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Digging Up the Dinosaurs (September 2020): Beginnings of Dinosaur Studies in the US

by Larry T. Spencer

Beginnings of Dinosaur Studies in the US

The study of dinosaurs originated in England and spread soon thereafter to Continental Europe, but as European scientists began to visit destinations in the US, they soon realized that due to the size of the country and the nature of its geological underpinnings, more discoveries would be taking place here. In a recent book entitled The Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries, Donald Prothero surveys the history of dinosaur discovery and discoverers, beginning from the first specimens unearthed in England and extending to modern times. The earliest exhumation of a dinosaur in the Americas took place in Haddonfield, New Jersey. There Joseph Leidy, of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, excavated the Hadrosaurus foulkii from the New Jersey marls, a specimen originally discovered by Philadelphia Quaker William Parker Foulke, perhaps as early as 1838. William Gallagher tells the complete story of this dig and other dinosaurs found nearby in his book When Dinosaurs Roamed New Jersey. This same site later became an attraction for younger paleontologists, including Leidy’s student, Edward D. Cope, and notably also for Othniel Marsh. Marsh’s visit to Cope in 1868, by this time resident at Leidy’s New Jersey site, and the contacts Marsh made there, may have sparked the beginnings of the notorious feud between the two young scientists. But this drama was not enacted until later in the story, when Cope was back in Philadelphia with Leidy and Marsh was in New Haven. In his biography Joseph Leidy: The Last Man Who Knew Everything, Leonard Warren explores the broad range of Leidy’s interests and also documents the fact that Leidy was the first paleontologist to work with materials from the American West. Yet, as Warren also recounts, Leidy was later driven from exploration by the toxic rivalry between Cope and Marsh.


The history of US paleontology from 1870 to the turn of the century centers on the relationship between Cope and Marsh and their efforts to best one another in the discovery and naming of new dinosaurs. Cope came from a well-established Philadelphia Quaker family, the son of a gentleman farmer who co-owned a shipping firm. The earliest biography of Cope was written by Henry Fairfield Osborn, his protegé and then director of the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. Osborn’s biography of his teacher, Cope, Master Naturalist, was based primarily on materials given or sold to the museum by Cope himself during the 1890s, when he was suffering from deep financial problems arising from the fact that he had supported nearly all his own scientific work with personal resources. A more complete modern biography, famously entitled The Bone Sharp, is provided by art historian Jane Davidson, who published her account of Cope’s life on the centenary of his death. Davidson’s sources are more extensive than those used by Osborn, including materials from the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences (now part of Drexel University) and Haverford College, as well as materials covered in the Osborn biography. She concludes with a section of short biographies of other paleontologists associated with Cope. This work documents the broad interests of its subject: Cope concerned himself with natural history writ large and published hundreds of papers not only on dinosaurs but on other vertebrate groups, particularly the non-dinosaurian reptiles and fish. Both Marsh and Cope used their studies to support the evolutionary thought of their time, but because of his religious background, Cope remained a deist believing that there must have been a creator of all life.


Othniel Marsh was born in upstate New York and probably would have remained obscure without the support of his uncle, philanthropist and banker George Peabody, who not only funded his education (at Philips Academy Andover and Sheffield Scientific School at Yale University, followed by additional study in Germany) but also built a museum for him at Yale (now the Peabody Museum of Natural History), and even went on to provide him with an endowed professorship at his alma mater. The classic biography of Marsh by Charles Schuchert and Clara LeVene (O. C. Marsh: Pioneer in Paleontology) offers a comprehensive view of his contributions. The Life and Scientific Work of Othniel Charles Marsh is a collection of three original works by Marsh in a modern edition by the eminent historian of science I. Bernard Cohen. Further biographical details are found in the many books dealing with the Cope-Marsh feud. One interesting earlier book authored by Yale paleontologist John Ostrom and John McIntosh, Marsh’s Dinosaurs, details the work of Marsh and his collectors at the quarries of Como Bluff, an area northwest of Laramie, Wyoming. Between 1877 and 1905 this area in the Morrison Formation was excavated by many associated with Eastern museums, then left fallow until the mid-1970s when paleontologists from Western museums reexplored the area and began to find new materials. Because the Peabody Museum figures large in the history of vertebrate paleontology in the US, it is worth noting that Richard Conniff’s recent book House of Lost Worlds fully examines the life of Marsh, the establishment of the museum, and the lives of later scientists associated with the Peabody as well as the role of this museum in American anthropological studies.


One scientist associated with both Cope and Marsh was Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden. Perhaps best known for his work in the Yellowstone area and for his advocacy of Yellowstone as our first national park, Hayden led many government expeditions to the American West, providing dinosaur specimens initially to Joseph Leidy, then later to Cope and others. He became closely involved in the Cope-Marsh feud, for the most part supporting Cope and his group with both specimens and occasional government funds. He, too, had broad interests, as his many biographers ably demonstrate. Fritiof  Fryxell, for example, covers in detail the first two years Hayden spent “out West” using archival primary sources, notably Hayden’s letters, in Ferdinand Hayden: A Young Scientist in the Great West, 1853–1855. In Strange Genius, independent scholar Mike Foster documents Hayden’s growth as a naturalist/geologist and also shows how his personality quirks caused him problems, in effect locking him out of the position of first director of the US Geological Survey. Hayden was active during the time the federal government was just beginning to invest in science, and James Cassidy shows, in Ferdinand V. Hayden: Entrepreneur of Science, just how Hayden was able to fund his work with federal monies, even as many US legislators were still reluctant to support science. 


If the Morrison Formation in the Rocky Mountain West is littered with the bones of Mesozoic dinosaurs, so too is the literature dealing with nineteenth-century paleontology “littered” with books focusing on the Cope-Marsh feud. Their relationship began amicably enough when Cope met Marsh, then a student in Germany, during his family-sponsored tour of the Continent. The two were still on amicable terms when they examined the Hadrosaurus foulkii extraction in Haddonfield, but from that point on the relationship went downhill as the two men worked against each other. The classic study of their rivalry is Url Lanham’s The Bone Hunters, but many authors have since found attractive material in the topic. Elizabeth Shor, formerly a historian of science at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, authored The Fossil Feud between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh. Twenty-five years later David Wallace, a conservationist and author of many books about US national parks, was inspired to write The Bonehunters’ Revenge: Dinosaurs, Greed, and the Greatest Scientific Feud of the Gilded Age. Journalist Mark Jaffe followed close behind with The Gilded Dinosaur: The Fossil War between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh and the Rise of American Science while employed as a reporter for the Philadelphia Enquirer. Most recently, educator Rebecca Johnson has contributed Battle of the Dinosaur Bones. The feud has even inspired a graphic novel by master of the genre Jim Ottaviani, entitled Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards


Although both Cope and Marsh spent time in person collecting in the West, for the most part each of them came to rely on a network of collectors. Some of these collectors have their own stories to tell. Notable among them were Arthur Lakes, Benjamin Franklin Mudge (the first state geologist of Kansas), Charles Sternberg, and Samuel Williston, known also for his work in entomology. Arthur Lakes was born in England and educated at Oxford. He immigrated to the United States and was employed teaching English in Colorado when he became interested in dinosaurs, evidence of which he had found in the vicinity of Morrison. His career as a collector is recounted in his diary, recently republished by the Smithsonian under the title Discovering Dinosaurs in the Old West: The Field Journals of Arthur Lakes, edited by Michael Kohl and John McIntosh. Williston entered the field as a Marsh collector, later moving to New Haven to work on a PhD at Yale, where he was employed as a curator for Marsh. Yet, because Marsh didn’t allow his workers to publish on their own, Williston wrote his dissertation on flies, later becoming associated with the “enemy” (Cope) camp and in 1890 gaining a position as professor of geology and anatomy at the University of Kansas. Elizabeth Shor, credited above for her book on the Cope-Marsh feud, probably acquired her interest in that topic while researching Williston’s biography, published earlier under the title Fossils and Flies: The Life of a Compleat Scientist Samuel Wendell Williston. Finally, another interesting book that documents the rise of amateur fossil collecting in the US over a much longer time span—from its very beginnings at the time of Thomas Jefferson through the end of the nineteenth century—is The Legacy of the Mastodon, by eminent natural scientist Keith Thomson, who directed the Peabody Museum for a time before moving on to Oxford.