Professor Cope Vs. Professor Marsh


Of course, Cope was not without allies, notably two young Princetonians whom he befriended, Henry Fairfield Osborn and William Berryman Scott. Both returned from study in Europe to Princeton, where they soon gained distinction as vertebrate paleontologists. In the early nineties Osborn moved to the American Museum of Natural History, where with large funds at his disposal he became more of a threat to Marsh’s hegemony than Cope had ever been. The two young men took Cope’s part against Marsh. Osborn occasionally used his wealth to bail out the Naturalist . But they could not save his career.


Cope’s decade-long search for employment underscored his position as an outsider, a kind of rogue scientist who had made himself unwelcome to powerful bulls in the herd. At first he seems to have hoped for the position that went to Marsh in the USGS . For a while he was in the service of the Canadian Geological Survey, but the work was infrequent and undependable. Meanwhile, Marsh’s boxcars continued to rattle into New Haven with their tons of bones. The contrast was painful. With his income from the USGS supplementing his own private funds, Peabody’s heir maintained an army in the field and a battalion of laboratory assistants at Yale, many of whom went on to distinguished careers in paleontology themselves. Cope limped along with one assistant to help prepare his specimens, the long-suffering Jacob Geismar, who sometimes waited for his salary.

In 1887 the position of assistant secretary of the Smithsonian fell vacant. “Some of my friends have been urging me to apply for the place,” Cope wrote. “I am willing to ask for help,” he confessed. Such efforts, as well as others to find a faculty appointment, usually ploughed up another enemy or two to block it. An impressive number inhabited the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. Finally in 1889, when his elbows were wearing threadbare, he managed to grasp a tenuous handhold on the University of Pennsylvania, and a small salary. When Professor Leidy died in 1891 (it seemed a last futile effort to appease Cope), he moved into the vacant chair of anatomy, and a stronger position. He proved to be a brilliant teacher, but that was not the way he wanted to be remembered.


His dreams of immortality were linked inseparably with the work he had done for Hayden in the seventies, most of which remained unpublished when the USGS was created. However, an appropriation had provided for completing the work of publishing the Hayden reports. After great spasms of labor, while Powell reluctantly stood by like an impatient midwife, Cope gave birth to The Vertebrata of the Tertiary Formations of the West , a volume so enormous that it is still known as Cope’s Bible. By itself it was enough to establish Cope once and for all as one of the world’s great naturalists. But Cope was only half through; volume two was in the wings.

After the appearance of the first volume, Powell announced that the money appropriated to finish the Hayden publications was spent. Cope suspected the hand of Marsh, and railed at Powell; but Powell told him he was lucky even that one had appeared. “The many delays in your work, exhibited in the failure to furnish MS to the printer, and the many changes you asked, has [sic] caused the officers of the Printing Bureau to feel that they could not depend upon you for any regular prosecution of the work of publication; and it was only by argument and earnest solicitation by myself that they were induced to take it up …”

With his lifework at stake, Cope rejected all such explanations. In every year that followed for the remainder of the decade, Cope moved about official Washington, seeking a private appropriation of money to complete his work. For weeks and months and then years, he talked to congressmen, cooled his heels in antechambers of Cabinet officers, and sometimes shouldered his way into the inner keep of the Secretary of the Interior by sheer force of cheek. A couple of times he seemed close to success, but always something happened. Cope thought he knew. “Next winter … I intend to try it again,” he wrote to Osborn. “It will however require all the aid that I can muster … to preserve myself from the attacks of Powell, Marsh and some of their adherents.”