Battle of the Dinosaur Bones: Othniel Charles Marsh Vs Edward Drinker Cope
By: Rebecca L. Johnson
Publisher: Twenty-First Century Books
Publication Date: August 2012
Reviewed by: Deb Fowler
Review Date: January 2013
Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh met in Berlin in 1863. One would think that because they were both “rising stars in the new scientific field of paleontology” that they would somehow be destined to become close friends. On the contrary, in time they became contentious rivals and enemies. Initially Marsh had little interest in anything when he was young, including an education. An inheritance made him rethink his life and at the age of twenty, he resolved to improve his lot in life and return to school. On a rock-hunting trip he found “two fossil fish vertebrae” that would alter his life. The money continued to flow as did his career.
Cope, on the other hand, was a child prodigy who loved to walk the halls of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. He was so impressed by what he saw “he started his own collection of rocks and fossils.” Despite his father’s insistence that he become a gentleman farmer, Cope pressed on, eventually becoming a student of Joseph Leidy, “the foremost U.S. anatomist and vertebrate paleontologist.” By the time he met Marsh in Berlin he was already well established in the field and was “an expert in vertebrates, both living and extinct.” What should have been a superb collaborative team quickly escalated into what became known as the “Bone Wars.”
The competition began when Marsh found an unusual bone, a bone that turned out “to be one of the most exciting discoveries” anyone had ever made in the field. It was from a pterodactyl, but not to be outdone, Cope headed for Kansas and “found a pterodactyl bigger than Marsh’s.” On and on they went. Cope however, was a more prodigious writer than Marsh, but Marsh had better funding for his expeditions. Many of their discoveries supported Darwin’s theories and filled in those missing pieces needed to support his theory of evolution. Just how far would these two men go with their battle. Would the Bone Wars help much needed work in the field of paleontology or hinder its progress?
This is an amazing look into the history of the scandalous rivalry between Marsh and Cope and their “Bone Wars.” Not many young people are aware than these two men even existed, let alone the importance of their discoveries. The reader will be fascinated with the blow-by-blow account of their intense rivalry. Marsh and Cope gave us a valuable look into the past, but they also made “mistakes that other paleontologist took years to correct.” The history of the field of paleontology in this book will be of high interest to anyone interested in the field, especially those interested in dinosaur fossils. The book has numerous black and white photographs and informative sidebars. In the back of the book is an index, a glossary, a timeline (1831 to 1899), source notes, a selected bibliography, and additional recommended book and website resources to explore.
Quill says: This is one is a series, Scientific Rivalries and Scandals, that will be of high interest to young people interested in unusual scientific stories!