Othniel Charles Marsh (1832-1899)

The description of the magnificent collections which he assembled, and which have been studied continuously ever since, is still far from complete, forty years after his death, and he left an impress upon his chosen science of Vertebrate Paleontology that will last as long as the bones he gathered and pages he printed endure.

Charles Schuchert and Clara LeVene. . . 1940

Othniel Charles Marsh still retains a reputation as an "armchair paleontologist," too busy to work in the field, who owed his high standing not to genius, but to luck and to his family's money. It is true that his contributions to geology were not of particularly high quality, and that his paleontological work was sometimes slipshod. Whereas his great rival Edward Drinker Cope went into the field throughout his career, Marsh himself spent only four seasons in the field, between 1870 and 1873. It is also true that the chair of paleontology that Marsh occupied at Yale was endowed for him by his wealthy uncle, who further endowed the Peabody Museum of Natural History where Marsh's collections remain to this day. Marsh's ambitious, possessive, and sometimes unscrupulous and egotistical nature also made him a rather difficult person to work with. Yet for all that, his contributions to paleontology and evolution were formidable. He remains one of the great figures in American paleontology.

Marsh is perhaps most famous as the rival and enemy of Edward Drinker Cope, America's other great vertebrate paleontologist of the period. The two men started out as friends, collecting fossils together in the eastern United States. Legend has it that the feud between the men began when Marsh paid some of Cope's hired diggers to send fossils to him and not to Cope. Matters became worse in 1870, when Cope published a description of Elasmosaurus, a giant plesiosaur -- and Marsh gleefully pointed out that Cope had accidentally placed the skull on the wrong end of the beast. The battle was on: for the next twenty years, the two men attacked and slandered each other in print, while they and their crews raced to find and describe the most and the finest new fossils. Each scientist hired field crews to unearth and ship back fossils as fast as possible. The rival crews were known to spy on each other, dynamite their own and each other's secret localities (to keep their opponents from digging there), and occasionally steal each other's fossils -- all the time exposed to harsh conditions and danger from hostile Native Americans. "The Great Bone Wars," or "The Great Bone Rush," will live long in paleontological folklore.

Meanwhile, the two scientists worked furiously to describe their fossils. In their haste, they often based descriptions of new species on sparse material, and sometimes mixed up bones from different animals, or gave different names to the same animal. To give the most famous case: In 1877, Marsh hastily described a new species of sauropod dinosaur, which he named Apatosaurus. This description was not based on anything like a complete skeleton; all Marsh had at the time were some vertebrae and part of the pelvis. In 1879, he hastily named and described another sauropod, Brontosaurus, also based on incomplete material. In 1883, after more of the skeleton had been unearthed, he presented a full reconstruction of the skeleton of Brontosaurus, which remains one of the most complete sauropod skeletons known. Not until 1903 did paleontologist Elmer Riggs show that the bones described as Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus belonged to the same species of dinosaur. By the rules of scientific naming, the first name given a species supersedes all others. And so, as any six-year-old dinosaur enthusiast will tell you, Brontosaurus is no longer a valid scientific name. As if that weren't enough, Marsh had mistakenly given his skeleton of Brontosaurus the skull of a third sauropod, Camarasaurus -- an error that many paleontologists suspected, but that wasn't conclusively shown to be wrong until the 1970s.

Despite such shenanigans, the feud between Marsh and Cope benefitted paleontology immensely. When Marsh and Cope began to work, only eighteen dinosaur species were known from North America -- many only known from isolated teeth or vertebrae. Between them, the two men described over 130 species of dinosaurs. It was Marsh who described such famous dinosaurs as Stegosaurus and Triceratops. Both also made great discoveries of fossil mammals and other vertebrates. Although not the first paleontologists to work in the "Wild West," Marsh and Cope opened up the immense troves of fossils to be found in the western United States. Who won the "Bone Wars"? The real winners were the museums that ended up housing the two men's enormous collections -- Marsh's at the Peabody Museum and the Smithsonian Institution; Cope's at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. These have remained a rich source of data for generations of paleontologists.

Where Cope was a neo-Lamarckian -- a believer in the inheritance of acquired traits -- Marsh was one of the first American converts to Darwin's theory of evolution. As it turned out, he also gathered an immense amount of data to support it. Darwin's book Origin of Species was published in 1859, during Marsh's senior year at Yale. In 1862 and 1865, Marsh traveled to England, where he met scientists such as Charles Lyell, Thomas Henry Huxley, and Charles Darwin himself. Marsh later wrote of Huxley as a "guide, philosopher, and friend, almost from the time I made the choice of science as my life work."

Marsh's enormous collection of fossils enabled him to fill in a number of the gaps in the fossil record that were troublesome for supporters of Darwinian evolution. His descriptions in the 1870s of Cretaceous toothed birds such as Ichthyornis and Hesperornis, coming right on the heels of the discovery of Archaeopteryx, filled in a major gap in the early history of birds. In 1877, Marsh proposed the theory that birds were descended from dinosaurs, following Thomas Henry Huxley. Later, in 1881, Marsh suggested a close affinity between birds and coelurosaurs (small carnivorous dinosaurs):

In some of these [dinosaurs], the separate bones of the skeleton cannot be distinguished with certainty from those of Jurassic birds. . . Some of these diminutive Dinosaurs were perhaps arboreal in habit, and the differences between them and the birds that lived with them may have been at first mainly one of feathers. . .
This theory of birds evolving from dinosaur ancestors was revived in the 1960s, and is now by far the most widely accepted theory of the origin of birds.

Even more famous was Marsh's work on horse evolution. . . .

The virtual exhibit "Paper Dinosaurs, 1824-1969" includes images of many dinosaurs as they were described by Marsh. It's brought to you by the Linda Hall Library, Kansas City, Missouri.