Fact Check

Did George Washington Die Before Dinosaurs Were Discovered?

The first president of the United States died in 1799.

Published Jan 3, 2024

Updated Jan 4, 2024
 (Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)
Image Via Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons
Claim:
George Washington died before dinosaurs were discovered.
Context

Though humans have likely lived alongside dinosaur fossils for millennia, a fossilized dinosaur bone was first described in 1842 – more than 40 years after the death of George Washington.

That George Washington died before it was discovered that dinosaurs existed is a claim that has circulated in online channels for years.

A simple Google search revealed that this claim has been shared online since at least 2018, with similar iterations having been shared on Reddit, Quora, TikTok, Instagram and X, including the below post that had received over 8,000 likes as of this publication:  

This is True. According to the National Constitution Center, the former president died on Dec. 14, 1799. Meanwhile, the first official scientific description of “Dinosauria” occurred in 1842, writes the University of California Museum of Paleontology.

But as the Biodiversity Heritage Library concedes, humans have likely lived alongside dinosaur fossils for thousands of years. Legends of dragons, for example, are thought by some to have been inspired by dinosaur bones.

Megalosaurus was the first dinosaur to have been officially described in the scientific literature in 1842, writes the Natural History Museum. However, it’s thought that fossils of the now-extinct carnivorous therapod – which once stood 30-feet tall – were discovered nearly two centuries previously. At the time, however, they were mistaken as the femur bones of giant humans.

Let’s take a walk through time.

A large bone discovered in an Oxfordshire quarry was recorded by naturalist Robert Plot in a 1677 edition of The Natural History of Oxford-shire, according to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Included was an illustration of the then-unnamed bone, as well as a description that suggested the bone resembled that of the lower part of a human femur.

At first, Plot suggested that the bone belonged to an elephant. After further examination, he concluded that it likely belonged to an ancient, giant human.

Nearly a century later in 1763, English physician Richard Brookes reviewed Plot's work in his compilation of books, A New and Accurate System of Natural History. In it, Brookes agreed that the fossil belonged to a human – albeit, a different body part entirely. Thus, the now-defunct "Scrotum humanum" became the official documented name. It appeared in volume five of Brookes' book when he wrote that the “stones have been found exactly representing the private parts of a man.”

It wasn't until 1842, more than four decades after the passing of Washington, that biologist Richard Owens published the class “Dinosauria” for the first time in his book, Report on British Fossil Reptiles. Three genera were used to define this new grouping: the carnivorous Megalosaurus, the herbivorous Iguanodon, and the armored Hylaeosaurus.

Based on illustrations like the one above, many scientists agree that the bone described belonged to that of a Megalosaurus. However, neither Plot nor Brookes described it as such, and as the fossil is now lost, its origination story is likely equally gone.

Sources

British Association for the Advancement of Science., and British Association for the Advancement of Science. Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. 1841, https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/104191.

---. Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. 1841, https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/104191.

Brookes, R., and R. Brookes. A New and Accurate System of Natural History. Printed for J. Newbery, 1763, https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/111943.

Brookes, R. (Richard). A New and Accurate System of Natural History .. London, Printed for J. Newbery, 1763. Internet Archive, http://archive.org/details/newaccuratesyste05broo.

Brookes, Richard. The Natural History Of Fishes And Serpents, Including Sea-Turtles, Crustaceous And Shell Fishes, With Their Medicinal Uses: Illustrated With Cuts. LEGARE STREET Press, 2023.

Dinosauria: How the “terrible Lizards” Got Their Name. https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/how-dinosaurs-got-their-name.html. Accessed 3 Jan. 2024.

George Washington Died before Dinosaurs Were Discovered - Google Search. https://www.google.com/search?q=george+washington+died+before+dinosaurs+were+discovered&oq=george+washington+died+before+dinosaurs+were+discovered&gs_lcrp=EgZjaHJvbWUyBggAEEUYOdIBCDU5ODZqMGo3qAIAsAIA&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8#ip=1. Accessed 3 Jan. 2024.

“Https://Twitter.Com/ShwrThght/Status/1240370454075858944?Lang=en.” X (Formerly Twitter), https://twitter.com/ShwrThght/status/1240370454075858944?lang=en. Accessed 3 Jan. 2024.

Hylaeosaurus. https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/dino-directory/hylaeosaurus.html. Accessed 3 Jan. 2024.

Iguanodon. https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/dino-directory/iguanodon.html. Accessed 3 Jan. 2024.

Magazine, Smithsonian, and Joseph Stromberg. “Where Did Dragons Come From?” Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/where-did-dragons-come-from-23969126/. Accessed 3 Jan. 2024.

Plot, Robert. The Natural History of Oxford-Shire : Being an Essay toward the Natural History of England. Oxford : at the Theater ; London : at Mr. S. Millers, 1677. Internet Archive, http://archive.org/details/naturalhistoryof00plotuoft.

---. The Natural History of Oxford-Shire : Being an Essay toward the Natural History of England. Oxford : at the Theater ; London : at Mr. S. Millers, 1677. Internet Archive, http://archive.org/details/naturalhistoryof00plotuoft.

“Robert Plot’s Lost Dinosaur Bone.” Tetrapod Zoology, 16 Dec. 2022, https://tetzoo.com/blog/2022/12/12/robert-plots-lost-dinosaur-bone.

“The Birth of Dinosaurs: Richard Owen and Dinosauria.” Biodiversity Heritage Library, 16 Oct. 2015, https://blog.biodiversitylibrary.org/2015/10/the-birth-of-dinosaurs-richard-owen-and-dinosauria.html.

The Dinosauria. https://ucmp.berkeley.edu/taxa/verts/dinosauria/index.php#:~:text=The%20term%20%22Dinosauria%22%20was%20invented,dinosaurs%20known%20at%20the%20time. Accessed 3 Jan. 2024.

“The Mysterious Death of George Washington | Constitution Center.” National Constitution Center – Constitutioncenter.Org, https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/the-mysterious-death-of-george-washington. Accessed 3 Jan. 2024.

TikTok - Make Your Day. https://www.tiktok.com/@kingoftieland/video/7240164297303756075?lang=en. Accessed 3 Jan. 2024.

“Why Did George Washington Never Know Dinosaurs Existed?” Quora, https://www.quora.com/Why-did-George-Washington-never-know-dinosaurs-existed. Accessed 3 Jan. 2024.

https://blog.biodiversitylibrary.org/2015/10/the-first-described-and-validly-named-dinosaur-megalosaurus.html. Accessed 3 Jan. 2024.

Updates

Jan. 4, 2024: A date/math error was corrected.

Madison Dapcevich is a freelance contributor for Snopes.