In the late 1800s, a vicious rivalry transformed American paleontology. In the “Bone Wars,” two scientists savagely fought for control of fossil collections, naming rights, and scientific prominence.
Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh met as students in 1864, forming a friendly professional relationship, though they soon clashed. In an epic feud spanning decades, Cope and Marsh bribed officials, hired spies, and slandered each other. They even destroyed fossils or buried dig sites rather than let the other scientist get access. It was all an effort to be the US’s top paleontologist.
Out west, they scavenged for prehistoric bones, digging up fossils of fish, mammals, dinosaurs, and other reptiles. Each hoped to be the first to discover new skeletons and collect more specimens than the other. They raced to publish their findings in scientific journals, fiercely debating who had found what species first and therefore had the right to name it. Their fighting didn’t always produce good science: Marsh and Cope both renamed many previously discovered species, claiming that these were all “new” finds. Their rivalry eventually spilled into slanderous reports in the press, and they lost friends, jobs, and professional reputation.
Cope and Marsh both died with huge fossil collections and little money. Their rivalry scandalized the scientific community, who then distrusted American paleontology for decades. But it popularized the science to the American public. Between the two scientists, they discovered over a hundred new dinosaur species, including the Stegosaurus, Triceratops, and Allosaurus. Marsh and Cope’s legacies live on: much of their collections were donated to the Smithsonian and Yale for further study.