“Doc” Knight’s T-rex passion

One of the giants of mid-20th century Wyoming was UW Professor Samuel Howell Knight (1892-1975). He had a passion for other “giants”—the dinosaurs that roamed here about 65 million years ago.

 The accompanying photo shows the famous professor at one of his favorite hobbies, creating a work of art. The undated photograph is from a collection of over 7,000 large-format negatives that over the years have been given to the Laramie Plains Museum by the Laramie Boomerang.

 A project is underway at the museum to unearth the dates of these negatives, the stories behind those that seem of greatest historical value, and to prepare them for the next phase—digitizing them into positive images. The photo you see is one of several scanned on borrowed equipment to evaluate photo quality.

 Sam Knight followed in the footsteps of his father, Wilbur Knight, who was appointed the first geologist and mining professor at UW in 1893. Though Sam was only 10 years old when his father died, he too went on to earn a doctorate in geology and become, like his father, a famous geologist and curator of the UW Geological Museum.

 A geological collection had been started at UW by one of its first professors, J.D. Conley, and was greatly expanded by those who came after him. During Sam Knight’s tenure, the current geological museum (a wing to the original Science Building) was designed by Knight and first opened in the fall of 1955. To honor his contributions to UW, the entire building was renamed the S.H. Knight Geology Building in 1974.

 Not content with the large Wyoming landscape mural that he designed and painted on one of the walls of the new museum, Knight was determined to build a full-sized Tyrannosaurus rex sculpture outside to welcome visitors to the museum.

 “Doc” Knight, as he was usually called, was an accomplished artist, famous for his geological chalk talks in which he could draw a perfect circle freehand on the blackboard. Luckily, one of those talks, on the geological history of the area around Laramie, is preserved on nearly antique VHS tape at the UW American Heritage Center. His archives are conserved there also.

 Doc taught himself the skills needed to build the monster and constructed the metal armature required to support the copper plates that form its “skin.” A concrete foundation was poured for the strong metal rods needed to support the sculpture. According to geology professor emeritus Don Boyd, UW carpenters built a tall shed around the foundation, so the professor could work regardless of the weather.

 Using fossil remains unearthed in Wyoming and other parts of the West as guides, Knight constructed a model of the giant predator first, then transferred the scale to life-sized proportions. While the tail dragging on the ground may not conform to current thinking on the big dinosaur’s actual posture, it does provide an accurate depiction of the animal’s size and ferociousness.

 Knight intentionally chose copper that would oxidize to a rustic green color for the 18.5 foot tall sculpture. He created the skin texture by hand using a ball peen hammer. The head was too big to fit in the shed, so it was constructed elsewhere and then lowered into place by crane after the shed was dismantled. When unveiled in 1964, his work was the only known life-size sculpture of Tyrannosaurus rex.

 Currently, retired Boomerang photographer Tim Chesnut and LPM photo historian Jerry Hansen are working with the negative collection to identify the highest priority of the Boomerang negatives—those that show the buildings, events, work and recreational pursuits of the time period when they were taken. Identification is challenging because there are no prints, no specific dates (occasionally a week and month are given), and usually no keywords were provided.

 The thousands of Boomerang negatives are a treasure-trove of mid-20th century Laramie and they depict an era that is not represented well in the LPM’s current collection of over 6,000 photographs. Since the LPM was founded in 1968, donors usually gave photographs that were much older. Contemporary snapshots of the time were passed over as “not historic,” though they will be significant in the future.

 The project to prioritize the negatives and preserve them is supported in part by a grant from the Wyoming State Historical Records Advisory Board, through funding from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), National Archives and Records Administration.

By Judy Knight

Caption: Sam “Doc” Knight with a soldering iron joining plates of copper that make up the life-size sculpture of Tyrannosaurus rex that stands in front of the UW Geological Museum. UW built a shed at the site so the sculpture could be created in place during the two years and 4,000 hours of work that went into it. A campus myth is that good things will happen if a student can toss a pine cone into T. rex’s mouth, hence the carnivorous monster is usually seen with a mouthful of atypical plant material. Photo courtesy of the Laramie Plains Museum.