When borrowing an elephant femur a few weeks ago I was reminded of the nascent Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact, which we’re constructing at the University of Oregon as a center for translational or applied life-science research. The femur was for my Physics of Life class, as I’ve written about before [link]. In brief, we ask why bigger animals need disproportionately thick bones, a consequence of different size-dependences of the force of gravity and the strength of beams. This is very viscerally illustrated with a real elephant bone:
This particular leg bone is from an elephant named Tusko, who died in Oregon in 1933. His life was not a happy one. Tusko was a circus elephant in an era when such animals were treated poorly, and even by the standards of the times he experienced more drama than an elephant should. He was often tightly chained; he was pitted against bulls in a fight in Mexico; and he was sold so often he earned the nickname, “The Great Unwanted.” Finally, the Mayor of Seattle took pity on Tusko and ordered him confiscated from his owners and transferred to the Woodland Park Zoo, where he finally lived in tranquility for a few years until his death. For much more about Tusko’s remarkable life, see the references to several excellent articles at the end of this post.
Tusko’s bones were donated to the University of Oregon, where they are in the excellent care of our Museum of Natural and Cultural History, especially tended to by Edward Davis. Edward handles the educational use of this remarkable skeleton, for example lending me Tusko’s femur when I need it. His fondness for Tusko is palpable, and he makes the point (which I completely agree with) that when presenting these bones in classes, we should also relate Tusko’s story.
What does this have to do with new campuses and Accelerating Scientific Impact? Tusko’s bones are hidden away in drawers, rather than being viewable by students or the general public. That’s not too surprising — it takes space to show off an elephant skeleton — but it’s unfortunate, and it’s probably not what Tusko’s donors would have wanted. Imagine, in an elegant new space like the lobby of the Knight campus, a whole elephant skeleton! One could mount, for example, the right-half of the skeleton plus the skull against a wall, leaving the left half stored for teaching, research, or other uses. (The half-elephant was Edward’s idea.) Or one could suspend bones like the ethereal “flying books” that graced UC Berkeley’s main library a decade or so ago, allowing different perspectives on their reconstruction into a whole. There are lots of possibilities.
Why would this be fantastic?
- It’s an elephant skeleton. Obviously, that’s fantastic!
- The elephant is Oregonian, linking this exotic creature to our local history.
- Tusko’s presence spurs us to think about our relationship to animals. This is especially relevant to the Knight Campus, given that the use of animals is central to biomedical research. It is important to acknowledge both the utility of animals and our responsibility for their care, something that we now, I believe, do pretty well, but which was not the case through much of history.
- Tusko’s presence spurs us to think about the intersection of science, health, history, entertainment, and philosophy, and to think about how all of these fields are represented, and brought together, at our university.
- As an Oregon public building, 1% of the costs go towards art. There’s some great art at UO buildings, and from the perspective of telling stories to visitors (including prospective students, faculty, and donors) the best pieces at the science buildings are those that have some sort of connection to science or scientific issues.
A Tusko installation would give this elephant a proper home. It would also make a statement that we, as a University, care about the history of our place, and care about conversations at the nexus between the sciences and the humanities.
The Knight Campus buildings haven’t yet been built, so there’s plenty of time to start planning!
 Capi Lynn, The time Tusko the elephant was abandoned at the Oregon State Fair. Salem Statesman J. (Aug. 25, 2017). [Link]
 Matt Cooper, “The Elephant in the Room,” Oregon Quarterly, Spring 2014, p. 38-42. [Link]
 J. Kingston Pierce, “Tusko the elephant rampages through Sedro-Woolley on May 15, 1922,” History Link (2003). [Link]
 John J. D. Finn, “Oregon’s most famous elephant led a colorful and tragic life,” Offbeat Oregon (2012). [Link]
A quick sketch of an elephant skull, based mostly on this “Indian Elephant Skeleton” by UnamedKing.
4 thoughts on “On Elephants, Oregon, Science, and Art”
Three cheers for Tusko! I like the “half elephant” idea; it would leave one femur available for Physics of Life without having to dismantle an entire display. Tell the powers that be at your university that people from all over the United States are lobbying in support of Tusko.
An incredible, yet profoundly sad, story of an innocent elephant. I learned so very much about Tusko ! I am profoundly struck by the incredible care of Tusko’s skeletal remains versus how he was treated most of his living life.
I think this a great and poignant story for everyone in the world, especially today; with wide paintbrush strokes of people/professions being so marginalized.
This story I most likely would have never read; as I was looking for the answer to how long an elephant’s femur is, as the orthopedic doctor/group I go to has a challenge question about how many elephant’s femurs would it take…….
Still have not found the answer, but am so grateful to have read your article! I learned a lot, thank you from Saint Oaul, MN
Thanks for the comment! About the length of an elephant femur: I’ve measured Tusko’s, and it’s 110 cm (43 inches). I don’t know how typical Tusko is!