- Historic Sites
Professor Cope Vs. Professor Marsh
A bitter feud among the bones
August 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 5
Marsh’s trip into the Sioux Badlands in 1874 had been accomplished at great peril to the scalps of the entire party, and was permitted only after he had promised the great war chief Red Cloud that he would go to Washington to find out why wretched rations and moth-eaten blankets were being distributed to starving, freezing Indians by venal Indian agents. It was a promise that raised him to as great prominence with the public as his work with horses had with scientists. He unearthed the scandals of the so-called Indian Ring, although in the long run the lot of the Sioux was not much improved.
Professor Marsh had been elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1874. His exposure of the frauds on the Indians made him a nationally known figure. As a result, although a member only four years, he was elected vice president of the Academy. It seemed at best a hollow honor, but the death of the long-time president, Joseph Henry, almost immediately elevated him to the position of acting president of the institution created by Congress in 1863 to provide it with technical advice. This came on the eve of one of those rare occasions when the Academy was actually asked for such advice.
Through most of the decade of the seventies, three and sometimes four different surveys, each supported by a different branch of the federal government, were operating in the vast area west of the hundredth meridian. Cope had worked for two of them at different times, those directed by Ferdinand V. Hayden and George Wheeler. Marsh was associated with the one operated by Clarence King. Mostly through the influence of Huxley, although King was a fellow classmate from Sheffield at Yale, it was already arranged that the monograph on birds with teeth would appear as one of the publications of King’s Report of the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel . A relative newcomer was the fourth survey under the direction of Major John Wesley Powell, the one-armed veteran of Shiloh celebrated for navigating the Colorado through the Grand Canyon. Powell, like Marsh, was inclined to make common cause with King.
“You know … how our government surveys have been fighting each other for years,” Marsh wrote in April, 1879. “Congress decided to stop it and referred the matter to the National Academy of Sciences of which I am at present the presiding officer. We proposed a plan of reorganization … after much opposition from Hayden and others … a new geological survey (in place of the three old ones∗) has been established with Clarence King as director. This a great thing for American science.”
∗King had retired from the field in 1873 and spent the rest of the decade preparing the results for publication.
Cope called it a “raid on the Surveys” and “a disaster.” He had done his best to ward it off. (“Did you authorize Cope to state in a letter to Congress that you were opposed to the Academy’s plan of National Surveys?” Marsh asked Joseph Leidy suspiciously [Leidy had not). “Cope mentioned [Spencer] Baird as one opponent, but he denied it strongly. … What is Cope up to at present?”) Cope had every reason to fight. The “survey in charge of Professor Hayden has been conducted in a liberal, catholic way,” he wrote in the Naturalist . It had also provided Cope with an economic base for the pursuit of his science and a means of publication. The new survey supported Marsh. After a year King resigned, but not before he had seen Powell appointed as his successor. Othniel Marsh became vertebrate paleontologist of the United States Geological Survey ( USGS ). In 1883 he became president of the Academy in his own right. He was now preeminent in the world of American science.
Hayden’s defeat changed the course of Edward Cope’s career. The loss of government support was disastrous. Before the decade of the eighties had advanced very far, he was trying to find a buyer for his precious collections. Before it had advanced very much farther, he had hit the lecture circuit to raise enough money to keep one or two collectors in the field. Finally, he was reduced to renting one of his houses on Pine Street and moving his family to smaller quarters nearby.
His attempts to find another paying position showed his error in not associating himself long before with an important college or university. In the final analysis. Marsh’s own rise to power rested firmly in that chair at Yale. The age of the university scientist had arrived, and Cope was an isolated individual. Even alone Cope was a force to be reckoned with, and he did have the Naturalist as a mouthpiece; but this was no substitute for the prestige and influence of a professorship at a good university.