Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dragon Bones: The Mystery of the Peking Man

The Renowned Dr. Black

Dr. Davidson Black
Dr. Davidson Black
Davidson Black was born on July 25, 1884 in Toronto, Canada. As a child, Black spent many summers on the Kawartha Lakes canoeing and exploring the surrounding wilderness. When he was a teenager, Black took a job with the Hudson Bay Company during summer vacations where he hauled supplies in his canoe on the dangerous rapids to northern Ontario. During this time, the adventurous Black also prospected for gold, hoping to one day strike it rich but was unsuccessful. Shapiro claimed that one summer in the wilderness, Black met geologists conducting fieldwork and became fascinated with geology.

Black had other interests. He was also fascinated with biology and anatomy, which he studied at the University of Toronto. After earning a medical degree, he took a position at Clevelands Case Western Reserve Universitys School of Medicine, where he taught and conducted research. During this time he also began a leisure study of geology. In the summers, he returned to the wilds of Canada, where he carried out amateur geological surveys.

Dragon Bone Hill by Boaz & Ciochon
Dragon Bone Hill by Boaz & Ciochon
In 1914, Black traveled abroad to Manchester, England, to study neuroanatomy under Sir Grafton Elliott Smith. At the time, Smith was conducting research on the controversial fossilized remains of the Piltdown Man, which was considered by some to be the missing link between ape and man. According to van Oosterzee, Black became captivated with the problems of human evolution that the Piltdown skull represented. To Black, the Piltdown Man simply did not fit in with evolutionary theories of early man. His doubts concerning its validity would be proved correct when the Piltdown Man was exposed as a hoax many years later.

Nevertheless, the problems of the Piltdown Man sparked Blacks fascination with evolution and paleontology. He believed that the clues to human evolution were not in England, as Piltdown Man advocators suggested, but in Asia, where extinct species of apes had been found. He primarily focused on China as the cradle of humanity and longed to explore the region to find clues to support his conviction. However, his desire to travel to the Orient was temporarily put on hold during the outbreak of World War I.

In 1917, Black joined the Army Medical Corps and was assigned the rank of captain. He served for two years working in hospitals, tending to wounded soldiers in both England and Canada. After he was discharged, he fulfilled his dream of going to China in 1919 by accepting a position as Professor of Neurology and Embryology at the Peking Union Medical College (PUMC).

Peking Union Medical College
Peking Union Medical College

After six years of research at PUMC, Black was promoted to become head of the anatomy department. During this time, there was political turmoil brewing in China between the National Revolutionary Army, the Communist Party and Chiang Kai-sheks National Party. Even though rumors of war circulated throughout the country and Chinese troops prepared from imminent battle, the threat did not deter the scientists working at PUMC, at least not yet.

By 1926, the political and military situation took a turn for the worse. Battles between the warlords of China escalated, posing an immediate risk to those working at the PUMC. As bullets and bombs rained down on Peking and the surrounding area, scientists at the college and their families feared for their lives. Many decided to leave China and take refuge back in their home countries.

However, Black and several other scientists refused to leave. The discovery of the hominid teeth by Andersson that year was reason enough to stay and conduct further research in Chou Kou Tien, despite the ongoing battles in the area. It was a decision that changed the face of history.

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