17-10-24 Marsh, armed assistants, bone warsPaleontology, the study of fossilized life forms, has had some quirky disciples, none more so than Othneil Marsh and Edward Cope. Both paleontologic giants, they were also egomaniacal, ambitious, jealous, and rich. Author Url Lanham describes them this way:

At a level above the ordinary garden variety of malicious gossip is genuine hate, which probably is one of the most valuable forces in existence for producing, quick, accurate, incisive, and original thinking. Both Cope and Marsh enjoyed the benefits of this emotion to an unusually high degree. 

Their first meeting, in 1863 in Berlin, was friendly. Marsh was continuing his studies there after having graduated from Yale, where he would later return. Cope had dropped out of school at 16, but by the time of their meeting he had already published 37 scientific papers compared to two for Marsh. Cope was quick-tempered and impulsive. Marsh was quiet and methodical. Both were testy. Marsh’s landlady said that getting to know him was like “running into a pitchfork.” Cope continued throughout his career to do field work in the vast fossil beds between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. Marsh, conversely, spent four seasons in the field and otherwise paid others to bring fossil specimens to him at Yale—an armchair paleontologist.

Cope came from a wealthy family in Philadelphia. He lived and supported his research 17-10-24 bone wars Marsh Copeon a substantial inheritance from his father. Marsh came from a poor family in Lockport, New York. He benefited, however, from the largess of his wealthy uncle, George Peabody, who was a merchant-turned-banker-turned-philanthropist-extraordinaire.  The Peabody name still rests on multiple educational and scientific institutions in the Eastern and Southern United States. Among those he funded were two at Yale–the Peabody Museum of Natural History and the Peabody Chair in Paleontology, conveniently occupied by his nephew. Despite both Marsh and Cope being financially secure and able to fund their own, extensive research, in due time they would drive each other into financial ruin, all over bones.

Initially these two leading American paleontologists collaborated and even named newly discovered fossilized species after one another. Animosity brewed, however, when Cope discovered that Marsh had paid some of Cope’s assistants to send recovered fossils to Yale rather than to Cope’s home in Philadelphia. In 1870, hatred boiled. Cope published a description of a new marine reptile with the head mistakenly drawn on its tail end. Marsh delighted in pointing out the error. Cope tried to buy all the copies of the paper to limit the damage before he could correct his mistake.

At this time, the fossil fields of eastern Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, Nebraska, and Dakota territory, were ripe for discovery. Both paleontologists hired teams of diggers to excavate bones and ship them east for study and classification. As a result, Cope described 56 new species of dinosaurs and extinct mammals. Marsh described 80. Each tried to keep his most productive digging fields secret from the other; but the competing crews contained trespassers, spies, and double agents, who would keep their employer posted yet at times leak information or ship recovered fossils to his adversary. The nearlby presence of hostile Native Americans only heightened the drama of faking identities, thieving, rock throwing, dynamiting each other’s dig sites, and gun drawing. The “Bone Wars” were on.

Marsh and Cope made multiple accusations back and forth, at first solely within scientific circles, where their mutual hatred was well known; but in due time, the vitriol spread to front page newspaper reports of plagiarism, financial malfeasance, and scientific skullduggery. At the end, Cope donated his skull to science so that the size of his brain could be measured. He challenged Marsh to do the same. Cope hoped that his own brain would prove to be larger. Marsh resisted. Regardless of brain capacity, their egos were beyond measure.

What a legacy they left, however. In their haste, not every classification they made has stood the test of time. Yet when they began work, only 18 dinosaur species were known in North America. Together, they described over 130 more. These famously include Marsh’s original descriptions of Triceratops and Stegosaurus. Both men pridefully named multiple species after themselves, and other paleontologists did so out of respect for either Cope or Marsh. Together they brought many tons of specimens east for study and display. Marsh’s collections reside at the Smithsonian and the Yale Peabody Museums, Copes’ at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Despite their mutual hatred, Cope and Marsh changed forever the way natural history museums are conceived, built, and valued. Who won the Bone Wars? We did.


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3 thoughts on “Genuine Hate Produced the Bone Wars

    1. Hi David, I know what you mean but having read considerably about Cope and Marsh, I think they were in a league of their own. Roy

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