This Means War! A History of the Bone Wars

Here at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia, the story of the so-called Bone Wars is well known.

In short, the Academy’s Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1897), also affiliated with U. Penn, and Yale University’s Othniel Charles Marsh (1831-1899), also affiliated with the United States Geological Survey, were both prolific, well respected paleontologists. Both unearthed, described, and published their finds of fossil fauna in the post-Civil War era when the discipline of vertebrate paleontology was quite young in the U.S.

Though the two initially enjoyed each others’ company, a scientific rivalry kicked in whose results were protracted and nasty. Each scientist ridiculed the other’s published works; each endeavored to damage the other’s reputation; each supposedly sent thugs to the other’s fossil-bone quarries to raid, if not destroy, what lay therein.

But why? Briefly, it was all about priority: who had the published privilege to name which species first. In the end, all this rushing and competitiveness resulted, according to Jaffe (2000: 100) in, for example, at least 16 taxonomic names for the same extinct mammal Uintathere. Quoting the current analysis of Walter Wheeler, Jaffes (ibid) reported, “Neither [Cope nor Marsh] paid any attention to the priority of the other’s scientific names, and they both virtually ignored the priority of Leidy’s. The result was nomenclatural chaos.”

Fortunately much has been published about the intellectual combats between Cope and Marsh, yet the public never seems to tire of the Bone Wars. Science writer Mark Jaffe (2000) in his comprehensive The Gilded Dinosaur described Marsh and Cope as writing rebuttals to rebuttals within the pages of The American Naturalist. For several seasons the pages of that journal, whose gentle appellation is An Illustrated Magazine of Natural History, were replete with both paleontologists’ accusations of blunders, errors, and recklessness. Buckets of ink were spilled on their defenses, disputes, rejections, ridicules, taunts, and vengeances.

Finally the editors of this had had enough (June 1873), informing subscribers:

WE regret that Professors Marsh and Cope have considered it necessary to carry their controversy to the extent that they have. Wishing to maintain the perfect independence of the NATURALIST in all matters involving scientific criticism, we have allowed both parties to have their full say, but feeling that now the controversy between the authors in question has come to be a personal one and that the NATURALIST is not called upon to devote further space to its consideration, the continuance of the subject will be allowed only in the form of an appendix at the expense of the author.

That expensive appendix followed (June 1873) as Marsh’s Reply to Professor Cope’s Explanation, whose opening lines indicate the flavor of his nine-page thesis:

THE May NATURALIST (p. 290) contains Professor Cope’s long promised “explanation” of the many errors and false dates in his recent publications, and a most remarkable document this explanation is. As a sleight-of-hand performance with names and dates, it shows practice, and is amusing; but to those familiar with the subject, and to moralists, it suggests sad reflections. [et cetera, et cetera, et cetera…]

Cope chimed in again (July 1873) with On Professor Marsh’s Criticisms:

THE recklessness of assertion, the erroneousness of statement, and the incapacity of comprehending our relative positions, on the part of Professor Marsh, render further discussion of the trivial matters -upon which we disagree unnecessary; and my time is too fully occupied on more important subjects to permit me to waste it upon personal affairs which are already sufficiently before the public. Professor M. has recorded his views “cgre perenne,” and may continue to do so without personal notice by E. D. COPE.

Nearly 20 years after these words were published, the bitter battle for buried treasure between two 19th century vertebrate paleontologists continued to have all the intrigues of tabloid magazines today, only based on fossil finds and published claims instead of Hollywood machinations.

After all, when’s the last time you read a newspaper article began with SCIENTISTS WAGE BITTER WARFARE followed by eight subtitles? That’s what readers of the New York Herald encountered when they opened its pages on Sunday, January 21, 1890:


Prof. Cope of the University of Pennsylvania, Brings Serious Charges
Against Director Powell and Prof. Marsh, of the Geological Survey.


Learned Men Come to the Pennsylvanian’s Support with Allegations of Ignorance, Plagiarism and Incompetence Against the Accused Officials.


The National Academy of Sciences, of Which Professor Marsh is President, is Charged with being Packed in the Interests of the Survey.


Heavy Blows Dealt in Attack and Defence (sic) and Lots of Hard Nuts Provided for Scientific Digestion


Things got so bad that the pre-eminent natural historian of the day, the Academy of Natural Sciences’ Joseph Leidy (1823-1891), the Father of American Vertebrate Paleontology himself, decided to step out of the discipline he helped to found. This was saying a lot: among Leidy’s famous firsts he described Deinondon horridus, the first dinosaur discovered in the new world — a handful of teeth found by the Survey near the source of the Missouri River in 1856 — and Hadrosaurus folkii, the first articulated dinosaur ever — a nearly complete specimen unearthed in Haddonfield, NJ, in 1858. The remains of both of these animals are carefully curated under lock and key in the Academy’s Vertebrate Paleontology Department to this day.

Despite the intervening 140 years since the Bone Wars raged, the topic has been the Number One subject of Academy Archives researchers in recent years. That research resulted recently in an engaging documentary film in the new series O’Hanlon’s Heroes (see, just one example.

In 2012, the Bone Wars has been eclipsed only by Samuel G. Morton (1799-1851) as the most requested archival subject for researchers at the Academy Archives. Morton, certainly deserving of his own blog post, is renowned for having amassed the largest collection of human crania in the 19th century (see Morton, 1839). Like others in this story, Morton was a giant at the Academy of Natural Sciences, serving as its President from 1849 until his death. His skull collection now resides in good hands at the U. Penn Museum of Archeology and Anthropology.

We here in the Academy Library & Archives are fortunate to be able to walk up to the stacks, survey entire runs of the American Naturalist, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences, where the Bone Wars played out in print, among 250,000 other titles on site.

Thanks to the efforts of the Biodiversity Heritage Library, you can access — free — any of 57,000+ titles from the comfort of your own space. See what discoveries you might ignite as you browse the virtual pages at

We hope you will enjoy the selection of BHL-digitized works presented in the Bone Wars Collection. You can also download select books by Marsh and Cope for free from within the iTunes environment through our new Bone Wars iTunes U collection!

References and Further Reading

  • American Naturalist, An Illustrated Magazine of Natural History. 1873: Vol 7. Salem, MA: Peabody Academy of Sciences.
  • Cope, E. D., 1870. Synopsis of the Extinct Batrachia, Reptilia and Aves of North America. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, Vol. 14, No. 1, pp. 1-252+i-viii
  • Jaffe, M. 2000. The Gilded Dinosaur: The Fossil War Between E. D. Cope and O. C. Marsh and the Rise of American Science. New York: Crown Publishers, 424 pp.
  • Leidy, J., 1860. Extinct Vertebrate from the Judith River and Great Lignite Formations of Nebraska. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, Vol. 11, pp. 139-154.
  • Morton, S. G., 1839. Crania Americana ; or, a comparative view of the skulls of various aboriginal nations of North and South America. J. Dobson, [and] Simpkin, Marshall & co: Philadelphia, London.
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Clare Flemming was the Director (Interim) of the Library & Archives and Brooke Dolan Archivist at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.