03 The Dog Skeleton and My Grandmother’s Toothbrush


(This post begins Stephen Godfrey’s personal story.)

“We’ll make a scientist out of this one,” said “Pop-Pop,” my grandfather, to my mother shortly after I was born. And even though my marks hovered well below the class average throughout grade school and most of high school, this curious pronouncement never became a burden for me as an unattainable expectation. On the contrary, as I grew and the story was told to me, I was flattered by his remark. But I wondered why and how he had thought I would or could become a scientist. For me it was an honor that someone whom I admired deeply had desired this for me.

It is impossible for me to know how his hopes influenced my interests, but for as long as I can remember, I have had an insatiable fascination with the natural world. My telescope, microscope, and a large pair of binoculars borrowed from my Uncle Bill were essential tools through which I explored the natural world around me.

As a child growing up in Canada, I loved going to natural history museums, such as the Redpath Museum at McGill University in Montreal, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa. I began my own collection of natural objects — pine cones, sea shells, fossils, and even animal skeletons — until my bedroom was transformed into a miniature natural history museum.

Sugar Pine Cone (Pinus lambertiana). Photo by S. Godfrey.

When I was 13 years old, I came upon a complete and undisturbed cat skeleton in the forest behind my grandparents’ farm just outside Ballston Spa in east-central New York State. I collected every bone, in the hopes that I could rebuild it, just as I had seen done in museums. With the help of my Uncle Bill’s copy of Sisson and Grossman’s The Anatomy of the Domestic Animals, I reassembled the skeleton using coat hanger wire and white wood glue.

A year or so later, on another visit to the farm, my uncle Bill told me of a road-kill dog. After boiling the maggot-infested bones for an afternoon over an open fire, I did the final cleaning of my prize indoors, in my grandmother’s bathroom. Lacking more specialized equipment to clean the slime and gristle off the bones, I used the best available instrument: the rattiest old toothbrush of those available. Once the bones were clean, I quickly rinsed the toothbrush and returned it to where I had found it. Later that evening, I watched in stunned silence as my grandmother scrubbed her teeth with the very same toothbrush (to have spoken up would have resulted in my sudden and immediate death). As far as I know, that brush had a long and useful life afterwards, as did the cleaned and mounted skeleton, which became the centerpiece of my museum.

Dog Skeleton, from Sisson and Grossman’s The Anatomy of the Domestic Animals. I pored over this illustration for hours in order to accurately reconstruct my dog skeleton.

Collecting continued throughout my childhood. Fishing trips turned into hunts for fossils; stops at rest areas along highways provided an excuse to gather pine cones or to scour rock outcrops for the fossilized remains of prehistoric animals. Trips to the ocean featured contests with my father and siblings to see who could find the niftiest natural object. At the end of our family summer vacations, black garbage bags in the back of our Volkswagen van more often than not contained a frozen critter or the pungent remains of some decomposing carcass.

I still marvel at how tolerant, yes, even encouraging my parents were of my pursuits.

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