Fossil Feud!: A (Not) Brief Overview of the Bone Wars Part 1/2

Most often, gold rushes, or violent conflicts between cowboys and Native Americans are what takes center stage in media portrayals of the Wild West period (1870’s – 1890’s). However, during this time another lesser known conflict was brewing, a conflict both highly academically dishonest and morally reprehensible (IB students please don’t try this at home) and yet, it has resulted in the discovery of hundreds of new dinosaur species, and has left such a lasting impact on the field of paleontology, that much like the fossils the conflict was centered around,  it still remains worthy of discussion in the world of academia after many, many, many years.

Now we introduce our main fighters:

Othniel_Charles_Marsh_-_Brady-HandyCharles Othniel Marsh was born on October 29, 1831 into a poor household. His father was a farmer, and he was expected to become one as well, however due to the backing of his philanthropist uncle George Peabody, he was able to pursue a naturalist education, obtaining a Master’s Degree in geology, mineralogy, and chemistry at Yale before going on to study Paleontology and anatomy in Berlin. He returned to the US in 1866 and taught paleontology at Yale, making him the first paleontology professor in America (possibly due to the fact that he persuaded his uncle to donate $150,000 to Yale, establishing the Peabody Museum of Natural History, which Marsh was appointed to as a trustee). For this reason Marsh was backed by Yale University, making him well-connected and as his uncle later died leaving a large inheritance, thus, Marsh was very wealthy for the duration of the rivalry even with his humble origins.


9 years later, Edward Drinker Cope, was born July 28 1840 into an incredibly wealthy family with money that definitely did not lose to Marsh’s inheritance. Cope quickly established himself as a child prodigy, publishing his first scientific paper at 19. This inhuman productivity would remain for the duration of the rivalry as well, with Cope publishing approximately 1,400 publications in his lifetime. However, surprisingly he did not receive much formal education in regard to natural history, unlike Marsh and instead favored hands-on learning by travelling with the U.S. Geological Survey’s expeditions. His father would later ship him off to study in Europe to study so that he would not get involved in the Civil War, however unbeknownst to him, Cope was about to get involved in another type of war altogether.

Initially, Cope and Marsh had a rather good relationship. They met in 1964, Berlin, both as students of natural history. They both quickly bonded over their shared interest in palaeontology, and even liked each other so much that they named species they discovered after each other, as evidenced in the names of “Pytonius Marshii”, an amphibian classified by Cope in 1867, and Marsh would name a new species of giant snake he had discovered “Mosasaurus Copeanus” the following year.

However, tension was bubbling beneath the surface of their new friendship. Although their love for palaeontology drew them together, other aspects of their person seemed to repel each other to great effect: Cope is thought to have looked down on Marsh for his very humble upbringing as a farm boy, similarly, Marsh may have had some thoughts about Cope being a spoiled brat who was dependent on his rich daddy’s fortune. In addition to this, their personalities also put them at odds with each other even in the honeymoon phase of their friendship, Cope was known to be more charming, but was prone to bouts of anger whereas Marsh was more introverted and subdued. Both were described by peers as sometime being rather petty and distrustful of both others and each other, although when they were not acting as they were both very knowledgeable and friendly, thus possessing a good reputation in their circle overall.

Last but not least, they had differences in their academic beliefs, Cope was known as a strong supporter of Neo-Lamarckism, a theory of inheritance which stated that organisms acquire different traits by means of use or disuse of that trait during their lifetime and could pass those traits on, whereas Marsh was a staunch supporter or Darwin’s theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, with Darwin writing a letter to Marsh after reading Marsh’s paper on extinct birds in North America stating that “Your work on these old birds & on the many fossil animals of N. America has afforded the best support to the theory of evolution, which has appeared within the last 20 years (since the official publication of Darwin’s Theory)”

The event that would finally bring their relationship to a breaking point was when they both went on a fossil-collecting expedition together in New Jersey. The location was introduced to Marsh by Cope and at the time, it was still incredibly rich with fossils as only a few had been discovered in America with the field of palaeontology still in its infancy. Although it could be said that they both enjoyed the trip, Cope would later find out that Marsh had gone behind his back and bribed the staff Cope had hired to oversee the pit, to divert any future fossil finds to him instead of Cope. Cope would later come to describe this betrayal as the “beginning of the end” to their relationship.

As many scientist rivals do, the two then began to attack each other through papers and publications. Although many insults were traded in this fashion, I’ll make note of the most significant one: in 1868 Cope received a fossil from a military doctor in Kansas, Cope assembled the fossil and named it the Elasmosaurus in a publication. Marsh was then able to point out to the public that Cope had constructed the fossil erroneously, placing the skull of the dinosaur at the end of its tail rather than its neck. Cope was mortified, and in an attempt to cover up his mistake he bought out and destroyed as many copies of the scientific journal his original finding was published in as he could.

Continues to Part 2/2

– Dear

Image created by Angie


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