200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 65: “Bone Wars: The Cope-Marsh Rivalry ”

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portraits of O. C. Marsh and E. D. Cope
Othniel Charles Marsh (left) and Edward Drinker CopeEwell Sale Stewart Library & Archives coll. 457.

Bone Wars: The Cope-Marsh Rivalry

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.

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