Edward Cope, Othniel Marsh, and the “Bone Wars”

In 1870, the United States was a paleontological backwater. The “dinosaurs” had been first described in 1849 by Richard Owen in London, and England was the center of paleontology. Only nine dinosaur species had been described in all of the United States. Then, between 1870 and 1890, there was a sudden explosion, with over 2000 scientific papers describing new fossils from North America. The vast majority of these came from just two men, Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, whose bitter professional and personal rivalry, known as “The Bone Wars”, led to the greatest era of scientific discovery in US history–and also destroyed both of the bone warriors.

Cope_Edward_Drinker_1840-1897 Othniel_Charles_Marsh_-_Brady-Handy
Edward Drinker Cope, and Othniel Charles Marsh

It was perhaps inevitable that Cope and Marsh would find themselves in conflict. Othniel Charles Marsh was an aristocratic patrician, the nephew of wealthy robber baron George Peabody, born poor but thrust into Gilded Age privilege by his rich uncle. Arrogant and with an immense ego, Marsh used his social and political connections to get himself appointed as a non-teaching Professor of Paleontology (the first such position in the world) at Yale University, where he worked without a salary, and when the Peabody Museum was opened at Yale, Marsh was one of its first curators. He gained a reputation for being slow and methodical in his scientific work, but stingy with his budgets and quick to instances of petty meanness as an administrator. Edward Drinker Cope, on the other hand, was born to a modest Quaker family of well-off means, but his intellectual brilliance (he wrote his first academic paper on the taxonomy of salamanders at age 18) took him to a position as Professor of Zoology at Haverford College in Philadelphia, then as an administrator at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, and finally as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He was described as “pugnacious and quarrelsome” by one of his fellows, with an intense aversion to admitting mistakes, but he was extraordinarily prolific: his 1400 scientific papers make him still today the most-published scientific authority in history.

In 1859, the British naturalist Charles Darwin published Origin of Species, and changed the scientific world. One of those who immediately accepted the theory of evolution by natural selection was Othniel Marsh, then still a student, who decades later would begin using Yale’s resources to organize fossil-hunting expeditions in the unexplored expanses of the American West, hoping to make discoveries that would support Darwin’s case. And he was remarkably successful: it was Marsh who found many of the early horse species that made such a beautiful illustration of the gradual evolution of horses from small three-toed animals to the large single-toed creature of today, and also discovered a number of toothed birds that illustrated the evolution of birds from reptiles.  Throughout his life, Marsh corresponded frequently with both Darwin and with British scientist Thomas Huxley (known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”), and visited both of them on several occasions. It was Marsh’s work that led Huxley to propose the then-radical idea that modern birds are the evolutionary descendants of dinosaurs.

Edward Cope, on the other hand, took a dimmer view of Darwin and his theory. A deeply religious Quaker, Cope may have been influenced by his ideology, but he also presented a number of purely scientific arguments against natural selection as a mechanism.

Despite these differences, Marsh and Cope established a friendly relationship when they first met in person, as grad students studying natural history in Berlin in 1863. Over the next couple years, when they returned to the US and began their respective academic careers, they continued to correspond and even named two new species after each other. But then the first rift appeared between them. Cope had assembled the excavated fossilized skeleton of a new species of plesiosaur, a long-necked marine reptile from the time of the dinosaurs, published a detailed description of it in the American Philosophical Society Journal naming it Elasmosaurus, and invited Marsh to Philadelphia to see the reconstructed fossil. Marsh, however, upon examining the skeleton, immediately realized that Cope had made an elementary mistake: he had mounted the bones of the vertebral column backwards, taking what was actually a long neck for a tail and inadvertently putting the skull on the tail end of the backbone. Cope was absolutely mortified, and desperately tried to buy back every copy of the journal issue which displayed his mistake, but Marsh, with gleeful spite, kept his own copies and delighted in showing them to anyone he could.

A short time later, though, an incident happened that really severed the relationship between the two and made them implacable bitter enemies for the rest of their lives. Unlike today’s paleontologists, neither Marsh nor Cope actually did any digging of their own: as gentleman-scientists, they simply hired a small army of workers and foremen to do all the actual excavating and collecting, and purchased the fossils once they left the ground. In 1868, Cope took Marsh on a tour of a rich bone bed that was being worked for him in New Jersey: Marsh liked what he saw, so much so that he used his own resources to pay off the quarry owner and hire the digging teams for himself, and had them send all their excavated bones to him at Yale instead of to Cope in Philadelphia. Cope angrily exploded over the incident, and accused Marsh of poaching his fossils and stealing them away from him.

Over the next twenty years, the two would carry on a feud that quickly went beyond the professional and well into the personal, a competition between two people who not only hated each other, but hated being second to anyone. At first, the battle took the simple form of financing expeditions all over the American West to find the biggest bone beds, obtain the best skeletons, and be the first to describe and name them in scientific journals (Marsh’s digging teams at one point hired Buffalo Bill Cody as their guide). Driven by their rivalry, the two would discover almost 150 different species of dinosaur, including such familiar names as Allosaurus, Triceratops, Diplodocus, Brontosaurus, and Stegosaurus.

But soon the rivalry grew to ridiculous extremes. The two began to completely ignore each other’s published papers, and when one found a new specimen of a species already published and described by the other, they simply published a new paper giving it a new name, then argued incessantly over it with each other. (One species of Uintatherium, an ancient rhinoceros, was eventually described by Marsh and Cope under 16 different names). This silliness created a taxonomic mess that has still not been completely resolved (one of the victims wasBrontosaurus, which had already been described under the name Apatosaurus).

As new bone sites were found in Montana, Utah, Wyoming and the Dakotas, byzantine plots were unhatched as each side spied on the other to see what they were finding, and attempts were made to bribe and counter-bribe digging teams at each site. Both sides stole fossils from sites controlled by the other, and when digging teams from each side left one bone bed for another, they routinely dynamited and destroyed any remaining skeletons simply so they would not be dug up and collected by their rival.

Cope purchased his own scientific journal, The American Naturalist, and flooded it with 75 articles naming new fossil species–most of them already described by Marsh. Even the journal’s editor eventually had enough of the constant bickering and argument between the two, and solemnly informed its readers: “We regret that Professors Marsh and Cope have considered it necessary to carry their controversy to the extent that they have. Wishing to maintain the perfect independence of the Naturalist in all matters involving scientific criticism, we have allowed both parties to have their full say, but feeling that now the controversy between the authors in question has come to be a personal one and that the Naturalist is not called upon to devote further space to its consideration, the continuance of the subject will be allowed only in the form of an appendix at the expense of the author.”

Marsh, for his part, first used his political influence to get himself appointed to the US Geological Survey, then used legal maneuvering to cut off Cope’s Federal funding, and then tried unsuccessfully to have Cope’s entire fossil collection confiscated on the grounds that, having been collected with Federal money, they all belonged to the new Smithsonian Institution (Cope, an obsessive record-keeper, was able to show that he had in fact bought all of his fossils with his own money). But by 1890, Cope, with his funding cut off, was forced to sell his own fossil collection to the American Museum of Natural History just to pay his own expenses. He retaliated against Marsh’s bureaucratic maneuvers by going to the press, which published front page stories on “The Bone Wars”, detailing lurid accusations from both sides of corruption, bribery, plagiarism, incompetence, and embezzlement.

The constant slanders and accusations broke both men and destroyed their reputations. Marsh himself was ordered to turn over much of his own fossil collection to the Smithsonian, and was eventually forced to resign his position at the US Geological Survey. Cope died in 1897, at age 56. He was living alone, separated from his wife and child, in a small apartment in Philadelphia. Even in death, he tried a final jab at Marsh: Cope specified in his will that his skull be examined by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania to measure his brain size, adding that he was sure it would be larger than Marsh’s. When Marsh succumbed to pneumonia two years later at age 67, he had already sold his house and, having burned through his endowment from Peabody, been forced to ask Yale for a salary. He died with a total of $186 left in his bank account. Both men had destroyed themselves in the process of trying to destroy each other.

But the Bone Wars, despite their juvenile antics and the scientific mess they helped create, had a lasting positive effect. Between them, the two feuding bone hunters found at least 140 new species of dinosaurs and other extinct animals, turning the United States into the world’s center of paleontology. Both Marsh and Cope trumpeted their latest finds to the press, and the public became fascinated by the stories of gigantic long-dead beasts that walked the Earth millions of years ago. This public interest led to the choicest skeletons being mounted in museums all around the world where they attracted huge crowds. Dinosaurs have never lost their fascination since then.

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3 thoughts on “Edward Cope, Othniel Marsh, and the “Bone Wars””

  1. “A deeply religious Quaker, Cope may have been influenced by his ideology, but he also presented a number of purely scientific arguments against natural selection as a mechanism.”

    I’m curious to know: was it only natural selection as mechanism that he had issues with, or was it common descent in general?

  2. Natural selection. He apparently had no gripe with common descent, but was unable to see a workable mechanism for it. That was a not-unpopular scientific position at the time, and it was different from the purely religious objections of the fundamentalist nutballs.

    I think had I been around at the time, i would have been torn between the two. I think the theory of evolution would have appealed to me intuitively, which would have put me in Marsh’s camp, but Cope was also an acknowledged expert on reptiles and amphibians, which would have attracted me to him as well. I likely would have told them both that they were acting like little children. 😉

    1. Comparing their behaviour to that of little children is an insult to little children… 🙂

      Anyway, the scientific objections to natural selection were not unfounded at the time, because no one except Mendel knew how genetics worked. How different things might have gone had Darwin read Mendel’s paper…

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