The Profile of Edward Drinker Cope
Written By: Mark Jaffe

Edward Drinker CopeEdward Drinker Cope was perhaps the brashest, most creative, and quixotic paleontologist of the 19th Century.  The author of "Cope's Law" - stating that over time species tend to become larger - and of the Triassic class Archosauria, he was a brilliant taxonomist and evolutionary theoretician.  But he did not simply inhabit the ivory tower.  In expeditions across the sprawling and sometimes violent American West, Cope discovered the dinosaurs Camarasaurus and Coelophysis and proved himself a consummate fossil hunter.  Between his theoretical writing and fieldwork Cope was one of the most prolific researchers ever.  Even today he holds the record for scientific publication with more than 1,200 published papers.

But what truly assured Cope's place in the history of paleontology and even eclipsed his science was his bitter feud with Yale University paleontologist O.C. Marsh.  What began as a friendly rivalry in the late 1860s, broke out into all out war in 1872 and then raged on until Cope's death in 1897.  Both Cope and Marsh were recipients of family fortunes and they used their wealth to discover new fossils and to reconstruct ancient life.  This scramble literally propelled American science into the forefront of paleontology.

Why did Cope and Marsh fight so?  In part it was a question of ego.  Each man was brilliant in his own way and each craved the limelight.  In part, it was because they disagreed intellectually on several key concepts.  Marsh was a Darwinian and much of his work was focused on proving the thesis of Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species, which had been published in 1859.  Marsh's reconstruction of the evolution of the horse over sixty million years is widely credited as the first substantial fossil proof of evolution. 

Cope - who was raised as a devout Quaker - could not accept the absence of divine design in nature.  He became a leading exponent of the "Neo-Lamarckian" school of evolution - which tried to show order and design in the growing fossil record.  In the late 1800s, Neo-Lamarckian evolution was more popular in American than Darwin's ideas.  But perhaps most of all Cope and Marsh fought, feuded and fumed at one another because their backgrounds and personalities just seemed to go together like nitro and glycerin, and in the small world of Gilded Age American science the mixing was unavoidable.

Marsh came from a modest farming background and was saved from a life as a country schoolteacher or carpenter by the intervention of a rich uncle - the mercantile millionaire George Peabody - who paid Marsh's expenses at Philips Exeter Academy and Yale University.  Marsh also studied at the great German universities in Berlin and Breslau, with his uncle's support, before returning to Yale to become the nation's first professor of paleontology.

Cold, calculating and methodical, Marsh was one of the new breed of university trained scientists that was supplanting the gentleman scientist of an earlier epoch.  Marsh was interested not only in science, but also in building scientific institutions.  He was curator of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale (built with a grant from Uncle George) and he served as president of the National Academy of Sciences.  Marsh traveled in the Gilded Age's most rarified society conferring with President Ulysses grant and lunching with the Rothschilds.  Along the way he became a friend of Buffalo Bill and Chief Red Cloud.

Cope - often considered the more brilliant of the two - was a self-made scientist.  Born in 1840, he had grown up in a wealthy Philadelphia Quaker family and even, as a boy had been a keen observer of nature.  On a voyage to Boston, the seven-year-old Cope noted the citing of whales in his journal: "They are large black fish and they blow water out of a hole in their heads.  Some of them have white spots on their sides.  One came along side the vessel."

Cope's father, however, wanted him to become a farmer and the young man's formal schooling stopped at the age of sixteen.  Cope would not be deterred.  He took the famous anatomy class at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School of Joseph Leidy, and reorganized the reptile collections at the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences.  At the age of eighteen, Cope delivered his first scientific paper before the Academy on the reclassification of salamanders.  It was the beginning of a distinguished career.

But Cope was a scientist by self-study and personal nature - he held no degrees except honorary ones from Haverford College and, late in life, from the University of Munich.  He was mostly hostile in institutions, bureaucracy and politics and very much the loner.  Cope also had a hot temper and a hair trigger that invariably got him in trouble with his contemporaries.  One of his friends called Cope a "militant paleontologist" whose mottoe might have been "war at whatever cost."

The first great fight between Cope and Marsh came in 1869 when Marsh discovered a serious error in a Cope restoration of a thirty-five-foot-long sea going Cretaceous reptile called a plesiosaur.  Cope had put the skull on the wrong end of the snake-like creature.  In the years that followed, the errors - on both sides - piled up as Cope and Marsh rushed into print to best each other.

Despite making a career of highlighting Cope's mistakes, it was Marsh who produced perhaps the biggest blunder in the history of paleontology - the Brontosaurus.  Marsh's Wyoming collectors had produced for him a near perfect specimen of a sauropod dinosaur except for a skull.  To complete the restoration Marsh used a skull from a quarry about three miles away.  What Marsh did was put a Camarasaurus skull on an Apatosaurus body.  (Ironically, the Apatosaurus was also one of Marsh's dinosaurs.)

While the battle raged on over the fossil record and the Western discoveries, Cope also spent much time studying and writing on the natural history of reptiles and amphibians.  In two monumental works Bactrachian of North America and The Crocodilians and Snakes of North America, Cope established the foundation for the study of these animals in America.  Today, the foremost scientific journal in the field is named in his honour - Copeia.

When Cope died in 1897 - just a few weeks shy of his 57th birthday - he showed himself a scientist in the end, by willing his body and brain to the Anthropometric Society so that his skeleton and brain could be preserved for further study.


From The Gilded Dinosaur: The Fossil War Between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh and the Rise of American Science by Mark Jaffe

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