Professor Cope Vs. Professor Marsh


In the early 1870’s two American scientists began a vicious personal contest for position and eminence in the world of science. As vertebrate paleontologists they delved into the crust of the earth for evidence of ancient life, at a time when the surface had barely been scratched and popular interest in such discoveries was intense. In the infancy of a new science, both men sought immortality. Their quarrel led them to maneuver within the institutions that served American science, and their story reveals much about the workings of that institutional complex. Edward Drinker Cope, a Philadelphia Quaker—elegant chestnut mustaches and a jaw that was an affront to the peace—was barely thirty when the decade opened, yet already his opposition to Darwin as well as his reputation for precocious brilliance was well established among fellow scientists. His chief rival was balding, bearded Othniel Marsh of Yale College, nine years older, slower, more methodical, and less established. Once they had been friends of a sort, but paleontology and old bones had come between them. Their enmity was destined to burn brightly as long as they both lived.

In 1873 their sulphurous fury ignited in the learned journals. The previous year Cope had invaded the Bridger Basin of southwest Wyoming, which Marsh considered his private boneyard, where strewn about were the remains of a large ugly ungulate with stumpy feet and three sets of bony protuberances that had flourished and become extinct during the Eocene epoch, about sixty million years ago. Even though Cope was brought back to Fort Bridger in October babbling out of his head with mountain fever and severe carbuncles, he nevertheless managed to publish sixteen articles on the uintatheres, thus matching Marsh’s production for the year. ” I have of late been subjected to a very unscrupulous rivalry,” Marsh was writing to fellow scientists during the spring, “and have thus lost more than half of the discoveries for which I risked my life during my western explorations.”

In full array he took the field in defense of his “discoveries.” Of the proboscis that Cope insisted on attaching to uintatheres, Marsh wrote, “Surely such an animal belongs in the Arabian nights …” Marsh, Cope replied, “repeats his statements, as though the Uintatherium were a Rosinante, and the ninth commandment a wind-mill.” Marsh pressed on. Asserting that Cope had falsified dates on his publications in order to establish prior discovery, he said Cope was “almost as well known” for his “sharp practice in science … as he is for the number and magnitude of his blunders.” “As to the learned professor of Copeology in Yale,” Cope wrote his father, “he does not disturb me, and … I will not notice him again.” Yet the two combative explorers were up to anything except ignoring one another. In 1877 and 1878 parties of collectors for both men were mining vast deposits of dinosaur remains in Colorado and Wyoming, while their employers squabbled over the credits for discovery.

No one before or since Cope has published with such remorseless volume. He once attributed the torrential stream (a staggering lifetime total of 1,395 titles) to “eschewing liquor and tobacco and minimizing nervous storms,” but he was a chimney for cigars, and the storms played around his head like lightning around the brow of Jove. Nor did he limit himself to vertebrate paleontology. Although he embraced all of natural history, he was a world-renowned herpetologist and an ichthyologist of formidable repute. During his life he published 125 papers on fishes, in which he described 220 new species; but for Cope, fishes were a sideline.

Marsh viewed such a flood of learning with deep suspicion. He was a methodical, slow worker and a patient, grasping, possessive collector. Even in his garden in New Haven he collected thousands of varieties, including 1,300 rare orchids. He had an unforgiving eye for error. Cope published so much so rapidly that error occasionally was inevitable. And for years Marsh collected Cope’s slips just as he did bones and orchids.

What breathed life and excitement into paleontology was the storm aroused by the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, although the controversy was not for the most part over evolution. The idea that things evolved from the simple to the complex had worked its way into many crannies of Western thought, and with a little effort was reconcilable with most cherished beliefs. As for Genesis, educated men had long since taken it for metaphor, and it was educated men, after all, who squabbled over Darwin. The full title of his work was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life . It was the “natural selection” at which men balked. It threatened their telic view of the cosmos—the orderly rules, that is to say, by which God was held to govern the world. It was the accidental quality of natural selection, repudiating divine guidance, that was so disturbing.