In the golden age of palaeontology, two US scientists indulged in a bizarre battle of bones. James Williams unearths the facts
Lying, cheating scientists are few and far between. But they do exist. And rivalry between scientists, though common, thankfully seldom ends in physical violence. But in the late 19th century, two palaeontologists, Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, started a feud that ended up in pitched battles with sticks and rocks in the American desert, and saw a unique peace treaty drawn up between the Cheyenne tribe and O C Marsh.
Marsh was born in 1831, the son of a farmer. When he was three years old his mother died and he was pushed from home to home, shared between various relatives. At the age of 21 he came into some money from his mother's wedding dowry, supplied by his uncle, the wealthy philanthropist George Peabody.
As a teenager Marsh spent many hours collecting fossils, and as his interest grew, he decided to study them further. So he used his inheritance to fund academic studies at Phillips Academy in Andover, until, at the age of 25, he persuaded a wealthy uncle to fund further research work at Yale.
In his early thirties he travelled to Europe and, on his return, persuaded his uncle to fund a museum of palaeontology at Yale, where Marsh was installed as professor of palaeontology. But Marsh was interested only in status, probably because of his childhood experiences of being passed from one relative to another.
Some aspects of Marsh's early life are mirrored by that of his arch rival E D Cope. Cope was born in 1840, the son of a Quaker ship owner. Like Marsh, he suffered the death of his mother when he was three, but his home background was nevertheless lavish and stable.
He had an intense interest in fossils from an early age and, by all accounts, was mature beyond his years. Like Marsh he also spent time travelling Europe as a teenager, returning to America in 1864.
The two first met in 1868, when they spent a week collecting fossils together. But this meeting was their first and last on friendly terms. The following year it was obvious the men hated each other, each competing to be recognised as the foremost authority in palaeontology.
One unfortunate incident in 1877 saw an amateur fossil collector caught up in their feud. The collector sent word of a probable dinosaur find to both men. He sent his gigantic bones to Cope, who promised payment for them and started the work of describing this new species.
Marsh, though, sent a bogus letter to the collector cancelling the "deal" with Cope. He then sent a cheque and asked for the bones to be forwarded to him. The collector contacted Cope and asked that the bones be sent directly to Marsh. Cope retaliated by accusing Marsh of lying, cheating and fraud.
The relationship between the two men was thus far from happy. In an attempt to ridicule his rival, Marsh described a new species of fossil mammal, naming it Anisconchus cophater or "jagged toothed Cope hater". Their rivalry also led to needless destruction of important sites. Cope would often dynamite his excavated sites before occupying Marsh's abandoned ones.
Although the feud led to physical battles between their respective collecting teams, a much larger battle was taking place around them. The native peoples felt betrayed by the US Government, believing their ancestral lands and resources, including gold, oil and many other minerals, were being systematically stolen and stripped in return for poor quality rations and land.
Chief Red Cloud was the main spokesman for the tribes, and when, in 1876, General Custer led an expedition of 1,000 men looking for gold, the most famous massacre in US history took place, the battle of Little Bighorn. Marsh, however, ignored official advice not to enter tribal territory in the Black Hills of Dakota and set up camp in the middle of 12,000 native Americans preparing for battle with the US Cavalry. He single-handedly negotiated a peace treaty with Chief Red Cloud so he and his team could excavate a rich fossil site. In return Marsh agreed to make representations to President Grant over the way the native people had been treated.
In fulfilling his promise Marsh exposed high-level corruption and scandal in the Grant administration. This probably did more to establish him as the most famous palaeontologist in America than all of his fossil finds put together.
In 1880 the Cope-Marsh feud hit the national press. Accusations of plagiarism were made as each criticised the other's ability to correctly describe and identify new species.
The rivals' haste in claiming priority for naming species often led to slipshod work. But this Wild West battle of the bones did have one positive scientific benefit. Between them, Cope and Marsh discovered and described almost 2,000 new genera and species of fossil and filled many major musums with first-class specimens.
They achieved notoriety in palaeontology, which they both craved. But it was not for their scientific work as much as for their intense rivalry and hatred and their underhanded methods of obtaining new specimens.
James Williams is head of the science faculty at The Beacon School, Banstead, Surrey