Once friends, Marsh’s secret attempts to bribe men to send him fossils first, caused his relationship with Cope to devolve into something that can only be described as a fierce, nasty rivalry. From 1887 to 1892, these two paleontologists did their best to out-perform each other in any way possible. Both financed a number of expeditions into the Wild West to find dinosaur bones and paid “bone hunters” to collect fossils for them, all while working to undermine each other’s work in the most underhanded of manners (from bribery to attacks in scientific publications to outright theft and destruction of fossils). In the classic “publish or perish” manner, they rushed descriptions of the fossils into publication, using this opportunity to name numerous dinosaur species in a manner later described as “taxonomic carpet-bombing.”
This competitive bone-hunting became known as “The Bone Wars”.
While their efforts would eventually end in academic, financial and social disgrace, they were – almost single-handedly – responsible for driving a new public interest in dinosaurs which resulted in a surge of fossil excavations in North America.
O.C. Marsh named over 80 dinosaur species while also discovering and describing a number of other extinct animals, including pterodactyls. His interest in studying fossils to describe the evolution of life helped to establish the field of vertebrate paleontology as an academic discipline. He was, however, also known for pinching pennies and publishing the findings and conclusions of his subordinates under his own name, instilling an intense rage in a number of younger scientists, two of whom would later turn against him.
The Peabody Museum of Natural History, founded in 1866, still exists today – although not at its original location. When its doors first opened to the public in 1876, it was located in the heart of the Yale campus at the corner of High and Elm Streets – the location you will visit in A WHISPER OF BONE (click and scroll to see a photo of the original building). Overwhelmed by the quantity and sheer size of specimens that were being collected, the building was eventually demolished in 1917. A newer building was constructed in1925 at 170 Whitney Avenue where a number of fossils collected during The Bone Wars are still on display.
As part of my deep dive into the historical events of the day, I read an excellent non-fiction book, House of Lost Worlds, about The Bone Wars and the history of events at the Peabody Museum. Two thumbs up, should you be interested.
If you’d prefer your history in a more fictional setting, two books Dragon Teeth and Every Hidden Thing tell stories set in this same time period and delve into the intense rivalry between Marsh and Cope.
Two additional historical notes that you may find of interest as you read:
Though USA TODAY bestselling author Anne Renwick holds a Ph.D. in biology and greatly enjoyed tormenting the overburdened undergraduates who were her students, fiction has always been her first love. Today, she writes steampunk romance, placing a new kind of biotech in the hands of mad scientists, proper young ladies and determined villains.
Anne brings an unusual perspective to steampunk. A number of years spent locked inside the bowels of a biological research facility left her permanently altered. In her steampunk world, the Victorian fascination with all things anatomical led to a number of alarming biotechnological advances. Ones that the enemies of Britain would dearly love to possess.
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