Famous for the Bone Wars between him and his arch rival Edward Drinker Cope. Marsh was born in New York in 1831 to a relatively poor family. However his uncle was a very wealthy banker, George Peabody, who also became famous as we shall see later. Marsh graduated from Phillips Academy in 1856 and Yale College in 1860 following which he studied geology and mineralogy – also at Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School. Still not satisfied he went to Berlin, Heidelberg and Breslau in Germany to study palaeontology and anatomy. He must have learned some German in his time there which stood him in good stead later in life. On his return he was appointed professor of vertebrate palaeontology at Yale at the tender age of 36.
Part of Marsh’s great legacy was managing to persuade his uncle George to establish the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale.
Marsh paid teams of fossil hunters, and went hunting fossils himself, and during his working life he managed to discover around 500 new fossil species. In 1871 he found the first American pterosaur, and went on to find early horses, flying reptiles, Cretaceous and Jurassic dinosaurs such as Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Apatosaurus and Allosaurus.
Marsh will however be remembered more for the Bone Wars – a war which he waged with ruthlessness against his arch rival Edward Drinker Cope. This war ultimately cost them both in terms of money and reputation, but at the end of it over 120 new species of dinosaurs had been named between them.
Marsh first met Cope in 1863 in Berlin. He had two university degrees compared to Cope but Cope had written 37 scientific papers in comparison to Marsh’s miserable two. However they got on well together in the early days and continued to correspond for some time after their initial meeting. Cope then took Marsh to a marl pit to show him his fossil discoveries there but on leaving Marsh went behind Cope’s back and told the quarry manager to send all the bones to him. This was a bit of a dirty trick so personally speaking I am not so sure if I like Marsh. Then Cope made the mistake of putting the head on the tail of a marine reptile Elasmosaurus, and Marsh made sure that that mistake would never be lived down by Cope. And so the relationship deteriorated. For more on this amazing period in American palaeontology and the Bone Wars go here.
Marsh was always well connected and knew how to work those connections, which eventually got him the post of the head of the consolidated government survey in the late 1880’s. In 1897 he was recognised by the French Academy of Science and was Awarded the Cuvier Prize and 1500 Francs.
Marsh died in 1899, managing to outlast Cope. At the end of the day he had named dozens of new dinosaurs, many of which are the ones we know so well today. He also had dinosaurs named after him, with names like Marshosaurus, Othniella and Othnielosaurus.
Then there is that great pile of bones which he collected, which are now housed in Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History. The Great Hall is dominated by the first fossil skeleton of Brontosaurus (which was reclassified as Apatosaurus but has now been returned to Marsh’s original classification –for more on this go here. All in all a grand legacy indeed.