Intense rivalries between scientists have produced some remarkable findings throughout history. Tesla vs. Edison, Newton vs. Hooke. In terms of bitter, petty warfare, though, no one can hold a candle to two paleontologists with great names who duked it out in the late 1800s: Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope. Their battle was the main event in what we now call the “Bone Wars.” And it’s way better than two regular nerds flailing and slapping in the hallway.
Let’s meet the contestants.
Marsh was a poor farm boy who leveraged connections into a research professorship at Yale, his alma mater, giving him the space to pursue his lifelong love of collecting fossils and rocks. Cope was a fiery, undersized genius who worked in preeminent scientific institutions in lieu of college, and had inherited the means to finance his own full-time career as an independent scientist. The two started out as friends, even collaborators. Then Marsh went west in 1870 and found full skeletons of plesiosaurs* and other sea creatures – far more than had been found back east – and Cope followed.
By 1872, Marsh and Cope had each made numerous important discoveries not too far from here, often in close proximity to each other. Each would send hasty telegrams back east arguing that he was first to discover a new species, which would grant him the honor of naming the species officially. Of course, the two found several of the same species, which is why many dinosaurs today have two different names.
The fun really got going a little later. Here’s a mere sampling of their actions against each other:
- Marsh paid off a prospector to keep findings secret from Cope.
- Cope sent men under false names to throw Marsh off the trial of new discoveries, and different men to steal fossils from Marsh’s territory.
- Marsh’s men destroyed newly found fossils to keep them away from Cope.
- Meanwhile, on the pages of newspapers and scientific publications, both men worked to destroy each other’s credibility through personal attacks and by tediously chronicling and publicizing each other’s errors (Marsh, for instance, placed the wrong skull on an Apatosaurus and thought he had discovered a new species, which he called “brontosaurus.” It’s the same dinosaur, but both names are still around today.)
- Marsh was almost certainly behind an 1889 letter from the Secretary of the Interior demanding that Cope surrender his collection – his only remaining fortune – to the federal government, where Marsh then worked, overseeing its collections.
- Finally, in 1897, a dying Cope, surrounded by his fossils, had his skull donated to science so his brain size, and therefore intelligence, could be measured against Marsh’s. (You’d think a bone guy would know it doesn’t work that way.)
In the end, the Bone Wars destroyed both men financially, and by reputation. It also yielded incredible discoveries. Marsh and Cope together discovered 136 new species, including triceratops*, stegosaurus, allosaurus, and diplodocus*. And since you’re wondering, Marsh won the naming battle by a score of 80-56.
Of the two, historian Url Lanham noted: “Genuine rage … is probably one of the most valuable forces in existence for producing quick, accurate, incisive, and original thinking. Both Cope and Marsh enjoyed the benefits of this emotion to an unusually high degree.”
*Interact with these creatures discovered by Cope and Marsh at MOI’s current exhibit Dinosaurs in Motion: Where Art & Science Meet.