- Historic Sites
Professor Cope Vs. Professor Marsh
A bitter feud among the bones
August 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 5
In a more detailed reply a week later, Marsh now produced the Cope errors so lovingly preserved over the years, and held them up for inspection. Everything was there: a fossil with its head on the wrong end; Cope’s earlier troubles with dates. Error was embroidered with chicanery as Cope was pictured in western Kansas breaking open crates of fossils that belonged to Marsh, or sneaking around the Peabody to ferret out secrets. In fury Marsh turned to the question of the horse’s genealogy, which had made, and still largely supported, his scientific reputation. The accusation that he had stolen from Huxley he brushed aside as insupportable, since it was Huxley himself who had first announced the scientific value of his work. As for Kowalevsky, he was pictured as a Muscovite Cope who had been brought to justice. “Kowalevsky was at last stricken with remorse and ended his unfortunate career by blowing out his own brains. Cope still lives, unrepentant.” Very soon after, Cope received a letter from the Secretary of the Interior closing off any possibility that he could win support for his appropriation in the Department.
The battle raged on, at great cost to both men. Cope, reinforced by Osborn, won a kind of victory over Marsh and Powell two years later, reviving many old charges that resulted in a great slash in USGS appropriations. Marsh felt forced to resign his government position. He had spent so much Peabody money by now that he had to start accepting a salary from Yale.
In 1897 Cope died of renal failure. An inability to discharge the poisons from his system had finally killed him. Two years later Marsh followed him. In 1902 Leading American Men of Science appeared, edited by David Starr Jordan. It contained a biography of Cope and a biography of Marsh, as well as assessments of their accomplishments. In neither was the feud with the other mentioned. It was an embarrassment, and held to be unrelated to the achievements of either man.
The Cope-Marsh feud has always been treated as a kind of scientific indiscretion. Another biographer of Marsh, himself a paleontologist, called it a “washing of dirty paleontological linen.” The blackout imposed by Jordan ended years ago, but to men of science, especially naturalists, it is still an “unfortunate incident.” The workaday people in every profession consider indiscretion as the least admirable of virtues. Cope and Marsh were not workaday in any sense. They yearned to have their names echo down the corridors of time. Such men are never discreet, nor are they content to wait and let the event decide, but must be ever trying to impose their will on their surroundings. A contemporary wit wrote their epitaph after the feud erupted in the newspapers in 1890, when he gibed derisively: