Marsh, Othniel Charles

views updated May 18 2018


(b. Lockport, New York, 29 October 1831; d. New Haven, Connecticut, 18 March 1899)

vertebrate paleontology

Marsh was the oldest son of a farmer and shoe manufacturer of modest means, Caleb Marsh, and Mary Gaines Peabody Marsh; his mother died before he was three years old. Aided financially by his uncle George Peabody, Marsh graduated from Phillips Academy at Andover, Massachusetts, from Yale College (1860), and from its Sheffield Scientific School (1862). After three years of study in Europe, Marsh became professor of paleontology at Yale from 1866 until his death. From 1882 to 1892 he was also the first vertebrate paleontologist of the U.S. Geological Survey. A bachelor, he lived in solitary grandeur near Yale.

Marsh was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1874 and served as its president from 1883 to 1895. He was the recipient of many awards and honorary degrees, among them the Bigsby Medal (1877) and the Cuvier Prize (1897).

Marsh’s scientific interests began in childhood with minerals and invertebrate fossils, chiefly from formations exposed by the nearby Erie Canal. He pursued mineralogy in his education but gradually turned toward paleontology. A marked characteristic was his keen acquisitiveness, which resulted in vast collections of fossils for the Peabody Museum at Yale, a gift of his generous uncle.

Through his many scientific descriptions and his popularization of extinct animals, Marsh established the infant field of vertebrate paleontology in the United States. Accompanied by Yale students and alumni, he led four expeditions from 1870 to 1873 through the western territories, from the White River badlands of South Dakota and Nebraska, to the Bridger, Uinta, and Green River basins of Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado, to the John Day fossil fields in Oregon, and back to the Cretaceous chalk region of western Kansas. The startling fossil discoveries of these trips led Marsh into keen and bitter competition with Edward Drinker Cope for a quarter of a century. After his early collecting years, Marsh only rarely and briefly returned to the fossil fields, but he hired many amateur and professional collectors to seek specimens throughout the western United States. He urged his collectors to search out all fragments of each find, and so was able to describe remarkably complete specimens.

In his work on fossil mammals Marsh established the evolution of the horse as North American, with a series of specimens from Eocene to Pleistocene; he presented the earliest mammals then known, from Jurassic and Cretaceous beds; in competition with Cope, he described some of the extinct horned mammals called uintatheres and some of the massive brontotheres; and he established the existence of early primates on the North American continent. On the reptiles, Marsh enlarged the classification of the dinosaurs, and described eighty new forms, both giant and tiny, and he described Cretaceous winged reptiles and marine mosasaurs. He also presented the first known toothed birds, which proved the reptile ancestry of that class. He demonstrated the gradual enlargement of the vertebrate brain from the Paleozoic era forward. Marsh’s classifications and descriptions of extinct vertebrates were major contributions to knowledge of evolution.


Marsh published about 300 papers on vertebrate fossils but left much to be completed by his successors. His work on horses was summarized in “Fossil Horses in America,” in American Naturalist, 8 (1874), 288–294. His magnum opus was Odontornithes: A Monograph on the Extinct Toothed Birds of North America, vol. VII of U.S. Geological Exploration 40th Parallel (Washington, D.C., 1880). Dinosaurs were summarized in “The Dinosaurs of North America,” in Report of the U.S. Geological Survey, 16, pt. 1 (1896), 133–414; and “Vertebrate Fossils [of the Denver Basin],” in Monographs of the U.S. Geological Survey, 27 (1896), 473–550. Marsh’s material on mammals appeared in many single papers; and much of the Mesozoic material was later synthesized by G. G. Simpson in “American Mesozoic Mammalia,” in Memoris of the Peabody Museum of Yale University, 3 , pt. 1 (1929).

Marsh’s life, accomplishments, and bibliography are well presented in Charles Schuchert and Clara M. LeVene, O.C. Marsh: Pioneer in Paleontology (New Haven, 1940).

Elizabeth Nobel Shor

Othniel Charles Marsh

views updated May 14 2018

Othniel Charles Marsh

The American paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh (1831-1899) discovered extinct birds with teeth, the Dinocerata, a kind of missing link between the reptiles and the birds, and traced the development of the modern horse.

On Oct. 29, 1831, O. C. Marsh was born in Lockport, N. Y. He graduated from Yale College in 1860. In 1860-1861 he pursued graduate studies in the Yale Scientific School and then spent 3 years in study at Berlin, Breslau, and Heidelberg. In 1866 he was appointed to the chair of paleontology at Yale, the first such chair to be established in America. Marsh held this position, which carried no teaching duties and no salary until 1896, for the rest of his life. He was aided financially by an inheritance from his uncle George Peabody, whom he induced to establish the Peabody Museum at Yale, which Marsh headed.

In 1870 Marsh organized the first of his Yale scientific expeditions, to the fossil-rich West. The first year they explored the Pliocene deposits of Nebraska and the Miocene of northern Colorado, crossed over the Bridger Basin in Wyoming, and then went southward into California. A succession of such expeditions followed throughout the 1870s. Marsh published his findings in a series of volumes on toothed birds and North American dinosaurs.

In 1882, following a major reorganization of the Federal surveys, Marsh was appointed vertebrate paleontologist to the U. S. Geological Survey. This position gave him first choice of the wealth of specimens being brought in by government surveying parties. Thereafter the fossils came into his museum faster than he could study them, and an immense pile remained unclassified at his death.

Marsh is given credit for putting the collection and preparation of vertebrate fossils upon a truly scientific basis. Always a careful worker, he was responsible for the complete reconstruction of a great many extinct animals, including a large number of dinosaurs found near Laramie, Wyo., the greatest dinosaur boneyard in the world.

Despite his nasty temperament and his often unscrupulous means of dealing with rivals and subordinates, Marsh was widely honored in the scientific world. He was president of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (1883-1895), and he received the Bigsby Medal from the Geological Society of London (1877) and the Cuvier Prize from the French Academy. He died on March 18, 1899.

Further Reading

The only biography of Marsh is Charles Schuchert and Clara MaeLeVene, O. C. Marsh, Pioneer in Paleontology (1940). The authors, Marsh's successor as director of the Peabody Museum and the museum librarian, deal admirably with his career and scientific work.

Additional Sources

Lanham, Url, The bone hunters: the heroic age of paleontology in the American West, New York: Dover Publications, 1991.

McCarren, Mark J., The scientific contributions of Othniel Charles Marsh: birds, bones, and brontotheres, New Haven, Conn.: Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, c1993.

Schuchert, Charles, O. C. Marsh: pioneer in paleontology, New York: Arno Press, 1978, 1940. □

Othniel Charles Marsh

views updated May 18 2018

Othniel Charles Marsh


American vertebrate paleontologist who helped establish the science of vertebrate paleontology in the United States. A Yale graduate and faculty member, Marsh later worked for the U.S. Geological Survey and was president of the National Academy of Sciences. He created a large collection of specimens at Yale based upon his own expeditions and on the work of hired collectors. He described the earliest fossil mammals then known, and he worked on the evolution of North American horses, the fossil reptiles of the West, and the reptilian origins of birds. He was a great rival of paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1897).