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Professor Cope Vs. Professor Marsh

July 2024
23min read

A bitter feud among the bones

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.

Darwin mucked up existing biology as remorselessly as Ricardo and Malthus had the realm of political economy. Indeed, it was straight from Malthus that Darwin drew the insight that more individuals were born into the biological world than the environment could support, thus setting up a struggle for existence. Because no two individuals were alike, some variations would prove more advantageous and their survival would be encouraged; individuals lacking such characteristics would be placed in an unfortunate competitive position and would perish. Thus laissez faire entered the blood stream of biology, and the life sciences caught up with the “dismal science.” Given enough time—and Darwin’s system required a lot of time because “nature’s” selection of desirable traits, unlike those of the stockbreeder, were not guided by intelligence and purpose—species would form.

“The law of higgledy piggledy” is what the English astronomer Sir John Herschel called it. Even Darwin’s American defender, the botanist Asa Gray, tried to reconcile natural selection with Christian teleology. Yet if Darwinism was to be taken straight, higgledy-piggledy would have to wash down with it. Some found it hard to swallow. As late as 1874 the Princeton theologian Charles Hodge asked, “What is Darwinism?” in a widely read book. His answer was unequivocal. “It is atheism.”

Darwin himself expected that when the gaps were filled in the geologic record, his argument would be strengthened by the discovery of “missing links.” Vertebrate paleontology would later provide supporting evidence, mostly after his death, but at the start the paucity of the evidence had been Darwin’s chief defense. The genetic mechanism was not yet known to Western science, and only a beginning had been made. Marsh was the first American professor of paleontology, the second in the world. Of the seven hundred pages devoted to North American geology in James Dwight Dana’s Manual of Geology (1862), only two dealt with vertebrate fossils; and those were mostly elephants, mastodons, sloths, and horses, dating from the recent Quaternary period, about five hundred thousand years ago. Many of them had been identified by Joseph Leidy, professor of anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania. As early as 1847 he had demonstrated that horses had lived and become extinct on the North American continent long before Columbus. But the record of five hundred million years of geologic history since the first vertebrates appeared on earth was still largely unimagined when Marsh and Cope began their careers in the 1860’s.

Evidence for the existence of animals that no longer walked the earth played havoc with the orthodox belief in the immutability of species—the belief that God had created one pair of every kind of animal and had let nature take its course. Thomas Jefferson had solved this dilemma by predicting that the “great claw” of a curious fossil which he examined (a giant sloth, as it turned out) would be found attached to the descendants of its owner somewhere out in the unexplored interior of North America. Presumably this applied also to the mastodon bones from Big Bone Lick, in Kentucky, with which he filled a room at the White House. The French naturalist Baron Cuvier admitted that some species had been entirely wiped out by catastrophes, but denied that any new species had come into being. His student, Louis Agassiz—Darwin’s chief critic in America finally threw up his hands and concluded that the Creator must periodically have wiped the slate clean and started afresh. This theory of “special serial creations” was heretical to the orthodox, but at ieast it recoernized a deity.


Agassiz held out against evolution, but his students, notably Alphaeus Hyatt, who gained renown as an invertebrate paleontologist, joined with Edward Cope to subdue evolution to ideological rules. Cope’s “Origin of Genera,” which appeared in 1867, established him at the tender age of twenty-seven as a theorist who accepted evolution but rejected natural selection. Hyatt’s own contribution appeared independently about the same time. Geologic catastrophes had periodically presented organisms with a choice between survival and extinction, they argued. Out of the death struggle that ensued, eventually new forms adapted to new conditions had emerged. The scene was one of utter chaos. Many forms disappeared into the obscurity of time, while others were transformed beyond recognition. But the chaos was more apparent than real. Beneath the surface an orderly plan governed. Organisms were presented with choices (something Darwin denied them). Life continued because some organisms made the requisite effort . Free will existed; mind and consciousness were still at work in the universe. Agassiz’s “special creations” were recognizable in the pioneering organisms that emerged from the time of troubles to make a fresh start. To explain how variations acquired in the lifetime of an individual (to deal with sudden change) were transmitted to later generations, Cope and Hyatt added a theory of the heredity of acquired characteristics. It was not until 1871 that either realized that Charles’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, and the Chevalier de Lamarck had travelled the same ground decades before Charles Darwin. To avoid confusion they singled out Lamarck rather than the elder Darwin as their patron saint. People talked of the American School of Evolution, or Neo-Lamarckism. Cope’s alliance with the Agassiz students entered a new stage in 1877 when he purchased the American Naturalist magazine, which had already become an outlet for Neo-Lamarckian views.



Almost alone among the great American naturalists of his generation Marsh accepted evolution and natural selection without moping around about how unfair it was to the Deity. But Cope saw in one reading of the Origin that it endangered his faith, and he wrote dozens of essays in the years that followed to exorcise the threat. Many of them were pulled together in a volume called the Origin of the Fittest , in 1886. It was full of references to vital forces and of words like kinetogenesis, catagenesis, metaesthetism, archesthetism , and retrograde metamorphosis , most of which read today like incantations.

Meanwhile Marsh methodically collected more than thirty individual specimens that outlined the evolutionary history of the horse from the tiny Eocene three-toed quadruped to the modern animal. A monograph on extinct toothed birds in 1880 confirmed an earlier European discovery of this strange transitional form that suggested the reptilian origin of birds and other modern forms. This was filling in the geologic record with a vengeance, and the rewards were great. “I received … yesterday the magnificent volume,” wrote Charles Darwin. “I have looked with renewed admiration at the plates, and will soon read the text. Your work on these old birds and on the many fossil animals of N. America has afforded the best support to the theory of evolution which has appeared within the last 20 years …”

Thomas Henry Huxley, an authority on the genealogy of the horse, visited New Haven in 1876 and followed Marsh’s reconstruction of the horse’s evolution with mounting astonishment and excitement; when “Darwin’s bulldog” returned home, Marsh’s reputation in Europe was assured. This was a great source of strength to him, just as it was a disadvantage for Cope. More than any other factor, Marsh’s recognition in Europe (a famous Heidelberg professor once called him “ der Grösster Palaeontolog aller Zeiten ”) was the solid foundation for his emergence as one of the most powerful scientific statesmen of his day.

Old bones rattle in more ways than one. When they fought over bones in the Bridger Basin in 1872, Marsh was forty-one, Cope thirty-two. At Cope’s age Marsh had still been a student dependent on the charity of a wealthy uncle. Perhaps comparison was unfair, for certainly Cope was precocious. He had no formal college education, except for a year studying anatomy under Joseph Leidy at the University of Pennsylvania. His graduate training consisted of three years among the herpetology collections of the Smithsonian Institution and a year abroad visiting museums.


Cope settled down to marriage with his cousin Annie Pirn and a professorship at Haverford College, in Pennsylvania. He even seems to have tried farming, apparently to satisfy his father’s wishes that his capital be sunk into something solid. But by 1869 he had left both teaching and husbandry to devote full time to science.The seventies were his creative years as a scientist. Every year but one he risked the dangers of hostile Indians, alkali water, and fiendish insects. (“There are three kinds of gnats,” he reported from Wyoming, a scientist even while being eaten, “and all are of the most blood-thirsty description.”) The West over which he travelled, armed only with his geologist’s hammer, is like a scene glimpsed from the window of a train, clear and sharp, but only for an instant. The buffalo were dying at the rate of a million a year. A Leaven—worth firm took in more than thirty thousand hides a month. At every station along the line of the Kansas Pacific, immense stacks of hides waited to be carted away, and with them went the last support of the nomadic tribes. Indians wandered about half-starved, the cavalry in hot pursuit. Through it all roamed Cope. He refused even to carry re—volvers, which offended his Quaker sensibilities. He rarely travelled with a military escort.

He thrived in the field. Whatever came up he handled : if a mule balked, he took a rope end to it; if the mule-skinners sneered when he read the Bible aloud every night, he stared them down to nervous shuffling silence; a cook whose profanity offended him was promptly hauled back to the path of virtue. During the day he was indefatigable in pursuit of fossils, and at night they wandered through the corridors of his restless sleep. “Every animal of which we had found traces during the day played with him at night,” recalled a travelling companion, “tossing him into the air, kicking him, trampling upon him.”

The eighties were as frustrating for Cope as the seventies had been triumphant. Early battles began to catch up with him. His money ran out, and field trips became infrequent. Nor was Marsh his only foe. His volatile temperament and quick tongue had assured that. Enemies lurked in ambush in every shadowed cranny of the Academy of Natural Sciences and the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. A friend recalled that he seemed to enjoy their yapping at his heels, but it was costly amusement. With his capital squandered in worn-out silver mines in a misguided itch for speculation, he found himself in need, with as many enemies as he had friends.

Only the incredible productivity continued. The papers rolled out on every subject from femurs to feminism. The subjects were few that did not at one time or another engage his attention. Meanwhile he grew more eccentric. In an early flush of ardor for something besides fossils he begat a daughter, and during her childhood he conscientiously maintained an establishment. He took two row houses on Pine Street, one for his bones and one for his family. But in later life, when the daughter was grown and the need for space was pressing, his wife went to the country and the second house also filled up with bones.

He lived like a monk in those years, sleeping on a camp cot among the bones, books, and bottles of frogs preserved in alcohol, a huge tortoise shuffling about the premises. Neighborhood boys gazed in awe at the shades of ancient monsters glimpsed through the windows, and sometimes played pranks on the shade who lived among them. Visitors found him behind a desk smoking cigars, tapping the ashes on the edge of the desk from whence they fell to add to the small mountain of volcanic ash sprouting from the carpet. Eventually the fossils were sold to the American Museum of Natural History in New York to raise money, but by that time they had become ghosts not so much of animals that had once walked the earth as of dreams of greatness shrivelled by malice and disappointment.

Othniel Marsh, the object of that malice if not the cause of the disappointment, might have spent his days as an obscure farmer in western New York, as did his father, but for a whim of fortune that made him the nephew of George Peabody. This enigmatic figure possessed one of the largest personal fortunes in the world [see “The First Great Cheerful Giver,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , June, 1966]. As a London-based exporter of capital to America he competed successfully with Rothschilds and Barings; when he took Junius Spencer Morgan into the business, his firm became an even greater financial empire. He had apparently loved his sister: the glow of this emotion still warmed him seventeen years after her death; at the age of twenty her son Othniel was plucked from anonymity as if by divine decree.

Under the protection of this awesome relation Marsh spent five years at Phillips Academy, Andover, a grown man among adolescents, and the rest of his twenties and early thirties at Yale College and Yale’s new Sheffield Scientific School. Marsh flourished under the influence of the elder Benjamin Silliman and his son-in-law, James Dwight Dana. There followed further study abroad at Berlin and Heidelberg, and occasional salmon fishing with Uncle George in Scotland. Peabody was a generous man. Much of his large fortune he gave away before his death, and the name of Peabody blossomed across the American landscape: the Peabody Institute in Baltimore; the Peabody Institute in Peabody (formerly South Danvers), Massachusetts; the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard; the Peabody Academy of Science (later renamed the Peabody Museum) in Salem; the Peabody Education Fund for the Promotion of Education in the South. When Othniel Marsh returned to New Haven in 1866, Yale College received a hundred and fifty thousand dollars to endow a museum of natural history. Marsh received a professor’s chair at the college.

Although his death in 1869 left Marsh financially independent, Uncle George had extracted his toll. Othniel Marsh, like Peabody himself, never married. During his long apprenticeship he had had ample opportunity to sample the steel in his uncle’s paternalism. One nephew was struck from The Will when he married prematurely, and Othniel’s maternal aunt made sure the lesson struck home: Uncle had said, ”… if any of his nephews should in any way so conduct [himself] as to disgrace themselves and him, or (now mind this ) should any of them form a marriage connection, or even get engaged before they had the means of supporting a family, they should never have a cent of his money . … He desired me to communicate this … to all his nephews. …” Marsh was a twenty-five-year-old freshman at Yale when he received this alarming letter; when he finally left the shade of his uncle’s protection, he was thirty-five. Probably bachelor habits were set firmly. His hair had already begun to recede from the melon shape it had decently covered. Although he was once overheard referring to a young lady as “the prettiest little vertebrate” he had seen in a long time, he never added her or any other woman to the trophies with which he filled the big ugly Victorian mansion on Prospect Street in New Haven. As a classmate later told him, he handled many bones but somehow never acquired a rib.

Marsh made his first trip to the West in 1868on the brand new Union Pacific Railroad. At Antelope Station, Nebraska, while the conductor fretted, Marsh sifted through the loose dirt from a newly dug well. In the space of a few minutes he found the bones of eleven extinct animals. One was a small horse, “then and there christened Equus parvulus, ” he recalled, “a name he still bears. … During life, he was scarcely a yard in height, and each of his slender legs was terminated by three toes. Later researches proved him to be a veritable missing link in the genealogy of the modern horse.”


In two years Marsh was back with a party of Yale seniors. He was to make four such trips between 1870 and 1873. For the students, many of whom went on to distinguished careers in business, finance, journalism, or politics, the expeditions were a memorable lark, perhaps the high point of their lives. They hunted buffalo, hobnobbed with hard-bitten cavalrymen and notorious characters (Buffalo Bill was their guide one year, Major Frank North and his Pawnee scouts another, and once both together), and ogled Indians. Through the influence of Yale alumni in Washington, Marsh was provided with military escort and supplies from post commissaries.

For Marsh the trips were the foundation of his career. They yielded not only the specimens that made possible his triumph with the horse, but also the first of the toothed birds. The students worked for their lark. “Instead of riding along looking for a gigantic telltale vertebra,” one recalled, “it was necessary literally to crawl over the country on hands and knees … Often a quarter of a mile of the most inviting country would be carefully gone over with no result, and then again someone would chance upon a butte which seemed almost made of teeth.”

The last Yale expedition in 1873 was followed by a short excursion into the Sioux reservation south of the Black Hills. After that he retired from field work except for short trips to check on his workmen. He maintained an army of diggers in the field, around a hundred altogether over the years. The volume of bones funnelling into New Haven mounted until it eventually reached a total of thirty freight-car loads for Marsh’s lifetime haul—seven of which eventually went to enrich the National Museum in Washington, the rest remaining in the Peabody. Tons of bones remained in boxes unopened at his death.

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.


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.”

He counterattacked wherever he could find an opening. When the USGS came under congressional attack in mid-decade he and other former Hayden men supplied the anti-Powell forces with a twenty-three-thousand-word assault on Powell and Marsh. In the Academy he tried to prevent Marsh’s re-election with such violent mudslinging that even his friends shied away. “I received your letter of March 27 [188g] … but have let it lie for a few days to think over the matter,” wrote Alphaeus Hyatt. “I shall, as in duty bound as a friend of yours, talk ‘English Straight’ Unfortunately … your antagonist is strong, he being in possession. … A second fact on his side lies in the sympathy people are sure to feel for an orRcer attacked by a person suspected of having personal motives. … A third support lies in the use his personal friends k* are sure to make of every fact of this kind. … I consider such accusations as hardly worth the trouble of the making. … I strongly advise you as a friend to drop the affair, no good will come to you, and you may, and I think will strengthen the position of the man you are working to defeat. …” Cope was outraged. “You really only give me advice as to the ‘political’ situation, and do not appear to care about the real merit of the case. You must care whether we arc to be represented before the world by the most consummate fraud in the country.” A month later he seethed, “The National Academy disgraced themselves by rcelccting O. C. Marsh President.”


In January, logo, alter a decade of frustration, Cope finally lost control of himself. The occasion was a letter from the Secretary of the Interior instructing Cope to turn over to the National Museum all of the fossils he had collected while working for the Hayden Survey. Cope considered these fossils, the core of his collection, an economic as well as a scientific resource. He claimed that he had expended eighty thousand dollars of his own money in their collection, as no doubt he did. But the demand that they be given to the National Museum seems valid. He had collected them while working for Hayden. The material he amassed the year he worked for Wheeler had already been deposited there.

Five years before, Cope had discovered the chink in Marsh’s armor, but one thing and another had prevented him from striking home. It was an undeniable fact that at least some of Marsh’s assistants in New Haven loathed him. Cope had sniffed this out by 1885, when he and Scott travelled to New Haven, ostensibly for a Yale-Princeton football game but in reality to meet clandestinely with four of these disgruntled employees. Each seems to have had his own reason for turning on Marsh, but in general three motives prevailed: Marsh was frequently in arrears in the payment of salaries; he gave his assistants little opportunity for self-expression, by closing the Peabody collections to their own research and publication; and he gave little or no recognition of his debt to assistants in the preparation of his own publications.

All these accusations were finally trotted out for public view in the pages of the Sunday New York Herald on January 12, 1890. The reporter, W. H. Ballou, was a friend of Cope’s who had once worked for the Naturalist . In column after column Cope repeated every charge, verified and unverified, that he had been collecting on Marsh for twenty years. To the dismay of his friends he quoted private correspondence in which Marsh had been criticized. But the core of his scatter shot came from the Marsh assistants. They charged that Marsh’s publications had been written by others and that Marsh had stolen his work on the horse from Huxley and a Russian named Kowalevsky. As for the USGS , Cope called it a “gigantic politico-scientific monopoly next in importance to Tammany Hall.” He accused Powell and Marsh of conspiring to pack the Academy with Survey men. Many of the slanders against Powell given Congress earlier in the decade were aired. Powell replied in the same edition with a dignified denial of every accusation. He even made the disarming offer to publish Cope’s book if he would send the completed manuscript. (A shrewd stroke, for Cope never came close to completing the book for which he crusaded so energetically, although the plates were published after his death.)

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:

So science walks, with gait serene, her crown an olive sprig, Intent alone on holy truth and otium cum dig.

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