Edward D. Cope, Heads Above the Rest, the First Electronic Publisher in Science

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research.

by Earle E. Spamer, Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia

This is an abridged version, ruined specially for the web. To read the full original article in all its glory or lack thereof, see the print magazine.

When Edward Drinker Cope died in Philadelphia in 1897, he was one of the most famous men of ichthyology, herpetology, and vertebrate paleontology. One would think that with such acclaim he would have his head on straight. Demonstrably, such was not the case.

Cope and Marsh

Cope was a fiery antagonist when it came to publishing. He is the Cope of the infamous "Cope-Marsh War" that pitted him against arch-scientific-rival Othniel Marsh of Yale University, about which numerous articles and at least two books have been written.

Going for the Old

Cope spent summers in the freshly exposed wilds of the American West, spending hugely (mostly from government funds) to hunt for and haul equally huge volumes of bones back to Philadelphia.

He had used to get fossils for free from marl pit workers in New Jersey, when the source dried up without apparent cause. Marsh, made wealthy by an indulgent uncle, George Peabody, who bought him the Yale Peabody Museum, had been introduced by Cope to the pit bosses in New Jersey. And now Othniel had begun to pay them for the very fossils they used to give away to Cope. Edward had inherited a considerable amount of money from the Philadelphia mercantile business of grandfather and father Cope. But he managed to lose quite of bit of that in bad mining deals out West, and he didn't hold nicely to the idea of having to pay for earthly treasures. So he took the show on the road.

Rival Ravagers

Cope connected up with one of the predecessors of the U.S. Geological Survey. With his field crew he ravaged the West for bigger and newer extinct animals to discover and describe. Unfortunately, Marsh also hit the dusty trail. Sometimes the two camps resorted to spies and skullduggery -- even firepower -- to take over prime fossil-collecting areas and to way-lay crated shipments intended for the other. From here on it was a bitter rivalry in field and print, lasting all their lives.

In the world of scientific names of biological organisms, whoever first validly publishes a new description "wins." Good science or bad, the date of publication is the arbitrating factor. So, what's a paleontologist to do if he knows he has found a previously undescribed fossil, but he's way out on the frontier? Call home!

The Birth and Torment of Electronic Publishing

The telegraph was one of the new contraptions of the civilized 19th century. All Cope had to do was to saunter 10 or 20 miles to the telegraph office, scurry off a few messages in his awful handwriting, and have them sent to the Academy or to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, who dutifully published the descriptions in the next monthly installment of their respective scientific publications -- the 19th-century version of instant gratification.

Head of Steam

As if sneaky priority and misappropriated names weren't already enough to inflame an archrivalry like theirs, Marsh one day not so privately pointed out to Cope that the Philadelphian had placed the head of an extinct reptile on the wrong end.

Cope had named Elasmosaurus based on bones sent to him from Kansas. At first he gave two different names to the bones, thinking them to be from different creatures, then discovered they were but one. Drawing a reconstruction of the skeleton, he showed a giant ocean-swimming reptile with a short neck and a very long tail. So pleased was Cope that he distributed offprints of the article before the whole issue of the journal was published. Except (as Marsh was quick to point out) that he had failed to notice a key anatomical indication of "front" and "back" in the reptile vertebrae. In fact the long, flexible tail was a long, flexible neck.

 Reconstruction of Cope's Elasmosaurus

Mortified, Cope attempted to recall and destroy all the copies he had sent out. (He missed a few, so we know about the mistake today.) He redrew the skeleton and rewrote parts of the description, which already had been typeset and laid in galleys at the print shop; but he grammatically connected the pieces badly, and it shows. He tried to cover the whole thing up by redistributing new offprints with the same date of publication as the first (of course with no mention of Marsh's assistance).

Sadly, perhaps, the "good old days" of scientific rivalry, pitting vanity against wealth without the impediment of peer review, are gone. In any case, name-calling precludes a level head in the tactical war of words.


The Bone Sharp -- The Life of Edward Drinker Cope, Jane Pierce Davidson, Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadephia, 1997.


This article is republished with permission from the November-December 2000 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift! Visit their website for more research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.

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