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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

Scientists Behaving Badly

Updated: May 15, 2022

"It is plain that most of Prof. Marsh's criticisms are misrepresentations, his systematic innovations are untenable, and his statements as to the dates of my papers are either criminally ambiguous or untrue. I might now characterize the effrontery of these proceedings, by saying, that for the first time in the history of American Science politics has raised its hydra head."

Edward Drinker Cope, On Some of Prof. Marsh's Criticisms (1873)

Uintatherium (Field Museum Chicago)

Meet Uintatherium. Its name means "Beast of the Uinta Mountains". It is one of a group of extinct mammals known as Dinoceras ("Terrible Horns) that lived 50 million years ago during the Eocene Epoch. It would play a central role in one of the most infamous feuds in the history of science. During the last half of the 19th century, paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh waged a bitter battle across the American West and in scientific journals. It would be dubbed the "Bone Wars". The story of Uintatherium highlights the acrimonious and destructive relationship between these two men.

Edward Drinker Cope was born to a wealthy Quaker family in Philadelphia. From an early age, he showed an aptitude for science. Like many American scientists in the pre-Civil War era, he was self-taught, growing up in the world of amateur, gentlemen naturalists. Despite a lack of formal training, Cope gained stature at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Cope was a brilliant scientist. Arrogant. Charming. Irascible.

O.C. Marsh seemed destined to be a poor farmer in rural New York. He had the good

fortune, though, of having the great philanthropist, George Peabody, as his uncle. Peabody financed Marsh’s education at such places as Andover, Yale, and European universities. Peabody endowed the Natural History Museum at Yale University, and Marsh was installed as the university’s first chair of paleontology.

Marsh was business-like, a skilled institution builder, and foremost, an imperious competitor. He could not stand being second to anyone. He easily antagonized everyone and it was observed that his only friends were on the payroll.

The bad blood between the two scientists began when they were young and just starting to make a name for themselves in the field of paleontology. In 1868, Cope had rushed into print, as he was often apt to do, his findings on a new species of plesiosaur. Plesiosaurs are a group of extinct marine reptiles with long necks. (Think Loch Ness Monster.) Cope named the new creature Elasmosaurus platyurus. In his reconstruction, Cope inadvertently reversed some of the vertebrae and ended up placing the skull at the end of the tail. This gave the animal a short neck and a long tail. Marsh, visiting the Academy of Sciences to view the reconstruction, immediately saw Cope’s mistake. He very publicly pointed out Cope’s error. Embarrassed, Cope sought to buy up all the journals that contained his description. It was too late. The damage to Cope’s reputation was done, and Cope blamed Marsh. From that point onward, the relationship between the two men soured quickly.

On August 1, 1872, Joseph Leidy discovered the remains of an unusual beast in the Bridger Basin of southwestern Wyoming. The animal was hooved and was the size of a rhinoceros. The skull featured two rows of prominent horned protuberances and large saber-like tusks. Leidy named it Uintatherium robustum, after the nearby Uinta Mountains. Leidy was akin to Cope. A gentleman scientist. Whereas Cope and Marsh focused on fossil reptiles, birds, and fish, Leidy claimed the title as the American expert on fossil mammals. Unfortunately for Leidy, he would become a victim of Cope and Marsh’s feud.

Upon hearing of this treasure trove of fossils, Cope and Marsh descended on the Bridger Basin. Each tried to outrace and outmaneuver the other. Later there would be accusations of payoffs, broken contracts, sabotage, and other underhanded activities. This would be a familiar story for both men. On August 17, Cope made his first discovery and named the new animal Loxolophodon. On August 19, Marsh followed with his own discoveries. He named these Tinoceras and Dinoceras. The very next day, August 20, Cope announced a new species which he called Eobasileus. All of the fossils Cope and Marsh discovered had a strikingly similar resemblance to Leidy’s Uintatherium. In fact, all three men had named essentially the same animal. Cope and Marsh did it twice. To make matters worse, Cope and Marsh knew what they were doing.

Ever since the system of naming and classifying all living things had been established by Carolus Linneus in the 18th century, scientists abided by the rule of priority. The first name to appear in the literature was the name accepted. Since the odds of two scientists discovering the same species on the same day was small, this rule worked well. That was until Cope, Marsh, and Leidy ended up in the Bridger Basin together. Based on the rule of priority, Leidy clearly had the better claim at naming the new animal. Yet Cope and Marsh blindly ignored Leidy’s position, and they instead focused on their claims to who had the official name. Given the history between Cope and Marsh, this was more than just about a fossil skull or a name. This was about ambition, pride, and sticking it to the other guy. Ego.

The strategy used by both men was to defend, deny, and to denigrate. The battle would be waged in print in a manner never seen before. It would be an example of many to be waged in the pages of scientific journals and newspaper headlines in the years to come.

Marsh was relentless in his pursuit of Cope. He argued that Cope’s Eobasileus was not distinct enough from Leidy or his own Dinoceras to be a separate species. He called into question many of Cope’s papers that were antedated. This amounted to calling Cope a cheat. In one article, he listed sixteen errors with Cope’s description of the beast. Marsh went before the Academy of Natural Sciences, Cope’s home turf, to pressure them into investigating Cope’s papers. He went before the American Philosophical Society, another important scientific body of which Marsh was a member, and managed to get Cope censured and have the society stop printing any of Cope’s papers on the fossils.

Cope attempted to fight back, but he lacked the political clout Marsh seemed to have. Cope presented affidavits from printers to show when he had published. Such self-publication was not uncommon, even Marsh had taken advantage of it. But Marsh countered that printing didn’t mean publication unless it's done by a recognized scientific journal. Cope claimed Marsh knew full well he was behind not only Cope but behind Leidy as well. Cope charged Marsh with being criminally ambiguous in his criticisms and representations.

The men continued to exchange accusations and rebuttals until the publishing journals had enough. They no longer accepted work from either Marsh or Cope in regards to the Wyoming fossils. Throughout this, one man was absent – Leidy. From 1872 to 1873, Cope and Marsh published sixteen different articles on Uintatherium. Neither one paid attention to the priority of the other in naming the creature. And, more importantly, neither one paid attention to Leidy’s priority. The result was nomenclatural chaos. Ultimately, Leidy’s name prevailed, and we call these animals Uintatherium. Some have speculated that Cope’s Eobasileus could be a different species but not a different genus. And Marsh’s Dinoceras has been adopted as the name of the Order under which the Uintaherium is classified.

This was neither the first time nor the last that Cope and Marsh would engage in such naming practices. When Cope and Marsh discovered the vast dinosaur boneyards of Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado, they outdid each other in the naming of new species. Many are ones we are familiar with – stegosaurs, sauropods, triceratops. Problem was that they gave multiple names to the same species without ever referencing their own or other’s work. Modern observers have called this taxonomic carpet bombing.

On the upside, the feud between Cope and Marsh reshaped American science. Leidy disheartened by the behavior of both Cope and Marsh gave up paleontology. This symbolically ended the era of the gentleman naturalist. With Edward Cope and O.C. Marsh, the nature of science had changed. No longer the realm of amateurs and hobbyists, American science became the parvenu of trained professionals. It became organized, disciplined, and institutionalized. By the early 20th century, American science took center stage and eventually would outpace Europe as the mecca for scientific endeavor.


Further reading:

O.C. Marsh and E.D. Cope: A Rivalry: American Experience (PBS)

Battle for the Bone War Beasts: Brian Switek (Scientific American Blog)

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