Dinosaur Wars: American Experience on WXXI-TV

Dinosaur Wars: American Experience on WXXI-TV

Mon, 03/07/2011 - 9:30pm

Credit: Courtesy of American Museum of Natural History

Over thirty years of intense competition, two scientists laid the foundations of modern paleontology and in the end, all but ruined each other.

Dinosaur Wars: American Experience, airing Monday, March 7 at 9:30 p.m. on WXXI-TV/HD (DT 21.1/cable 1011 and 11), reveals the story of two paleontologists who uncovered the remains of 130 species of dinosaur and collected thousands of specimens, putting American science on the world stage in the late 1800s, but their professional rivalry left both men alone and almost penniless.

In the summer of 1868, paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh boarded a Union Pacific train for a sight-seeing excursion through the heart of the newly-opened American West. While most passengers simply saw magnificent landscapes, Marsh soon realized he was traveling through the greatest dinosaur burial ground of all time. Ruthless, jealous, and insanely competitive, Marsh would wrestle over the discovery with the other leading paleontologist of his generation—Edward Drinker Cope. Over time, the two rivals would uncover the remains of dozens of prehistoric animals, including 130 dinosaur species, collect thousands of specimens, provide ample evidence to prove Charles Darwin’s hotly disputed theory of evolution, and put American science on the world stage.  But their professional rivalry eventually spiraled out of control. What began with denigrating comments in scientific publications, led to espionage, the destruction of fossils, and political maneuvering that ultimately left both men alone and almost penniless. Produced by Mark Davis and Anna Saraceno,

In the decades following the Civil War and the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species, “survival of the fittest” came to define both the science and the business of the day, as ambitious men scrambled for control of unclaimed wealth on the western frontier.  For Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh, the prize was not timber, land, or metals, but fossil bones—dinosaurs, sea monsters, and primitive mammals embedded in the rugged landscapes of the American West.  The new transcontinental railroad put the ancient bone yards within reach of science for the first time. At stake in the vast and varied fossil fields of the West was an opportunity for someone to piece together and explain nothing less than the history of life on Earth. For almost thirty years, Cope and Marsh competed ruthlessly for that distinction.  Under their influence, science in the United States emerged from the shadow of Europe and matured into a robust, cutthroat, quintessentially American enterprise. Cope and Marsh launched America’s love affair with dinosaurs and the prehistoric past that continues to this day—but they also managed to destroy each other in the process. 

Edward Cope was born to a prosperous Quaker family in Philadelphia.  A self-taught prodigy, he grew up in the world of amateur, gentlemen naturalists, as did most American scientists in the years before the Civil War. Though he lacked formal training, he was a brilliant scientist.

Othniel Marsh was a poor farm boy in rural New York until he was plucked from obscurity by his wealthy uncle, George Peabody, the great Victorian philanthropist.  After staking his nephew to an education at Andover, Yale, and European universities, Peabody endowed a science museum at Yale College where Marsh was installed as the first professor of paleontology in America.  O.C. Marsh was a skilled institution builder and an imperious competitor who could not tolerate being second to anyone.

Cope and Marsh proved to be a lethal combination of ambition and temperament. By the early 1870s they were competing head-to-head in Kansas and Wyoming, piecing together the story of life that evolved in what is now the western plains and Rocky Mountains 50 to 70 million years ago.  Their discoveries revolutionized the young field of paleontology and drew praise from Darwin himself. In professional journals though, their scientific rivalry grew increasingly bitter to the dismay of their colleagues. 

The stakes rose dramatically in 1877 when scouts for both Cope and Marsh began uncovering giant bones in Colorado and Wyoming.  They were unlike anything ever seen before. Until then, dinosaurs had been known only from a few poorly preserved specimens, none especially large. Suddenly, Cope and Marsh stumbled onto a lost world of Jurassic monsters – Brontosaurs, Stegosaurs, and Allosaurs – a fossil trove that would launch a new era of dinosaur paleontology.

The mad scramble for dinosaurs near Como Bluff, Wyoming, brought out the best and worst in Cope and Marsh. And their feud turned poisonous. 

Over thirty years of intense competition, Cope and Marsh laid the foundations of modern paleontology and in the end, all but ruined each other.  Cope died in 1897 at the age of 56, and Marsh followed in 1899 at the age of 68.  Neither man lived to see the work of his lifetime discovered by the public.  After their deaths, museums in New York, Washington, New Haven, and Pittsburgh began mounting the fossil skeletons collected over the previous thirty years and putting them on public display for the first time.  Monsters of the past were not just for scientists any more, and they continue to enthrall new generations to this day.