Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Despite Americans’ age-old fascination with dinosaurs, probably few recognize the name Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1897). Although his name may not be as familiar as others in the long record of natural history – John James Audubon, John and William Bartram, Louis Agassiz – he has earned bis rightful place among America’s most accomplished and eminent natural scientists. Cope, whose life was consumed by the insatiable quest for knowledge, sacrificed wealth, family, and health in his search to explain and explore the world about him.

Named after Edward Drinker, a philanthropist and! family friend, he was born on July 28, 1840, to Alfred Cope (1806-1875) and Hannah Edge Cope (1814-1843) in what is now suburban Philadelphia, a city that served as his home base throughout his relatively brief but remarkable life. His father was wealthy, heir to a great fortune, and the younger Cope grew up at Fairfield, the family’s eight-acre farm on the Old York Road near Ger­mantown. It was at Fairfield that Cope nurtured bis curiosity about the natural world about him. Cope’s mother died three years after his birth from complications after giving birth to Cape’s youngest sister, Mary Anna.

His father remarried in 1851, to Rebec­ca Biddle (1812-1876). At an early age, Edward Drinker Cope demonstrated remarkable artistic ability and an aptitude for natural history. His father took the six-year-old boy to a museum in Philadelphia organized by Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), located on the second floor of the State House, now Independence Hall. In a letter to his maternal grandmother, Edith (Pusey) Edge, young Edward described in great detail the museum exhibits, including Peale’s legendary mastodon. “I have been at the Museum,” he wrote, “and I saw mammoth and Hydrarchas, does thee know what that is? It is a great skeleton of a serpent. It was so long that it had to be put through three rooms. There was a stuffed crocodile and an alligator, and the crocodile looked the ugliest and fiercest with his mouth wide open.” Cope’s childhood papers, particularly a diary he kept the following year during a voyage made at sea with his father to Boston, included many skillful drawings of animals and other subjects, prompting more than one historian to characterize him as a child prodigy.

After schooling at home by “Aunty Jane,” his Late mother’s sister, Cope attended Quaker day school, beginning his visits to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia as early as 1848. After graduation from day school, he was sent to the Westtown School, a Quaker boarding school founded in 1799. While a student at Westtown, Cope continued to frequently visit the Academy of Natural Sciences, mostly to identify toads, salamanders, and snakes he collected. By his teens, he began exhibiting a strong interest in biology, especially for herpetology, the study of amphibians and reptiles. His father, however, wanted him to manage the family farm, not pursue science as a career. During the summers of 1857 and 1858, Edward Drinker Cope worked on the farm, and lived with his father and stepmother during the winter months.

Cope’s work in the herpetological collections of the Academy of Natural Sciences began in earnest in 1858 and resulted the following year in his first publication, an article that appeared in the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences. His seven-page contribution, “On the primary divisions of the Salamandridae, with descriptions of the two new species,” described two new salamander species from Pennsylvania and reviewed in list form all the known species of living salamanders. The article also was the beginning of one of the most prolific publishing careers of any scientist – Cope published nearly fourteen hundred books, monographs, and articles during a forty-year period, from 1859 to 1900. (Some works were published posthumously, including The Crocodilians, Lizards, and Snakes of North America.)

By the 1860s, Cope bad established himself as one of America’s foremost herpetologists, in spite of the fact that he possessed virtually no university training. Only in 1860-1861 did he attend a year-long course on comparative anatomy taught by Joseph Leidy (1823-1891). Leidy, an eminent American biologist, anatomist, and paleontologist, noted for his encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world, mentored Cope. In addition to serving as president of the Academy of Natural Sciences from 1881 to 1891, Leidy also served as professor of anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania from 1853 to 1891 and professor of natural history at Swarthmore College from 1870 to 1885. Admirers christened him “Father of American Vertebrate Paleontology.”

Still hoping to persuade his son to settle into a comfortable way of life as a gentleman-farmer, Alfred Cope gave him a farm, McShag’s Pinnacle, in Chester County, in 1860. The ambitious twenty-year-old Cope thought otherwise; instead of working on the farm, he leased it to tenant farmers. He extended his scientific domain in the following year to work as a researcher at the Smith­sonian Institution in Washington, D.C., under the guidance of Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-1888), one of America’s leading zoologists. (Baird, the second Secretary of the Smithsonian
Institution, from 1878 to 1887, was a native of Reading, Berks County.) In 1861, Cope became a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences, elected its secretary in 1865, and appointed a curator in 1873. In 1866, he was elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society. Between 1859 and 1863, most of his publications dealt with the herpetological collections of the Academy of Natural Sciences.

With letters of introduction from Leidy and Baird in hand Cope toured the museums and scientific institutions of England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Ger­many, Switzerland, Italy, and Central Eu.rope in 1863 and 1864. Such a European tour was part of the traditional education of a privileged young savant of nineteenth-century America, but it may have been motivated by Alfred Cope’ s desire to keep his son out of military service during the American Civil War. It was in Belgium that Cope first met Othniel Charles (O. C.) Marsh (1831-1899), an aspiring young paleontologist studying in Berlin. The two fledgling scientists struck up a cordial friendship – a relationship that ultimately ended in bitter and rancorous hostility.

On his return from Europe in 1864, Cope was appointed professor of zoology by Haverford College, founded in 1833 by members of the Religious Society of Friends, where he taught for three years. In the summer of 1865, he married a distant cousin, Annie Pim (1844-1933), daughter of Richard and Mary Pim, Quakers living in Chester County. Less than a year after the mar­riage, their only child, a daughter they named Julia, was born on June 10, 1866.

By 1867, Cope’s newest fascination had become paleontology, piqued by the discovery of one of America’s first dinosaurs at Haddonfield, in Camden County, New Jersey, across the Delaware ‘River from Philadelphia. So great was his passion for paleontology that he resigned his professorship at Haverford College and moved his family to Haddonfield, putting him close to the active fossil field. The Haddonfield marl pits being excavated were yielding bones of many Cretaceous reptile – approximately seventy million years old – new to science. (Marl is a mixture of clays, carbonates of calcium and magnesium, and remnants of shells, forming a loam used as a fertilizer.) Cope had named his first dinosaur Laelaps (later changed to Dryptosaurus) in 1866 in an article published in the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences entitled “Remarks on the remains of a gigantic extinct dinosaur from the Cretaceous Greensand of New Jersey.”

In 1869, Cope finally ended the nearly decade-old struggle with his father over his choice of career by selling his farm. His first contact with fossils from the American West had occurred the year before, and he began devoting much of his research to paleontology. The story of the 1868 first contact that aroused his interest in paleontology remains legendary in the annuls of natural history.

An army surgeon shipped a skeleton of a plesiosaur, a long­necked marine reptile, discovered in Kansas in 1867 to the Academy of Natural Sciences. Cope presented the skeleton to the Academy in March 1868, and in July called attention to what he perceived as a peculiarity of the vertebrae, “reverse in respect to direction of their surfaces from the usual form among Verte­brata.” He published a reconstruction of the skeleton of this plesiosaur, in part confident in his interpretation of the vertebral structure because in 1851 (and again in 1864) Leidy had published the same orientation of similar vertebrae.

Leidy and Cope were, however, mistaken; both scientists had literally turned the vertebrae around. Cope had put the head on the tip of the tail in his published recon­struction, a mistake Leidy pointed out in 1870. Leidy also recanted on his earlier errors. If O.C. Marsh recognized the error, he wrote nothing about it until twenty years later, in 1890, when, in a newspaper attack on his rival, he claimed that he had pointed out the error to a crestfallen Cope in 1870. Marsh contended that this was reason Cope came to loathe him.

Despite his mistake, by the close of the 1860s Cope had emerged as one of the country’s foremost paleontologists. His desire to explore the fossil beds of the American West was intense and occupied much of his time and attention during the 1870s. He worked in western Kansas in 1871, in Wyoming in 1872, in eastern Colorado and western Wyoming in 1873, and in northern New Mexico in 1874 .. He spent 1875 in Philadelphia, and the following year hired field crews and individual fossil collectors to work for him in Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Oregon. In 1876, he traveled to Montana to collect, and in 1877, he worked in Texas, where the following year he discovered and named the familiar, sail-backed reptile Dimetrodon. In 1876, he purchased a scientific journal, The American Naturalist, which immediately became an important outlet for hundreds of brief articles about his new fossil discoveries.

Two years later Cope traveled to Europe to attend scientific meetings in Dublin, London, and Paris. At an exhibition in Paris, he purchased a large collection of vertebrate fossils collected in Patagonia by brothers Carlos and Florentino Ameghino, the first vertebrate paleontologists in Argentina. He returned in 1879 to the fossil fields of the American West, collecting in Colorado, Wyoming, and Oregon.

The Seveenties were busy years for Cope, both in the field and for publishing – he produced nearly four hundred titles during the decade alone. Travel to the field was by rail and stage and necessitated months of absence from home and family. Fieldwork was arduous – under harsh, primitive conditions – and often carried out in potentially dangerous “Indian country.” For Cope and others like him, the scientific rewards were enormous, though, and included amazing discoveries that ranged from gigantic Jurassic dinosaurs to tiny, early mammals.

Two of the individuals Cope hired to collect fossils during the 1870s, Charles H. Sternberg (1850-1943) and Jacob L. Wortman (1856-1926), proved to be among the greatest collectors of all ti.me. Stem.berg, a close friend who worked in the field with Cope, emerged in the twentieth century as perhaps the greatest dinosaur collector ever. After leaving Cope’s employ; Wortman worked. for the American Museum of Natural History and other large museums, collecting fossil mammals upon which he published many important articles.

The 1870s also saw the breakdown of the relationship between Cope and Marsh, igniting their legendary fossil feud, an acrimonious struggle known as the Bone Wars that lasted twenty years and remains one of the greatest scientific rivalries in the history of American science. Although Marsh claimed the break occurred in 1870, most historians of paleontology point to events i Wyoming’s Bridger Basin in 1872 as the first documented evidence of the feud. That summer Cope, Marsh, and Leidy collected separately in the Bridger Basin, making important discoveries, especially of rhinoceros-like early mammals called uintatheres. In an effort to announce their discoveries, both Cope and Marsh furiously (and furtively) scrambled to mail and cable the text of scientific articles back east for publication. In one infamous telegram, the new name Cope coined for a uintathere, Loxolophodon, was garbled by the telegraph operator as Lefalophodon, and the embarrassing blunder was published under Cope’s name.

Leidy grew aghast at Cope and Marsh’s behavior and quit pale­ontology, essentially confining his research to biology and comparative anatomy after 1872. Cope left the Bridger Basin that year to plunder Marsh’s Jurassic dinosaur sites at Como Bluff, Wyoming. Stories of skulduggery, thievery, and spying abounded. Each accused the other of unethical practices. And both were guilty in one way or another.

The 1880s saw Cope collecting less in the western fossil fields than he had during the previous decade, although he kept his paid crews and collectors busy. A significant addition to his team of collectors was David Baldwin – an individual about whom little is known – who collected for Cope in northw­estern New Mexico. Baldwin’s work was in large part a follow-up to Cope’s own work in New Mexico in 1874. In the eastern San Juan Basin, Cope collected an extensive fossil assemblage of early Eocene (approximately fifty-four million years old) mammals from rocks Cope called “Wabsatch,” now known as San Jose Formation. Beneath these “Wahsatch” rocks were older strata Cope termed “Puerco Marls” that yielded only fossil wood to Cope’s exploration, but Baldwin, working farther north than Cope, discovered an extensive assemblage of fossil mammals in the “Puerco Marls.” He sent examples to Cope, who pronounced them “earliest Eocene.” Now labeled Paleocene, they provided the primary basis for global recognition of the Paleocene epoch as the time period between Cretaceous and Eocene on the geological timescale. The discovery, description, and analysis of the fossil mammals of the “Puerco Marls” still stands as one of Cope’s most significant scientific contributions.

The 1870s proved costly for Cope. He purchased and published a scientific journal, traveled extensively, and paid the field expenses and wages of an array of hired fossil collectors. Although much of his scientific success was based on these activities, they were expensive endeavors and produced no income. Upon the death of his father in 1875, Cope inherited a quarter-million dollars, which translates to more than four million dollars in today’s currency. In the 1880s, Cope invested part of his inheritance in silver mines in Colorado and New Mexico and, by mid-decade, be had lost heavily on his investments.

A trip he made to New Mexico in 1884 was telling. After a brief visit with Baldwin, Cope proceeded to the silver mining district at Lake Valley in southern New Mexico. His efforts at mining engineering failed to turn around the worthless mines in which he had invested. On the side, however, he discovered the remarkable Mississippian (approximately 345 million years old) invertebrate fossil beds at Lake Valley, one of the most remarkable Mississippian fossil localities. Facing financial hardship, he eagerly anticipated working for the Geological Survey of Canada in 1885 as a consultant to identify and analyze fossils sent to him. In spite of precarious finances, the driven Cope did not curtail his activities and in 1885 traveled to Mexico.

He had undertaken much of his fieldwork during the 1870s in association with various government survey teams, and many of his scientific results were published by the federal government as part of the surveys. By the early 1880s, Cope had compiled an enormous monograph on much of his work, and during a five-year period, from 1884 to 1889, he spent time in Washington, D.C., lobbying Congress to fund his mono­graph and future publications. The first mono­graph, published in 1884 with government funds, is a massive tome of more than one thousand pages and more than seventy-five plates. Weighing in at slightly less than sixteen pounds, it has been forever known as “Cope’s Bible.”

“Cope’s Bible” is formally titled The Vertebrata of the Tertiary Formations of the West, Book I, but no further books appeared because his efforts to lobby Congress for funds to publish proved futile. The failure was partly due to opposition to Cope by Marsh and his politically important friend and ally, John Wesley Powell (1834-1902), a professor who had lost his arm during the Civil War at the Battle of Shiloh, soon to become the head of the newly formed United States Geological Survey.

The 1870s and early 1880s had been exciting decades of discovery and achievement for Cope. Although the late 1880s and 1890s saw Cope continue to extend his scientific reach, these were also years of financial distress, personal upheaval, and political strife. In the mid-1880s he began to write for non-scientific magazines, such as the Penn Monthly, The Open Court, The Monist, The Forum, and Independent. His articles covered a diverse array of topics, from capital punishment to divorce. He wrote these pieces simply because he needed the income. He also believed it necessary to return to university employment and was appointed professor of geology at the University of Pennsylvania in 1889.

During his work with various government surveys during the 1870s and 1880s, Cope was particularly involved in the survey headed by Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden (1829-1887), a friend and scientific ally. The various government surveys had competed with each other and, in some cases, duplicated efforts. In the late 1870s, Congress sought to weld them into one administrative unit, which became the United States Geological Survey. Hayden hoped to head the new survey, but lost out to Clarence King (1842-1901), who shortly afterward was replaced by Powell, Marsh’s intimate. Cope lost all government survey support for his work and publications. Powell delivered a crushing blow to Cope by appointing O. C. Marsh the official paleontologist of the U. S. Geological Survey.

In 1890, the Cope-Marsh feud erupted into the newspapers and ultimately endangered Cope’s position at the University of Pennsylvania. Undeterred, he pressed on with his research, in particular working for the Texas Geological Survey as its paleontologist. In 1894, Cope’s wife left him, but he wrote chatty letters to her regularly until his death. Cope had always been close to his daughter Julia, who married William H Collins, a professor of astronomy at Haverford College in 1894, but his relationship with Annie had long been strained. His frequent and lengthy absences and consuming work habits did little to sustain their relationship.

Beginning in 1885, Cope leased and lived in Philadelphia at 2100 Pine Street, and maintained his study and museum in the adjacent building where he produced much of his work during the later years of his career. He had amassed staggering collections of fossil mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and fishes. The fate of his collections concerned him greatly, and over the years he had attempted to sell them – for a suitable sum, naturally – to any scientific museum or institution that would house them. In 1890, Henry Fairfield Osborn (1857-1935), a colleague and long-time friend, accepted concurrent positions at Columbia University and at the newly built American Museum of Natural History in New York. The museum’s building expansion during the 1890s allowed more room for the growth of collections. With the acquisition of this new space, Osborn arranged to purchase the first wave of Cope’s paleontological collection, consisting of ten thousand fossil mammal specimens, 463 of which were type specimens, the original name bearers of the species. In 1894, Cope received thirty-two thousand dollars for the fossil mammals, a paltry sum in light of the collection’s breadth and depth. He originally sought fifty thousand dollars but after two hours of negotiation with Morris K. Jesup (1830-1908), museum president, a resigned Cope reluctantly settled for far less than he had hoped. Following his meeting with Jesup, Cope confided to his mend. “Osborn, I have sold my collection for eighteen thousand dollars less than it is worth. I have ceased to wonder why Mr. Jesup has been so successful in business!” Jesup had risen from humble beginnings to the rarified world of high finance, exemplifying the saga of the Victorian era’s self-made man.

Beginning as early as 1872, Cope’s letters and records made it evident that he suffered from chronic infections and “inflammations” of the urogenital tract, and by 1896 he had developed serious prostate problems. He had contracted malaria in Wyoming in 1872, and bouts of malaria-induced fevers and delirium plagued him throughout his life. By early 1897, Cape’s kidney function was deteriorating because of renal failure, a long-term result of malaria. He spent his last days in his cluttered work rooms, surrounded only by the objects of his relentless pursuits, his cot in the center of piles of fossil bones. He died on April 12 – but not before he donated his body to science. In accordance with his last will and testament, Cope’s brain, skull, and skeleton have been preserved as part of the study collections of the University of Pennsylvania.

Charles H. Sternberg was informed of Cope’s death while in his employ, working in the field in Texas. In his 1909 autobiography, The Life of a Fossil Hunter, Sternberg recalled that very moment, unwittingly providing a striking epitaph for Cope.

…I had never sorrowed more deeply than l did now over the news that in the very prime of life, in the noon day of his glorious intellectual achievements … the greatest naturalist in America had passed away with his work undone …. It is largely due to his efforts that the great science of paleontol­ogy;, which within my remembrance had but few votaries, is now considered one of the most interesting studies of modern times …. One thing is certain – as long as sci­ence lasts, and men love to study the animal of the present and of the past, Cape’s name will be remembered and revered…

The remainder of Cope’s paleontological collection, consisting mostly of fossil fishes, amphibians, reptiles, and several miscellaneous collections he had purchased in Europe, was sold five years after his death, in 1902, to the American Museum of Natural History for $28,550–about half their minimum worth-the proceeds of which went to his estate. By today’s standards, their true worth is immeasurable. To this day, Cope’s fossil collections at the American Museum of Natural History continue to be studied by student and professional paleontologists from around the world, a true testimonial to his scientific legacy.


Travel Tips

Follow in the footsteps of the great dinosaur hunters by visiting Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History, The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, or Philadelphia’s venerable Academy of Natural Sciences.

In Pittsburgh. During the golden age of dinosaur exploration, Carnegie Museum scientists discovered so many specimens that the institution’s Dinosaur Hall became crowded to capacity. The overcrowding, coupled with groundbreaking research during the past century, encouraged museum officials to begin transforming Dinosaur Hall into “Dinosaurs in Their World,” a dramatic, awe-inspiring exhibit that will reflect current scientific knowledge and understanding of these colossal creatures and the environments in which they lived.

For this major reinterpretation of Dinosaur Hall, the (4400 Forbes Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15213) is placing the monsters of the Mesozoic to 245 million years ago into surroundings that reflect their scientific and educational importance. Dinosaur skeletons will also be remounted in poses reflecting current theory. In addition, “Dinosaurs in Their World” will illustrate the incredible diversity of Mesozoic life, placing the giant reptiles amidst the hundreds of plants and species that shared the environment. Although the new exhibit will not open until 2007 (the one hundredth anniversary of the museum’s original Dinosaur Hall), the gallery space and the museum’s present-day Dinosaur Hall and PaleoLab will remain open through December 2005 so that visitors can actually watch curators and preparators rearticulate and reposition the dinosaurs!

To launch your own search for dinosaurs, visit www.camegiemnh.org on the Web or telephone (412) 622-3131.

In Harrisburg. The Hall of Paleontology and Geology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania (300 North St., Harrisburg, PA 17120-0024) gives visitors a firsthand, close-up look at some of the life forms that lived millions of years ago in what is now the Commonwealth. Highlights include a large prehistoric armored fish, Dunkleostus, “the denizen of the deep,” that terrified the seas of Pennsylvania and Ohio 376 million years ago, and the Marshalls Creek Mastodont, a prehistoric elephant that lived during the lee Age. Radiocarbon dating of wood samples from the Monroe County site that yielded the mastodont indicates that the animal died twelve thousand years ago. Visitors can wander through the hall’s recreated Carboniferous Forest and see the plants and animal life dating to the Pennsylvanian Peri­od – 310 million years ago.

Dino Lab is the museum’s interactive exhibit that enables viewers to see what takes place ”behind the scenes” in a fossil preparation laboratory. After fossils (including skeletons of dinosaurs) are found in the field, many steps not normally seen by or explained for the public are taken prior to their exhibition.

To plan your expedition to The State Museum, go to www.statemuseumpa.org on the Web or telephone (717) 787-4980.

In Philadelphia. Founded in 1812, the Academy of Natural Sciences (1900 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy., Philadelphia, PA 19103) – of which Edward Drinker Cope served as curator from 1865 to 1873 – has made tremendous progress in unlocking the secrets of life through its world-renowned scientific research and expansive study collections. The Academy’s Dinosaur Hall transports visitors back in time to the epoch when the reptiles ruled the planet.

An interactive experience for the entire family, Dinosaur Hall presents visitors with an unusual opportunity to search for fossils in the country’s largest indoor dig site, travel by time machine hundreds of millions of years into the past, and watch paleontologists intricately piece fossils together in the Paleo Lab. This exhibit station is actually a laboratory in a gallery setting.

Dinosaur Hall features a favorite, T. rex, but a more recent acquisition, Giganotosaurs, measures a staggering forty-feet in length! Found in Argentina, the Giganotosaurs currently holds the title as the world’s heavyweight champion in the category of largest meat-eating dinosaur. Its head alone is six feet long and its jaws are lined with teeth as large as steak knives – sufficient enough to have sliced and swallowed a human! The magnificent specimen, which has never before been fully articulated, mounted, and presented to the public, is poised to attack and has startled unsuspecting gallery visitors since its installation.


For Further Reading

Cope, Edward D. The Vertebrata of the Tertiary Formations of the West, Book I. Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1884.

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

Osborn, Henry Fairfield. Cope: Master Naturalist. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1931.

Schuchert, Charles, and Clara Mae LeVene. O.C. Marsh: Pioneer in Paleontology. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940.

Wallace, David Rains. The Bonehunters’ Revenge. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Compa­ny, 1999.

Warren, Leonard. Joseph Leidy: The Last Man Who Knew Everything . New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.


The contributors have co-authored a number of scientific papers during a period of twenty­-five years.


Spencer G. Lucas is curator of geology at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque. He received his doc­torate in geology from Yale University and is the author of many books and numerous technical papers on vertebrate paleontology and biostratigraphy. His Dinosaurs: The Textbook is the standard for colleges and universities worldwide. He is a long-time stu­dent of the life and scientific contributions of Edward Drinker Cope.


Robert M. Sullivan is senior curator of pale­ontology and geology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania. He received his PhD in geology from Michigan State University and has published numerous technical papers on fossil reptiles including turtles, crocodiles and lizards and, more recently, dinosaurs.