A Brilliant Paleontologist, Unfit for Battle in the Bone Wars

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Aug. 7 2013 12:33 PM

Bone Thugs-N-Disharmony

Was forgotten paleontologist Joseph Leidy a casualty of the famous dinosaur wars?

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“Poor Old Leidy” (as Cope called him) was far less confrontational than his younger peers and smaller in his speculations. Cope in particular would vividly describe his wild visions of the ancient world. “At night-fall, we may imagine them trooping to the shore and suspending themselves to the cliffs by the claw-bearing fingers of their wing-limbs,” he wrote in 1872, inspired by some pterodactyl bones.

Edward Drinker Cope v. Othniel Marsh
Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Creative Commons.

By 1874, Leidy had decided to quit the field of paleontology altogether. He could not abide the endless sniping, nor did he have the money to compete. While Cope, the eldest son of a Quaker shipping magnate, and Marsh are often contrasted as gentleman and grind, in truth both were very wealthy. Marsh was born into a modest home, but his fantastically wealthy Uncle George sent him first to Andover and then to Yale. When Marsh joined the faculty in New Haven in 1866, it was in part because the family had donated $150,000 for the establishment of a natural history museum. Leidy had no such advantages. His father was a hatter, and Leidy spent his early years in research working extra hours for the city coroner. While Cope and Marsh could afford to hire men for outrageous expeditions, not to mention spies and double agents, Leidy didn’t have the budget or the will. The bone wars moved on without him.

By 1878, Cope and Marsh were bickering over bigger, more impressive claims in Colorado and Wyoming. Each paid his teams of diggers to work through the winter to help uncover evidence of fabulous dinosaurs from the Jurassic period: Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, and many others. The professors’ employees fought one another, sometimes throwing rocks and dirt or brandishing revolvers in the field. Some switched sides and others used a slash-and-burn approach to excavation, destroying bones so as to flummox late-arriving peers.

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Their dispute made its way to Washington, D.C., where Marsh figured out a way to cut off Cope’s funding and tried to get the government to repossess his rival’s fossils. In 1890, Cope went after Marsh in the pages of the New York Herald. “Scientists Wage Bitter Warfare,” the headline read. “Red Hot Denials Put Forth: Heavy Blows Dealt in Attack and Defense and Lots of Hard Nuts Provided for Scientific Digestion.” Eventually, both men would lose both their funding and their credibility, and their careers would be forever linked by their quarrel.

What became of Leidy? If it hadn’t been for Marsh and Cope, and the way they bullied him aside, he might have continued on in paleontology and been far better known. “By all contemporary judgment, Leidy was one of the most outstanding American biologists of his century,” writes his biographer Leonard Warren in Joseph Leidy: The Last Man Who Knew Everything. “Yet he is relatively unknown today, even among people in that field.” When his younger rivals turned fossil-hunting from a scholar’s art into a contact sport, Leidy quit the team. Warren cites the preface to one of Leidy’s most important works on fossilized remains. It begins with a bit of modesty that doubles as an indictment of his more aggressive colleagues: “No attempt has been made at generalizations or theories which might attract the momentary attention and admiration of the scientific community,” he wrote. “We have endeavored to see and represent things correctly, nothing more.” By retreating from the battle in the West, Leidy erased himself from history and found a legacy of lasting inattention.

The bone wars did have a happy ending of a sort, because they nudged Leidy back to important work in other fields. After abandoning paleontology, he returned to other areas in which he’d long been interested. Before his work on the ancient fauna of North America, Leidy had been the country’s leading parasitologist. While Cope and Marsh went off searching for bigger, better bones, Leidy roamed the fish markets in Philadelphia, scouring the seafood entrails for novel parasites. Among his microscopic discoveries were the microorganism in pork that causes trichinosis and the source of canine heartworm. Leidy also worked in anatomy and pathology, and he used his skill with microscopes to help police distinguish human blood from chicken remains. He studied gems and minerals, too, and left his sizable collection to the Smithsonian.

It’s hard to say if anyone emerged the victor of the bone wars, but we do at least have scientific stats. By the end of the century, Marsh had discovered 80 kinds of dinosaur, and Cope found 56. But Joseph Leidy's work described a wider world: In addition to some fossil beasts, he named at least 100 protozoans and 300 invertebrates. “Leidy was a man of facts,” writes Warren. “Because historians and popularizers of science are attracted to unifying principles and the clash of opinions, rather than to the recitation of data … there has been a tendency to let him rest in peace.”

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