ROY CHAPMAN ANDREWS
One of Beloit’s most famous citizens was Roy Chapman Andrews, an explorer, adventurer and writer. Andrews is best known for leading a series of expeditions through China in the early 20th century into the Gobi Desert and Mongolia that led to such discoveries as the first-known nests of fossilized dinosaur eggs. There were plenty of obstacles along the way, however, as he battled sandstorms, snakes, and bandit attacks. It is widely speculated that Andrews was the inspiration behind the Hollywood character “Indiana Jones.”
“The Andrews story is one of those real-life dramas that seems like it would be fiction, except that it turns out to be true,” says Ann Bausum, an author based in Rock County. Bausum knows Andrews well, having published Dragon Bones and Dinosaur Eggs: A Photobiography of Explorer Roy Chapman Andrews in 2000 with the National Geographic Society.
“His story speaks to the nature of exploration,” she says. “Inevitably, it’s a dangerous profession. Accepting the risks is part of the passion that comes with the quest for knowledge as scientists and explorers. Andrews happened to fall under that spell like other explorers have. While he found himself in many sticky situations, he was very good at getting out of them, quite resourceful and clever.”
Andrews was born in 1884 in Beloit and grew up on the west side of town. He spent most of his youth outdoors in nearby woods, fields, and steams. He taught himself taxidermy and used the money he made to help pay for his tuition at Beloit College. “He had an insatiable passion for the natural world,” says Bausum. “From an early age, he hoped to one day work for the American Museum of Natural History.”
And he did. As a teenager he started a correspondence with scientists at the New York City museum. After graduating from Beloit College, he traveled to New York and asked to be hired. “He made the bold statement that he’d do anything to work there, even mop the floor. That’s the job he was given,” says Bausum. “But the story is somewhat tongue in cheek. He worked his way up the ladder from there and was sent into the field early on.”
Andrews had to eventually give up his field work in Asia after 1930, due, in part, to the Great Depression and the region’s political volatility. He became the director of the Natural History Museum in 1934, and retired seven years later. He spent the next two decades writing and speaking about his career.
In 1960, Andrews died in California at the age 76. He’s buried at Oakwood Cemetery in Beloit. “He came full circle,” Bausum says. “Beloit was a formative place for him and the place he chose to rest at life’s end.”
But his legacy lives on. In 1999, the Roy Chapman Andrews Society was created by a group of area residents eager to pay tribute to one of the world’s most famous explorers. Each year, the society introduces 1,000 young students to the importance of exploration. In addition, the Society honors scientists with the Roy Chapman Andrews Society Distinguished Explorer Award for outstanding achievements in scientific discovery through explorations. While in Beloit, these distinguished visitors speak to the general public and also address a special assembly of 1,000 area students about their discoveries and the viability of the career of exploration. There is even a local charter school named after Andrews.
Many of the award recipients honored by the Society grew up reading books for young people that had been written by Andrews. “If you asked scientists of a certain age why they become explorers, I would predict three quarters or more would say it was because of Andrews,” Bausum says. “He is a true scientific hero, and, thanks to the Society, his legacy remains alive and influential in his hometown.”