Many Americans ventured west during the mid-1800s in search of riches and a new beginning. The westward journeys of Othniel Charles Marsh 1860 had much in common with those of speculators. He travelled with William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, faced a Sioux chief, and engaged in a long and bitter feud with a rival over claims.
But Marsh sifted soil and river beds for dinosaur fossils, not gold.
In his 66 years, Marsh established American paleontology and classified over 70 dinosaur species. Although his career was scarred by a petty dispute with his rival, Philadelphia paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope, Marsh accrued many fossils and artifacts, literally adding tons of fossils to the Yale Peabody Museum’s collection.
Marsh was born Oct. 28, 1831, in Lockport, N.Y. to Caleb and Mary Peabody Marsh. His mother, the younger sister of millionaire banker George Peabody, died of cholera before he was three-years-old.
With the financial support of his uncle, Marsh attended preparatory school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. and graduated from Yale College in 1860. Marsh continued his education at Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School and several German universities.
He became the western hemisphere’s first professor of paleontology when he returned to Yale in 1866. At the time there was only one other such professor in the world.
Daniel Brinkman, a museum assistant in the Division of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Peabody, said Marsh is best known for his work with dinosaurs. During his career, Marsh developed an early dinosaur classification system and was responsible for naming, among others, the well-known Stegosaurus, Triceratops and Torosaurus.
In late 1877, Marsh named a large partial skeleton Apatosaurus. He was presented with a nearly complete skeleton two years later and classified it as Brontosaurus. While S.W. Williston, Marsh’s assistant and reptile expert, noted strong similarities between the two creatures, the two animals were not determined to be the same until 1903.
According to Mark McCarren, author of “The Scientific Contributions of Othniel Charles Marsh,” few fossil remains had been uncovered in North American and only a few dozen extinct species had been identified before Marsh began collecting.
“No paleontologist before or after has been able to equal the series of stunning and important finds that Marsh’s labors produced,” McCarren wrote.
In the early 1870s, Marsh organized some of the first major collection expeditions into the American West. He took Yale students on four expeditions between the years of 1870 and 1873, Brinkman said.
During these expeditions, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs was in the process of forcing the Sioux onto reservations. In an expedition to Badlands of South Dakota, Marsh and his party encountered the embittered Sioux, who assumed the scientists were searching for gold rather than bones. Sioux Chief Red Cloud allowed Marsh to proceed with his expedition only after he promised to present the Sioux’ complaints concerning rations and local corruption to President Ulysses Grant.
Brinkman said Red Cloud was skeptical after Marsh left. However, when Marsh fulfilled his promise, Red Cloud said Marsh was “the best white man I ever saw.”
While many historical sources claim Marsh did not spend much time in the field himself, preferring to send his assistants, Barbara Narendra, a senior museum assistant in the Peabody’s Division of Archives and Meteorites, said Marsh worked at dig sites almost every year.
The 1873 Yale College Scientific Exploration alone resulted in the collection of over five tons of fossils and other material for the Peabody, according to the museum’s Web site.
Two of the most significant discoveries from the Yale expeditions include specimens of the toothed marine bird Hesperornis and a toothed flying bird Ichthyornis, both from the late Cretaceous period — 89 to 65 million years ago.
These findings were significant because they represented the first discovery of birds with teeth. In addition, the birds exhibited physical characteristics of both birds and reptiles, according to McCarren.
“The skeletons helped bridge the gap between birds and reptiles and provided invaluable support for Darwin’s [evolutionary] theory,” he wrote in his book.
Marsh’s work with fossilized birds brought him much attention and praise within the scientific community. Even his arch rival, Philadelphia paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope, lauded the findings.
In a letter to Marsh dated Jan. 20, 1873 from “The Othniel C. Marsh Papers,” Cope wrote, “Your bird with teeth is simply delightful. Vae evolutionis opponentibus! De mortuis nil nisi boneum! [Woe to the opponents of evolution! Speak nothing but bones of the dead!].”
Marsh discussed these specimens and three additional species in his first major monograph, “Odontornithes: A Monograph of Extinct Birds in North America,” which he published in 1880.
After receiving a copy of the work, Charles Darwin wrote a letter to Marsh Aug. 31, 1880, stating, “Your work on these old birds, and on many fossil animals of North America, has afforded the best support to the theory of Evolution, which has appeared within the last twenty years.”
Marsh also observed evolutionary trends in the numerous equine fossils he recovered from the American West and was able to trace the lineage of the modern-day horse, most notably in the evolution of a many-toed foot into the modern hoof.
According to Url Lanham in “The Bone Hunters,” “[this was] by far the longest and most continuous series known for an actively evolving group of organisms. It provides the kind of direct, incontrovertible evidence that makes of evolution a fact rather than a theory.”
Although more recent research has proven some aspects of equine lineage more complicated than Marsh initially thought, his toe-hoof trend has persisted, Brinkman said.
The “fossil feud”
Marsh tended to alienate most of his subordinates, Brinkman said. He maintained strict control over his assistants’ research and was at times accused of taking credit for their work. Marsh tended to have polarized relationships with his aides, Brinkman said, either they loved and appreciated him or completely resented him and felt that he was overbearing.
According to Elizabeth Shore’s “The Fossil Feud,” many of those who worked under Marsh “chafed under the restriction against publishing.” Cope made consistent attempts to capitalize on the dissatisfaction among Marsh’s subordinates, urging the aides to publicly vocalize their discontent.
While Marsh sometimes had an odious reputation within the confines of his laboratory, he became infamous in the eyes of the public during his “fossil feud” with Cope. What began as a dispute over excavation sites exploded into a controversy played out in New York City newspapers and tarnished the entire field of paleontology, Brinkman said.
“[Marsh's] dispute with Cope started off innocently enough,” he said.
After accompanying Cope to one of his collecting areas in New Jersey, Marsh made his own contacts in the area and poached Cope’s resources.
At one point during his career, Cope published a reconstruction of a long-necked, marine reptile and mistakenly placed the head on the wrong end, Brinkman said. As soon as he realized his error, Cope attempted to recall every copy of the drawing.
Marsh returned the copy originally given to him by Cope, but that did not end the issue.
“Unbeknownst to Cope, Marsh had bought up two others — [which] he kept for his own personal satisfaction that Cope got things wrong,” Brinkman said.
The feud escalated in the 1880s when Marsh was named the official vertebrate paleontologist for the United States Geological Survey in 1882. Four years later, he was awarded honorary degrees from Harvard University and Heidelberg University.
According to the Peabody Museum, the reputations of both Cope and Marsh were marred when the two scientists’ rivalry erupted into print in January 1890. Shortly thereafter, Congress cut appropriations for paleontology in 1892.
In addition to the loss of federal funding, the feud alienated predecessors, peers and subordinates of the scientists. Marsh and Cope published at a hurried pace in order to outshine one another, making mistakes that caused confusion in the scientific community.
Brinkman said theories concerning the prolonged animosity between the two scientists are varied. Some say Cope was jealous of Marsh’s credentials, contacts and the fact that he had replaced Cope as the USGS paleontologist.
“The most recent hypothesis actually argued that the reason [Marsh] was a lifelong bachelor was that he was a homosexual, [and that] the antagonism on Marsh’s part [was the result of] a physical attraction to Cope, unrequited of course,” said Brinkman.
Brinkman and Narendra said they are skeptical of this theory because an early Marsh biography states Marsh wanted to marry the daughter of a senator from Hartford, Conn., but his affections were unreturned.
A lasting legacy
Despite the damage caused by the Marsh-Cope controversy, Marsh made significant contributions to the field of paleontology and to Yale. During the 1860s, Marsh convinced his uncle to donate $150,000 to Yale for the establishment of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, which was founded in 1866. The next year Marsh and natural historians G.J. Brush and A.E. Verrill were named the museum’s first curators.
“Peabody was one of the world’s first great philanthropists,” Brinkman said.
Brinkman said Peabody initially gave funds to Harvard for the establishment of the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Entomology, also founded in 1866. It was after this that Marsh convinced his uncle to donate to Yale as well, Brinkman said.
In 1869 Peabody died, leaving a sizable inheritance to his nephew.
Over the next 30 years, Marsh amassed “one of the most extensive collections of fossils ever put together by one person,” according to Narendra.
The president of the National Academy of Sciences for 12 years, Marsh published 270 papers and named 344 new vertebrate species from the fossils he and his collectors unearthed, according to “Discovery,” a Peabody publication.
Before his death March 18, 1898, Marsh — now buried in Grove Street Cemetery — presented his extensive collections, including fossils, bones, minerals and ethnological material to Yale.
Since his death, the man who named so many new dinosaur species, some of them twice, became the namesake of two dinosaurs — the Marshosaurus and Othnielia.