In the summer of 1868, paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh boarded a Union Pacific train for a sight-seeing excursion through the heart of the newly-opened American West. While most passengers simply saw magnificent landscapes, Marsh soon realized he was traveling through the greatest dinosaur burial ground of all time. Ruthless, jealous and insanely competitive, Marsh would wrestle over the discovery with the other leading paleontologist of his generation -- Edward Drinker Cope. Over time, the two rivals would uncover the remains of dozens of prehistoric animals, including over 130 dinosaur species, collect thousands of specimens, provide ample evidence to prove Charles Darwin's hotly disputed theory of evolution and put American science on the world stage. But their professional rivalry eventually spiraled out of control. What began with denigrating comments in scientific publications led to espionage, the destruction of fossils and political maneuvering that ultimately left both men alone and almost penniless.
In the decades following the Civil War, with the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, the phrase "survival of the fittest" came to define both the science and the business of the day as ambitious men scrambled for control of unclaimed wealth on the western frontier. For Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh, the prize was not timber, land, or metals, but fossil bones -- dinosaurs, sea monsters and primitive mammals -- embedded in the rugged landscapes of the American West. The new transcontinental railroad put the ancient bone yards within reach of science for the first time. At stake in the vast and varied fossil fields of the West was an opportunity for someone to piece together and explain nothing less than the history of life on Earth. For almost 30 years, Cope and Marsh competed ruthlessly for that distinction. Under their influence, science in the United States emerged from the shadow of Europe and matured into a robust, cutthroat, quintessentially American enterprise. Cope and Marsh launched America's love affair with dinosaurs and the prehistoric past that continues to this day -- but they also managed to destroy each other in the process.
Edward Cope was born to a prosperous Quaker family in Philadelphia. A self-taught prodigy, he grew up in the world of amateur, gentlemen naturalists, as did most American scientists in the years before the Civil War. He was a brilliant scientist, arrogant, charming, and irascible. Though Cope lacked formal training, he gained stature at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.
"Cope is maybe the first paleontologist who can take all of this dusty material coming up out of the ground and begin to imagine what it really looked like, how it functioned, how it moved, how it related to its natural environment," says historian Steven Conn in Dinosaur Wars. But "Marsh is not part of that older 19th century gentleman's world of natural science. He doesn't feel bound by those unwritten rules. He operates in an almost businesslike way, much more aggressively."
Othniel Marsh was a poor farm boy in rural New York until his wealthy uncle, George Peabody, the great Victorian philanthropist, plucked him from obscurity. After staking his nephew to an education at Andover, Yale, and European universities, Peabody endowed a science museum at Yale College where Marsh was installed in 1866 as Yale's first chair of paleontology. O.C. Marsh was a skilled institution builder and an imperious competitor who could not tolerate being second to anyone.
Cope and Marsh proved to be a lethal combination of ambition and temperament. By the early 1870s they were competing head-to-head in Kansas and Wyoming, piecing together the story of life that evolved in what is now the Great Plains between 65 and 200 million years ago. Their discoveries revolutionized the young field of paleontology and drew praise from Darwin himself. In professional journals, though, their scientific rivalry grew increasingly bitter to the dismay of their colleagues.
The stakes rose dramatically in 1877 when scouts for both Cope and Marsh began uncovering giant bones in Colorado and Wyoming. They were unlike anything ever seen before. Until then, dinosaurs had been known only from a few poorly preserved specimens, none especially large. Suddenly, Cope and Marsh stumbled onto a lost world of Jurassic monsters -- Brontosaurs, Stegosaurs, and Allosaurs -- a fossil trove that would launch a new era of dinosaur paleontology.
When both teams simultaneously discovered bones of a triceratops, the fight to label the mysterious new creature resulted in nearly two dozen names for the single species. "They were rushing short papers into print; not well thought out papers," says paleontologist Robert Bakker in Dinosaur Wars. "Neither of them read each other's papers. Cope would name another species and Marsh would name five species."
The mad scramble for dinosaurs near Como Bluff, Wyoming, brought out the best and worst in Cope and Marsh. And turned their feud poisonous.
Over 30 years of intense competition, a time period dubbed "The Bone Wars" by the press, Cope and Marsh laid the foundations of modern paleontology, and in the end they all but ruined each other. Cope died in 1897 at the age of 56, and Marsh followed in 1899 at the age of 67. Neither man lived to see the work of his lifetime discovered by the public. After their deaths, museums in New York, Washington, New Haven and Pittsburgh began mounting the fossil skeletons collected over the previous 30 years and putting them on public display for the first time. Monsters of the past were not just for scientists anymore, and they continue to enthrall new generations to this day.
My American Experience
Do you remember first learning about dinosaurs? Have you been to Dinosaur State Park? What do you know about dinos in America? What do you think makes prehistoric creatures so fascinating?