No bones about it, Field Museum’s T. rex Sue needed to freshen up
By Stefano Esposito Staff Reporter November 12, 2013 2:52PM
Bill Simpson, Field Museum Fossil Vertebrates Collection Manager, uses a feather duster to clean Sue the T-Rex at the Field Museum on Tuesday, November 12, 2013. Sue is cleaned twice a year. | Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 14, 2013 6:25AM
In another era, Bill Simpson probably would have had his arm bitten off.
But the 67 million-year-old Sue didn’t even flinch as Simpson, a Field Museum paleontologist, flossed the Tyrannosaurus rex’s foot-long teeth with a giant pink-and-mauve duster Tuesday.
“I don’t have my French maid’s costume,” joked Simpson a little earlier, as he prepared to begin Sue’s cleaning.
Even without the lacy short skirt and fishnets, Simpson cut quite a figure, as the bespectacled scientist leaned out from a hydraulic lift platform — alternately brandishing his duster and a reverse-flow vacuum.
Sue’s cocoa-colored bones get this treatment twice a year — a thorough going over that involves cleaning all 280 or so bones, from the 5-foot hip bone to the chopstick-thin cervical ribs near Sue’s skull.
It takes about two hours in all to dust the 42-foot skeleton, which the museum bought at auction in 1997 for about $8.4 million. There’s no scrubbing or polishing involved.
But if he had his way, Simpson — the museum’s collections manager of fossil vertebrates — wouldn’t clean Sue at all.
“Because it does put it at a little bit of risk,” Simpson said. But visitors have been known to complain that the most complete T. rex ever found can look a little grubby at times.
So the dusting is a compromise. And only Simpson is allowed to do it.
“You have to be very careful when you use the duster not to push one of the cervical ribs, because they will break,” said Simpson.
He should know. He broke one during a cleaning a few years ago.
“We learned our lesson,” Simpson said.
Sue always draws a crowd, but especially when a man in a button-down oxford and glasses is poking a duster through a hole in the dinosaur’s skull — sending clouds of fluffy dust shooting out the other side.
James Sullivan gnawed on an appropriately named “T. rex sub” at the cafeteria a few feet away during the cleaning.
Sullivan, 9, said he understood the need for the dusting.
“So people won’t be sneezing like crazy — like my daddy,” Sullivan said.