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The Bone Wars

The Lifelong Feud Between Othniel C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope

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The Bone Wars

Othniel C. Marsh (left) and Edward Drinker Cope (Wikimedia Commons)

Cope and Marsh, Bitter Enemies to the Last

By the 1880’s, it was clear that Othniel C. Marsh was "winning" the Bone Wars. Thanks to the support of his wealthy uncle, George Peabody (who lent his name to the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History), Marsh could hire more employees and open more dig sites, while Edward Drinker Cope slowly but surely fell behind. It didn't help matters that other parties, including a team from Harvard University, now joined the dinosaur gold rush. Cope continued to publish numerous papers, but, like a political candidate taking the low road, Marsh made hay out of every tiny mistake he could find.

Cope soon had his opportunity for revenge. In 1884, Congress began an investigation into the U.S. Geological Survey, which Marsh had been appointed the head of a few years before. Cope recruited a number of Marsh's employees to testify against their boss (who wasn't the easiest person in the world to work for), but Marsh connived to keep their grievances out of the newspapers. Cope then upped the ante: drawing on a journal he had kept for two decades, in which he meticulously listed Marsh's numerous felonies, misdemeanors and scientific errors, he supplied the information to a journalist for the New York Herald, which ran a sensational series about the Bone Wars. Marsh issued a rebuttal in the same newspaper, hurling similar accusations against Cope.

In the end, this public airing of dirty laundry (and dirty fossils) didn't benefit either party. Marsh was asked to resign his lucrative position at the Geological Survey, and Cope, after a brief interval of success (he was appointed head of the National Association for the Advancement of Science), was beset by poor health and had to sell off portions of his hard-won fossil collection. By the time Cope died in 1897, both men had squandered their considerable fortunes.

Characteristically, though, Cope prolonged the Bone Wars even from his grave. One of his last requests was that scientists dissect his head after his death to determine the size of his brain, which he was certain would be bigger than Marsh's. Wisely, perhaps, Marsh declined the challenge, and to this day, Cope's unexamined head rests in storage at the University of Pennsylvania.

The Bone Wars: Let History Judge

As tawdry, undignified, and out-and-out ridiculous as the Bone Wars occasionally were, they had a profound effect on American paleontology. In the same way competition is good for commerce, it can also be good for science: so eager were Othniel C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope to one-up each other that they discovered many more dinosaurs than if they'd merely engaged in a friendly rivalry. The final tally was truly impressive: Marsh discovered 80 new dinosaur genera and species, while Cope named a more-than-respectable 56.

The fossils discovered by Marsh and Cope also helped to feed the American public's increasing hunger for new dinosaurs. Each major discovery was accompanied by a wave of publicity, as magazines and newspapers illustrated the latest amazing finds--and the reconstructed skeletons slowly but surely made their way to major museums, where they still reside to the present day. You might say that popular interest in dinosaurs really began with the Bone Wars, though it's arguable that it would have come about naturally, without all the bad feelings!

The Bone Wars had a couple of negative consequences, as well. First, paleontologists in Europe were horrified by the crude behavior of their American counterparts, which left a lingering, bitter distrust that took decades to dissipate. And second, Cope and Marsh described and reassembled their dinosaur finds so quickly that they were occasionally careless. For example, a hundred years of confusion about Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus can be traced directly back to Marsh, who put a skull on the wrong body--the same way Cope did with Elasmosaurus, the incident that started the Bone Wars in the first place!

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