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?

This is part of a special series about great rivalries: between tech titans, sports franchises, and even dinosaur hunters. Read about the series here.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Before his unexpected death in June, James Gandolfini had signed on to star in another HBO project: Instead of playing the shrewd and short-tempered capo of a criminal organization based in New Jersey, he was to be the shrewd and short-tempered capo of a criminal organization based in New Haven, Conn. Instead of a Mafioso, he’d be a paleontologist. The movie was to be called Bone Wars, about the feud between two fossil-hunting academics in the 19th century: Yale’s Othniel Charles Marsh (Gandolfini) and Edward Drinker Cope (Steve Carell), eventually of the University of Pennsylvania. Their many years of vicious competition—played out across the Wild West, with secret deals and sticks of dynamite—left both men destitute and disappointed. They also produced the most amazing dinosaur discoveries the world had ever known: Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Apatosaurus, and scores of other species.

The ugly-tragic tale of Marsh and Cope has been recounted many times before, in documentaries, graphic novels, and lots and lots of books. As of 2005, you could even recreate the fracas on your coffee table with a deck of cards. (“Too much history, not enough fun,” one customer complained.) Its mass appeal relies in part upon the contrast of the characters: Marsh, cast in the role of the bald and bearded farmer’s son, a meticulous collector, a Darwinist; versus Cope, the gentleman scholar, a loosey-goosey science prodigy who did not believe in natural selection. The only things they had in common were their brilliance and ambition—qualities that set them on the path of mutually assured destruction. But the standard telling underplays a more fundamental rivalry: not that between Marsh and Cope, but one that set them both against a mild-mannered, older gent named Joseph Leidy.

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Leidy’s work preceded that of his much more famous rivals. As the first paleontologist of vertebrates in the U.S., Leidy found evidence that horses, lions, rhinos, and other large mammals once roamed the country’s West. In 1856—a dozen years before the bone wars began—the ungainly professor made a more surprising discovery: America had dinosaurs. A few years later, Leidy published a description of the most complete dinosaur skeleton yet found, sent to him in Philadelphia by an amateur collector at the marl pits near Haddonfield, N.J. His work concluded that the Hadrosaurus foulkii was bipedal, a gigantic animal that reared back on its hind legs and tail.

By the late 1860s, young Cope had become, like Leidy, a member of Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences and started fossil-hunting in the Garden State. That’s where Cope and Marsh began their lifelong grudge. The two had met briefly in Germany, but the bone wars started with a visit that Marsh, already a Yale professor, made to Haddonfield in 1868. On his way out of town, Marsh bribed workers at the pits to send what bones they found directly to New Haven, bypassing Cope.

This subterfuge inspired further rounds of sneakiness from Cope and Marsh, and some from Leidy, too. In the early 1870s, all three men set out to look for dinosaurs out West, where the dry, mountainous terrain made fossils numerous and relatively easy to unearth. Marsh felt he had a prior claim to the sites near Fort Bridger in Wyoming, and he hired spies to monitor Cope’s travels in the area. (In communiqués with his employees, Marsh called Cope by a code name, “Jones.”) Marsh also tried to waylay fossils from the local diggers who had been sending finds to Leidy. And Leidy, for his part, encouraged them to hide the bones from Cope.

This three-way row played out in the scientific literature as well. In the spring of 1870, Leidy pointed out in public that Cope’s reconstruction of an Elasmosaurus had the skull attached to the wrong end, as if to make a creature with a long tail and a short neck, rather than one with a long neck and a short tail. Marsh later said he’d been the one to notice this mistake. “When I informed Professor Cope of it his wounded vanity received a shock from which it has never recovered, and he has since been my bitter enemy,” Marsh later wrote. “I give this transaction as one sample of Professor Cope and his methods—one taste of the cheese.”

In Wyoming, the fossil hunters each found evidence of a strange, elephantine beast with six knobby protrusions on its head. Leidy named it before the others—Uintatherium robustum—but the battle over primacy continued in the journals. Cope and Marsh came up with reasons to rename Leidy’s species several dozen times, as if they were making new discoveries on the basis of their own fossil finds. They fought ferociously as Leidy’s contributions were pushed off to the side. “[Marsh] repeats his statements,” Cope wrote in the American Naturalist in June 1873, “as though the Uintatherium were a Rosinante, and the ninth commandment a wind-mill.” When Cope added that some of his mistakes were the results of printers’ errors, Marsh replied, “As a sleight-of-hand performance with names and dates, [Cope’s explanation] shows practice, and is amusing, but to those familiar with the subject, and to moralists, it suggests sad reflections.”