Cope is one of the most famous names in palaeontology. He was an American palaeontologist, anatomist and ichthyologist (a person who studies fish). He was amazingly talented and began his scientific career early, publishing his first scientific paper when he was just 19 years old.
Cope was born in Philadelphia on July 28th 1840 to Alfred and Hanna Cope. His father was a wealthy and enlightened man so Edward had the privilege of growing up in a liberal and educated household. The house stood on 3.2 hectares of gardens and grounds which Edward explored and he was taken on trips across New England and to museums, zoos and gardens. Little wonder that he developed a passion for the natural world at a young age. He went to school at a Quaker Friend’s Boarding School at Westtown Pennsylvania where he studied algebra, chemistry, scripture, physiology, grammar, astronomy and Latin. He then became interested in biology and he studied natural history in his spare time.
He got into trouble with his teachers
He got into trouble with his teachers for quarrelling and flashes of temper, traits which followed him throughout his life. At sixteen years of age his father kept him back from school and set him to work on a farm which he had bought him. Edward found this all to be dreadfully boring so he continued his education on his own, working part time at the Academy of Natural Sciences where he spent his time reclassifying and cataloguing specimen, publishing that first scientific paper in 1859. He began to learn French and German which his father paid for, and rented out his father’s farm and used the money to pursue his scientific career.
Eventually his father relented and allowed Edward to go back to university. Cope attended the University of Pennsylvania from 1861 to 1862 where he studied comparative anatomy under that other famous naturalist, Joseph Leidy. He also joined the Academy of Natural Sciences and the American Philosophical Society which gave him outlets to publish his scientific work.
Cope travelled to Europe
From 1863 to 1864 Cope travelled to Europe where he visited the best museums and met with some of the most highly esteemed scientists in the world. He travelled to France, Germany, Britain, Ireland, Austria, Italy and eastern Europe. During this time he met Othniel Charles Marsh in Berlin. At the time they got on and spent days together, talking shop no doubt and enjoying the exhibits in the museums. However Marsh had two university degrees compared to Cope’s lack of formal training, but Cope had written 37 scientific papers compared to Marsh’s miserable total of 2. Marsh came from a poor background while Cope had had a privileged upbringing, so they in fact came from different worlds with the only common ground being palaeontology. Little did they know at the time what the outcome of this meeting would bring.
When he returned to the US he began to expand his scientific studies and described a number of fish, a whale and a fossil amphibian called Amphibamus grandiceps, which was his first palaeontological contribution to the scientific literature.
From 1866 to 1867 he started making trips out west, sending home stories of the animals he described. He sold his farm to help pay for his scientific expeditions which included Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina. In the Marl Pits of Haddonfield he discovered Elasmosaurus and Laelaps. His time at Haddonfield was happy and productive where he described Lystrosaurus, Champsosaurus and Amphicoelias. From 1879 to 1880 he published 76 scientific papers based on his travels and the findings of his team of collectors in Texas, Kansas, Oregon, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. The problem was that all this publishing led to errors in interpreting and naming his new finds which damaged his reputation and caused some of his scientific names to be chucked on the rubbish heap. Marsh published fewer papers but was more careful in his approach which made his reputation in Europe. And so their great rivalry began.
Prospecting in Kansas
He then began prospecting in Kansas where life was tough and working hours long which eventually led to his breakdown. His life was spent in a cycle of digging bones during the summer and writing up the findings during the winter. During the 1870s he prospected across the West with the assistant of a geological team called the Wheeler Survey.
His father died in 1875 and he inherited a quarter of a million dollars which helped him, you guessed it, to further his fossil hunting. He moved his family back to Philadelphia and turned one of his houses into a museum,
In 1878 he travelled once again to Europe where he was warmly welcomed and had the pleasure of meeting such famous naturalists as Richard Owen, Huxley, Seeley and Gunther. In spite of Marsh’s efforts to damage Cope’s reputation before his travels to Europe, this did not affect his welcome on the other side of the Atlantic.
But things were to hot up into a full blown war – which we know to this day as the Bone Wars.
The Bone Wars
Cope’s relations with Marsh turned into a competition for fossils between the two, known today as the Bone Wars. The conflict’s seeds began upon the men’s return to the United States in the 1860s and a dispute over access to the Marl Pits and a very famous fossil, Elasmosaurus. Go here for more on the Bone Wars.
The period of Cope’s and Marsh’s paleontological digs in the American West spanned from 1877 to 1892, by which time both men had spent all of their money.
The 1880’s did not go well for Cope. Marsh got ahead due to his association with the US Geological Survey, and he had a steady income from Yale University and access to the American Journal of Science where he published his scientific papers. Cope lost his government funding and his family money wasn’t enough to support his bone hunting. He invested in mining but eventually lost his money there too. However in 1886 he received a teaching post at the University of Pennsylvania and made ends meet by giving lectures and writing magazine articles. He also took his Bone Wars to the press which brought the whole feud into the public eye. This damaged both of their reputations and Marsh fell from power at the Geological Survey and was eventually removed from his position there. Cope fell out with the University of Pennsylvania and the government pulled the plug on funding for palaeontology.
He named a fossil “Cope Hater”
Cope kept his sense of humour during this time and even named a species after a combination of ‘Cope’ and ‘Hater’ – Anisonchus cophater. In spite of a lack of money he continued to publish his papers. In 1889 he succeeded Leidy as the professor of Zoology at the University of Pennsylvania which allowed him to move back into one his townhouses which he had been forced to vacate some years earlier.
In 1895 he sold his collection to the American Museum of Natural History – ten thousand fossils in all so all those old bones left town – the University of Pennsylvania didn’t bid on his collection due to bad blood between Cope and the university – which was a loss ultimately for them.
In 1896, Cope began suffering from stomach disorder which came and went and laid him up for months. He treated himself with all sorts of medicines but eventually he died 16 weeks short of this 57th birthday.
Cope’s funeral consisted of six men: Osborn, his colleague William Berryman Scott, Cope’s friend Persifor Frazer, son-in-law Collins, Horatio Wood, and Harrison Allen. The six sat around Cope’s coffin among the fossils and Cope’s pets, a tortoise and a Gila monster, for what Osborn called “a perfect Quaker silence … an interminable length of time.” Anticipating the quiet, Osborn had brought along a Bible and read an excerpt from the Book of Job, ending by saying, “These are the problems to which our friend devoted his life.”
His contribution to palaeontology and the natural sciences was amazing. In less than 40 years, Cope published 1400 scientific papers which is a record that still stands to this day. These include three major volumes: On the Origin of Genera (1867), The Vertebrata of the Tertiary Formations of the West (1884) and “Essays in Evolution”. He discovered a total of 56 new dinosaur species during the Bone Wars compared to Marsh’s 80. Technically he lost the war if we look only at the number of species described, but he won in other ways and from Dinoman’s point of view he seems the more likeable of the two Bone Warriors.