History under the Big Sky
Butte doctor started museum which has grown to world-class status
Montana seems to be full of surprises. The Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman is one of them, an internationally known museum founded by a woman. That does not seem unusual by today’s standards, but Caroline McGill was from another era and lived an extraordinary life.
After earning a Ph.D. in 1905 from the University of Montana and traveling alone in Europe, she became the first pathologist in Butte. Still restless, this brilliant woman enrolled in Johns Hopkins to study medicine and received her medical degree in two years instead of the usual four. She was the first woman to graduate from the school of medicine. She was not allowed to walk at graduation because she was not graduating with her class.
She returned to Butte to practice in what has been described as the wildest, most violent town in the West. Imagine the reaction of some tough miner or cowboy walking into her office for the first time and being examined by a female physician.
During her 40 years in Butte, McGill turned no one away who needed treatment. The men who worked in the mines generally were covered by medical insurance, but the women and children were not. Many that couldn’t pay gave Dr. McGill family heirlooms in exchange for treatment. These accumulated items and a $32 gift became the first display for what would become the Museum of the Rockies.
This museum started in Quonset huts in 1957 on the Montana State University campus. It was later moved into a dairy barn and now occupies a 94,000-square-foot facility. Located on the edge of the university property, visitors encounter a series of exhibits arranged in chronological order from the beginnings of the universe to the last 200 years of Montana’s history.
Fossils, especially dinosaurs, have a certain mystique. It may be their extremely old age or their very large size. Smaller fossils like a sea shells or leaves can be found embedded in a rockpile in the mountains or along the seashore. Locally, there are places where you can go specifically to look for fossils at Republic, Wash., and Clarkia, Idaho. But to see the big fossils you have to go to a museum.
The Museum of the Rockies is known internationally for research and display of really big fossil dinosaurs. Fossils exhibited have been found mainly in Montana. Other animals and plants are being cleaned and researched on site. The tedious work of extracting fossilized bones by technicians from the rock can be seen through observation windows into the laboratory.
The first things a visitor will notice are the teeth of fossil dinosaurs. They are enormous, sharp and scary looking. Then you will notice the size of some of these creatures, towering over the tallest human. Some of these completely articulated fossilized skeletons were really huge animals. Purple animals may not have existed but paleontologists have teamed with artists to display colorful recreations of possible skin colors. Where else can a kid or an adult have the chance to feel a fossilized dinosaur bone?
For those who have an interest in dinosaurs, this internationally recognized museum has some of the rarest fossil samples in the world as well as many species of dinosaurs that can be found anywhere.
The exhibit “Northern Rocky Mountain History” offers a look at the early days of pioneers’ lives as they settled in what would become the state of Montana. . McGill’s parlor has been recreated with objects she obtained from patients.
An exhibit that opens May 29, “Leonardo da Vinci: Machines in Motion,” will offer 40 of his inventions in full-scale working models.
Finally, the museum includes a planetarium. The museum Web site provides an interactive night sky with stars that can prepare a visitor for a visit to the planetarium.
McGill’s interest in starting a museum and her desire to make it into more than a local history museum is being carried out by those in charge. Now the Museum of the Rockies is the largest general museum encompassing art, history and science in the five states of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, North and South Dakota. This is a world-class museum that makes a weekend trip to Bozeman an educational adventure.