William King Gregory – Scientist of the Day

William King Gregory, an American paleontologist, died Dec. 29, 1970, at the age of 94. In 1912, an amateur English archaeologist uncovered some hominid bones at a site named Piltdown that greatly excited the authorities in England. Piltdown man, as he came to be called, had a large human-size brain but an ape-like jaw, which suggested that it was perhaps ancestral to later hominids such as Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon. Gregory was excited as well, and he mounted an exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and made a restoration of the Piltdown skull, using plaster casts from London. He published an article on the specimen in 1914, essentially announcing Piltdown to the American public. The initial illustration was a charcoal drawing by James H. McGregor that attempted to breathe life into this distant human ancestor, Eoanthropus, the “dawn human” (see first image above). Then Gregory provided a photograph of his skull restoration (second image), and a comparison of the Piltdown jaw (center, in third image above) with the jaw of an orangutan (top) and a Negro (bottom).

Neither Gregory nor McGregor knew that the Piltdown fragments were faked, the skull pieces taken from a recent human skull and dyed to look old, while the piece of jaw actually belonged to an orangutan, and had similarly been altered to look ancient. The hoax would not be detected until 1953.

Gregory was a staunch believer in human evolution, and we can’t resist showing you, as a final image, the dust jacket of one of his later books, Our Face from Fish to Man.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City