American explorer, adventurer and naturalist Roy Chapman Andrews (1884-1960) is best remembered for a series of dramatic exhibitions to previously unexplored areas of Mongolia from 1922 to 1930, during which time he discovered the first nest of dinosaur eggs in the world. In addition, his discoveries included new species of dinosaurs and the fossils of early mammals that co-existed with them.
Tales of his dramatic encounters with snakes, battles against harsh desert conditions and near misses with indigenous populations have mythologised Andrews’ name into legend: indeed, it has been claimed by many that he served as the inspiration for Indiana Jones.
As with many notable characters throughout the ages, the truth about their life lies somewhere in between.
So who was Roy Chapman Andrews?
He enjoyed exploration as a child
Andrews was born in Beloit, Wisconsin. He was an avid explorer from a young age, spending his time in forests, fields and waters nearby. He also developed skills in marksmanship, and taught himself taxidermy. He used the funds from his taxidermy abilities to pay tuition at Beloit College.
He talked his way into a job at the American Museum of Natural History
Upon graduating from Beloit College, the story goes that Andrews talked his way into a post at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), even though there was no position advertised. He supposedly stated that he would scrub floors if necessary, and as a result, got a job as a janitor in the taxidermy department.
There, he began collecting specimens for the museum, and over the following years studied alongside his job, earning a Master of Arts degree in mammalogy from Columbia University.
He collected animal specimens
Once employed at the AMNH, Andrews was assigned a number of tasks that would inform his later work. An assignment salvaging a whale carcass helped to catalyse his interest in cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises). Between 1909 and 1910, he sailed on the USS Albatross to the East Indies, collecting snakes and lizards, and also observing marine mammals.
In 1913, Andrews sailed aboard the schooner Adventuress with owner John Borden to the Arctic, where they hoped to find a bowhead whale specimen for the American Museum of Natural History. On the expedition, he filmed some of the best footage of seals ever seen at the time.
He and his wife worked together
In 1914, Andrews married Yvette Borup. Between 1916 and 1917, the couple led the Asiatic Zoological Expedition of the museum through much of western and southern Yunnan in China, as well as through various other provinces. The couple had two sons.
This partnership, both professionally and romantically, wasn’t to last: he divorced Borup in 1930, in part because his expeditions meant that he was away for prolonged periods of time. In 1935, he married Wilhelmina Christmas.
He travelled extensively around Asia
Over a lunch in 1920, Andrews proposed to his boss, palaeontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn, that they test Osborn’s theory that the first humans came out of Asia, by exploring the Gobi desert in search of remains. The AMNH Gobi expeditions were launched, and along with his family, Andrews moved to Peking (now Beijing) in advance of the first expedition into the Gobi in 1922.
More expeditions followed in 1923, 1925, 1928 and 1930, all of which came to the staggering cost of $700,000. Part of this cost could be attributed to the travelling party: in 1925, Andrews’ retinue included 40 people, 2 trucks, 5 touring cars and 125 camels, with the headquarters inside the Forbidden City including some 20 servants.
He discovered the first dinosaur eggs
Though they failed to discover any early human remains in Asia, in 1923 Andrews’ team made an arguably far more significant discovery: the first full nests of dinosaur eggs ever discovered. The find was significant because it demonstrated that the prehistoric creatures hatched out of eggs rather than giving birth to live young. Initially thought to be ceratopsian, Protoceratops, they were determined in 1995 actually to belong to the theropod Oviraptor.
In addition, the expedition party discovered dinosaur bones and fossil mammals, such as a skull from the Cretaceous period.
He may have exaggerated his accomplishments
Various science historians have argued that chief palaeontologist Walter Granger was in fact responsible for many of the expedition’s successes. However, Andrews was a fantastic publicist, regaling the public with stories about pushing cars over perilous terrain, gunslinging to scare away bandits and escaping death because of the desert’s extreme elements many times. Indeed, various photographs from the expeditions cast Andrews in a positive light, and helped build his celebrity status back home. Indeed, in 1923, he appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine.
However, reports from various expedition members state that Andrews was not actually very good at finding fossils, and when he did, was poor at extracting them. His reputation for fossil damage was so significant that when anyone botched an extraction, the damaged specimen was said to be ‘RCA’d’. One member of the crew also later quipped that ‘water that was up to our ankles was always up to Roy’s neck’.
He became the Director of the Natural History Museum
After he returned to the US, AMNH asked Andrews to take over as museum director. However, the Great Depression had a severe impact upon the museum’s funding. Moreover, Andrews’ personality didn’t lend itself to museum administration: he later noted in his 1935 book The Business of Exploring that he was ‘…born to be an explorer… There was never any decision to make. I couldn’t do anything else and be happy.’
He resigned his post in 1942, and retired with his wife to a 160 acre estate in North Colebrook, Connecticut. There, he wrote a number of autobiographical books about his life and adventures, of which his most famous is arguably Under a Lucky Star – A Lifetime of Adventure (1943).
He may have inspired the character Indiana Jones
Rumours have long persisted that Andrews may have provided the inspiration for Indiana Jones. However, neither George Lucas nor any of the other creators of the films have confirmed this, and the 120-page transcript of the story conferences for the movie don’t mention him at all.
Instead, it is likely that his personality and escapades indirectly provided a model for heroes in adventure films from the 1940s and 1950s.