Bone Wars: The Cope-Marsh Rivalry

The rivalry between Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh would come to dominate American science during the second half of the 19th Century. Their race to discover and name new species yielded many fossil discoveries and propelled America into the scientific forefront. On the other hand, their vicious competition sullied the reputation of American science in the eyes of many Europeans and frequently generated sloppy science that would take a generation to correct. The rivalry also drove Joseph Leidy away from paleontological studies in the American West.


E. D. Cope (1840-1897) was born to a wealthy family in Philadelphia. He was a precocious child who demonstrated strong interests and abilities in Natural History. He was inspired by the discovery of Hadrosaurus and studied under Leidy at the University of Pennsylvania.

Cope was a brilliant interpreter of fossils and a leading Neo-Lamarkian (1) theorist. He endured numerous hardships and even personal danger in his pursuit of fossils in the American West. But he was also an extremely arrogant, abrasive and combative individual who managed to alienate many of his colleagues. He was a prodigious researcher who published more than 1400 papers and monographs on paleontology and other areas of natural history. Cope was affiliated with The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, but he usually worked alone. A notable exception was his long-term working relationship with the capable fossil hunter, Charles Sternberg.


O. C. Marsh (1831-1899) was the son of a New York farmer. Marsh developed an interest in natural history as a boy and with the financial support of his wealthy uncle (George Peabody) began his formal education at the age of 21. He graduated from Yale University in 1860, and he continued his studies at both Yale and at several German universities.

Marsh spent his entire career with Yale University as a Professor of Paleontology and as the curator of the Peabody Museum of Natural History. He was not as intellectually gifted as Cope, but he was a ruthless and masterful organizer and politician. He personally led Yale's early expeditions to the West, but soon delegated that arduous task to others. He also had a large staff at the museum, some of whom would later charge that Marsh took credit for their contributions. Marsh's political prowess would manifest itself in his eventual status as the dean of American paleontology, his power struggle to deny Ferdinand V. Hayden the directorship of the U. S. Geological Survey, and his exposure of corruption in the U. S. Bureau of Indian Affairs on the behalf of his Sioux friend, Red Cloud.

Marsh and Cope started their careers on a cordial basis, but the relationship soured over an incident involving Cope's fossil of Elasmosaurus (2). As Cope was proudly showing Marsh the impressive skeleton, his guest pointed out that the vertebrae (backbones) were oriented backwards. After a sharp exchange they both agreed to have Joseph Leidy decide who was right. Upon seeing the specimen 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 of the 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. Their desperate race to discover, describe and name new species drove both men to extremes. Cope's rushed work was often plagued by careless errors. Marsh was somewhat more careful in his work, but he 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 it drove Joseph Leidy away from vertebrate paleontology of the West. At first Leidy tried to keep up with his two colleagues, but his careful and methodical methods were no match for their fast and loose approach. Moreover, both of these independently wealthy men drove Leidy out of the market by bidding for the fossils from the West that he had previously received free of charge. Leidy had no stomach for the nastiness that had invaded the field he pioneered.

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  1. Lefalophodon Web Site's web pages on Cope and Marsh:
  2. U.C. Museum of Paleontology's web pages Cope and Marsh:

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  1. Neo-Lamarkianism was a late 19th Century and 20th Century response to Darwinism. Darwin proposed that evolution worked by the natural selection of random variation. This meant that evolution was an amoral and materialistic process that ignored any biological, intellectual or moral progress made by individual organisms (including humans).
    Neo-Lamarkians believed that improvements by individuals could be inherited by their offspring. E. D. Cope was an important American theorist for the movement. His rival, O. C. Marsh was a strong supporter of Darwin.
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  2. Elasmosaurus was a plesiosaur. Plesiosaurs were large marine reptiles that lived during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Their limbs were modified into large paddles and many species, including Elasmosaurus, had necks that were substantially longer than their tails.
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