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The Great Fossil War

The Great Fossil War


Cope versus Marsh. For most of the last three decades of the nineteenth century paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1897) and Othniel C. Marsh (1831-1899) engaged in a running battle over dinosaur discoveries in the American West. Cope, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, was the paleontologist attached to Ferdinand V. Haydens geological survey, with which he spent eight months of every year unearthing

fossil vertebrates (animals with spinal columns). He discovered more than twelve hundred previously unknown genera or species, and The Vertebrata of the Tertiary Formations of the West (1883), his report on the Hayden survey, was soon baptized Copes Bible. (In geological time the Tertiary period, from five million to sixty-five million years before the present, begins with the extinction of the dinosaurs and ends before the appearance of the earliest humans; it is the first period of the Cenozoic era.) Marsh, who named some five hundred new vertebrates, was vertebrate paleontologist at the Peabody Museum in New Haven. He is best known for tracing the evolution of the horse from the tiny Eohippus to its modern descendant and for having described a group of extinct birds with teeth, proving their reptilian ancestry.

Fighting over Fossils. Difficult and eccentric individuals, Cope and Marsh adopted aggressive entrepreneurial styles in amassing their considerable fossil collections, and each feared being undermined by the other. The dispute between the two paleontologists erupted in 1872, when Marsh attacked the validity of some of Copes specimens. Copes fears of being overshadowed by Marsh were realized in 1879, when Marsh became chief paleontologist of the U.S. Geological Survey. Cope had always suspected the head of the survey, John Wesley Powell, of conspiring with Marsh against him. Powell had indeed refused to publish Copes writings on the Hayden survey. The feud burst into the national news in 1889-1890, when the government attempted to force Cope to relinquish the fossils he had collected on the Hayden survey to the National Museum, on the assumption that these specimens were government property. Cope claimed that Marsh, who was president of the National Academy of Sciences, was packing that organization with his allies from the U.S. Geological Survey. Congressmen who wanted to reduce Powells budget welcomed Copes allegations, cutting government appropriations for Powells agency from the $720,000 he requested in 1890 to $162,500. A key chapter in the emergence of government science, the Cope-Marsh episode also contributed significantly to Powells resignation in 1892.


William Culp Darrah, Powell of the Colorado (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969);

Nathan Reingold, Science in Nineteenth-Century America: A Documentary History (New York: Hill & Wang, 1964);

Wallace Stegner, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Opening of the West (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1954).

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