Bone Wars: The Cope-Marsh Rivalry - ANSP’s 200 Stories
Othniel Charles Marsh (left) and Edward Drinker Cope Ewell Sale Stewart Library & Archives coll. 457
The rivalry between brilliant paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh dominated American science during the second half of the 19th century. Marsh and Cope’s relationship soured when Cope showed off his fossil of Elasmosaurus, a large marine reptile from the Late Cretaceous period, and Marsh pointed out that the vertebrae (backbones) were oriented backwards. After a sharp exchange they agreed to have Academy curator Joseph Leidy decide who was right. Leidy promptly removed the head from one end and placed it on what Cope had thought was the tail. Afterwards, Cope frantically tried to collect all copies of a recently printed publication that contained his erroneous reconstruction. Leidy exposed the error and attempted cover-up at the next meeting of the Academy of Natural Sciences.
The rivalry between Cope and Marsh went from bad to worse. Although their race to discover and name new species yielded many fossil discoveries, it drove both men to extremes. Cope’s rushed work was plagued by careless errors. Marsh often resorted to bribery and bullying in the pursuit of specimens. Their exchanges in print were filled with poisonous charges and countercharges of errors, distortions, and fraud. At first these exchanges were limited to scientific journals, but later they made their way to the newspapers.
The Bone Wars between Marsh and Cope became so intense that Joseph Leidy veered away from his studies of vertebrate paleontology of the West. Learn how Leidy continued to develop a prolific career in other areas.
“The competition between Cope and Marsh marked an extraordinarily productive period in American paleontology. Together, these two men discovered and described more than 140 new species of fossil animals” (Getting to know Cope, ANSP, 2011)
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