhibition of Sue will be a spectacular attraction. Thousands, perhaps millions, of people will flock to stand in the shadow of the largest carnivore that ever walked the face of the earth. And Fiffer leaves little doubt that somewhere in the crowd, looking up at Sue in awe and wonder, will be the man responsible for finding her, and for losing her.

New dinosaur species found in Africa
November 12, 1998
T. rex named Sue taking shape in Chicago
June 29, 1998
It's not easy rebuilding Sue
October 23, 1997
T-Rex named 'Sue' auctioned for $8.4 million
October 4, 1997

Sue: The Inside Story
W. H. Freeman, Publishers

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