Children's Natural History Museum

Lorenzo Gordon Yates

By Philip Holmes

Lorenzo Gordon Yates was born January 12, 1837 on the Isle of Sheppey at the mouth of the Thames River. He collected fossils, created mechanical toys, exhibited a precocious imagination, and displayed a passion for learning about the living world as a young boy.

Dr. Yates attended private schools and then sailed to New York at the age of 14. He studied medicine and dentistry as an apprentice and gained knowledge of chemistry and mineralogy. He studied birds and learned taxidermy. He began practicing dentistry in Wisconsin in 1861 and married Eunice Amelia Lake. The couple came to California in 1864 and settled at Centerville.

Dr. Yates had a regular dental practice at Centerville, but he spent much of his time searching for fossils from the valley floor to the top of Mission Peak. He discovered horse and elephant remains in the Irvington gravels and search here several times from 1867 to 1876 in company with Charles Allen and Emery Munyan.

Historian Halley noted in 1871 that Yates had found a tusk and jaw of a mastodon near Mission San Jose. The jaw was 24 inches long and o ne of the finest every found in California. This jaw was send to Yale College because it showed the shedding and replacement of teeth. Yates found fossils embedded in gravel there 40 feet below the surface where he had already found horse and elephant fossils.e sold his entire fossil collection to Wabash College in 1872. Threes years later he wrote about “The fossils animals of “Washington Township” in a series of articles in the Alameda County Independent.

Dr. Yates found teeth which he said came from an undiscovered amphibious animals he called “The Marine Monsters of Alameda County.” He was apparently the first scientist to publicize this curious animal.

Dr. Yates was attracted to the Native American middens or shell mounds which he found scattered around, so he began to excavate and map a number of the sites. He searched the banks of streams after heavy rains and collected many interesting relics. Some of these curios were placed in the Golden Gate Park Museum but most were donated to Lincoln School District and kept in a special cabinet.

Dr. Yates was a member of many scientific organizations including the California Academy of Sciences, the New Zealand Institute, the Historical Society of Southern California, California Dental Association, Victorian Institutes, and the Anthropological Society of Washington. He was also elected a Fellow of the Linnaean Society of London and the Geological Society of America.

Shells became one of Dr. Yates’s chief interest and a lifetime pursuit. His collection eventually was said to number 50,000 catalogues specimens of land, fresh water, marine and fossil shells. He described two new species of fossil pen shells from Alameda Creek. Two years before his death he was finally honored by having a fossil shell named after him.

Dr. Yates constructed small greenhouses and porch conservatories and began the culture of orchids, begonias, cacti and ferns while he was practicing dentistry at Centerville. He later had a fern from Ecuador named for him. His greatest honor was probably being elected a Fellow of the Linnaean Society, cacti and ferns while he was practicing dentistry at Centerville. He later had a fern from Ecuador named for him. His greatest honor was probably being elected a Fellow of the Linnaean Society of London after the death of the famous botanist Asa Gray.

Dr. Yates sold most of his collections made at Centerville and moved to Santa Barbara in 1881. He found the scientific society in that area. He was a valuable addition to the Santa Barbara Society of Natural History and served in a variety of ways. He did take two years off to arrange and catalog he collections at the De Young museum.

Business directories usually listed Dr. Yates as a dentist, but he served his community in many other ways. He was even chosen justice of the peace and notary public at Centerville.

Dr. Yates was probably the most famous scientist who ever lived in our area. He was the first to interest the scientific world in our local fossils and publicize the Irvington fossil beds. He wrote over 300 scientific articles for magazines and newspapers. Few scientists in the world ever contributed so much in such a wide variety of fields. Dr. Yates died at Santa Barbara in January, 1909, but his collections live on in many colleges and the world of science.