The Bitter Feud That Gave Us the Brontosaurus

Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh were not nice men. For the most part, their not-niceness was taken out on each other. Occasionally, though, it was taken out on the innocent science of paleontology. If their feud hadn't built paleontology into what it is today, they might not even be remembered as fondly as they are now.

Both Cope and Marsh were gifted paleontologists from fairly wealthy backgrounds, but while Cope was an adventurer and an academic, Marsh was a manager and organizer. Ironically, Marsh held the more academic position, as a Yale Professor of Paleontology and a museum curator. Cope was in the field writing and directing digs, and couldn't manage an academic career on top of that.


It's not certain what kicked off the antipathy between the two. Perhaps it was when a shipment of bones from Dakota, met with lukewarm interest from Marsh, got sent to Cope. Perhaps it was when Cope displayed one of his finds only to have Marsh point out that he had put the vertebrae on backwards and the creature's skull was on the tip of its tail. Whatever sparked the feud, it grew in size and scandal value over the course of their careers.

Marsh started paying workers at Cope's digs to send the best finds to him instead of passing them along to Cope. Cope, meanwhile, published frantically, everything he could get his hands on, hoping to beat Marsh to glory since Marsh was stuck waiting for his samples at Yale. Soon they were unleashing teams of diggers at each other's sites and bribing each other's workers to go slow or to develop sticky fingers.

They also studied each other's papers obsessively, eager to point out any error and ridicule any lapse in judgment. At first their criticisms were confined to academic papers, but later they took their feud to the newspapers, each backing a different man to be the head of the US Geological Survey, and each airing the other's mistakes as proof that the other was incompetent.


People read about each new error, each dirty dealing. They loved it when Cope got Marsh's train full of bones re-routed to his station in Philadelphia. They ate up the fact that Marsh began scattering new bones over Cope's sites, hoping to confuse the man with bones from different eras. But when the two began dynamiting their sites when they were done to make sure the other one couldn't discover anything interesting, and when Marsh accused Cope of causing the suicide of another paleontologist, public opinion soured on both of them.

By the end of their wars, they had both taken a well-deserved beating in terms of their fortunes and academic standing. They had driven other paleontologists, accustomed to getting their fossils for free and doing careful academic work before they published, out of the field. They had also discovered such famous dinosaurs as the allosaurus, the triceratops, and the stegosaurus.


On the other hand, they had committed the most famous blunder in paleontological history. Marsh 'discovered' the Brontosaurus in the late 1870s. He began with minor bones here and there, but eventually managed to find an entire skeleton. His publications on the subject, accompanied by his beautiful illustrations, made this dinosaur famous. In 1905, a skeleton was assembled, and the Brontosaurus stood in the Yale Peabody Museum.


It was a fraud. Marsh had already discovered the Apatosaurus, and in his rush to publish ahead of Cope, he didn't notice – or didn't wish to notice – the similarities between it and the Brontosaurus.

In 1903, a gentleman named Elmer Riggs noticed that the Apatosaurus was a juvenile Brontosaurus. Since Apatosaurus had been named first, it had priority. Still, Marsh wasn't likely to publicize his own mistake, and the Bronto was so popular that it stayed famous until long after Marsh had died. It wasn't until the late 20th century that the tide began to turn, helped by the fact that in 1970 scientists proved that the Brontosaurus statue in the Peabody had the wrong head on it. The skull Marsh had mounted was from Camarasaurus.


But it's not likely that Marsh would have been too bothered about that. Both he and Cope had been wrong enough during their lives couldn't have bothered them too much. The fact that their names are forever linked, so that one is rarely mentioned without the other — now that is their true punishment.

Top Image: Charles Knight

[Via Unmuseum, Wyoming Tales and Trails, Dino Hunters, ANSP.]


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