UWM to Buy Big Collection of Fossils of Wisconsin's Past
By Harry S. Pease of the Journal Staff
A unique and little known record of our area's past reposes almost undisturbed in an unpretentious red brick building on the campus of Milwaukee-Downer college. The building is the Greene geological museum. The record is its collection of some 70,000 fossils, some of them relics of 500 million years ago. Prompted by word that we had almost lost this treasure, we begged audience of Dr. Katherine M. Nelson, now associate professor of geology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and formerly a Downer faculty member and curator of the museum. She pulled some dozens of specimens into view form their resting places in tall cabinets and orally sketched in some prehistory. Half a billion years ago, a patch of Wisconsin around Wausau was an island in a vast, salty sea. Silt and lime from generations of shellfish built up on the sea bottom, laying down layer after layer of chalky mud that ultimately became limestone. Bye the Devonian period, say 275 million years ago, the shores of the island had been extended until they reached the spots now occupied by Milwaukee and Sheboygan. Most of the inland rocks were laid down 100 million years earlier in the period geologists call the Silurian.
Shellfish Lived in Slimy Sea
That ancient ocean must have been a messy place to swim. Living in its ooze were myriads of shellfish called brachiopods. They look something like clams, but the two halves of their shells do not match. Forebears of the chambered nautilus were important residents. These creatures jet propelled themselves through the water like octopuses. The living animal might have been the size of a football, but it grew successively larger rooms of shell in which to live. Empty, smaller rooms remained attached to the occupied one, so the end product was a spear like structure 15 or 20 feet long. This growth apparently proved an evolutionary handicap, for the straight shelled cephalopods gave way to spiral shelled ones, and the spirals grew more and more complex. It may have been a mess, but nobody was around to object. The earliest creatures with backbones, the fish, did not appear until the last of our rocks were being formed. The Downer collection was begun by Thomas A. Greene, a Milwaukee pharmacist who came here from Rhode Island in 1848.
Will Prevented Loan of Specimens
When he died, his daughter and son, Mrs. Horace A. J. Upham and Col. Howard Greene, gave the collection to Milwaukee-Downer because it was then the only college in Milwaukee which taught geology. The gift specified that the collection "become of service to the great paleontologists of America." But another provision made this hard. Greene had been nearly obsessed with the idea that somebody might take some of his collection. His heirs laid down stern rules forbidding the loan of specimens, and relatively few famed paleontologists came here. The rule has been relaxed somewhat. Next fall Milwaukee-Downer will move to Appleton, to become a part of Lawrence university. The fossil collection might have been moved with its owner. But the UWM has agreed to buy it, and an excellent mineral collection which also belonged to Greene, for $20,000. It may become the nucleus of a center for paleological studies, Prof. Nelson said.
Newspaper article from THE MILWAUKEE JOURNAL, Saturday, February 29, 1964