Historical Markers
Edward Drinker Cope Historical Marker
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Edward Drinker Cope

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
2100 - 02 Pine Street, Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
November 6, 2002

Behind the Marker

Joseph Leidy next to the tibia (lower leg bone) of Hadrosaurus foulkii, 1858.
Joseph Leidy next to the tibia (lower leg bone) of Hadrosaurus foulkii, Philadelphia,...
Eight-year-old Edward Drinker Cope was fascinated by the fossilized remains in the display at Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences (the Academy). In his copybook he sketched one particularly toothy specimen - the ichthyosaurus - and described it as a monstrous sea lizard. Cope developed a lifelong passion for paleontology (the study of fossils), becoming a great "dinosaur hunter" and one of the nineteenth century's leading paleontologists.

Known for his ego, intelligence, and temper, he was a remarkable and prolific scholar who found thousands of fossils, named more than 1,200 vertebrate species, and published some 1,400 papers. Cope discovered and named over sixty new dinosaur species alone, approximately half of all those then known to scientists. Based on his observations and the evolutionary ideas of French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), he also developed the theory known as "Cope's Law," which states that animal and plant lines tend to get bigger over time. Although his theory came under serious attack in the 1970s, in recent years some scientists have begun to reexamine its plausibility.

Edward Drinker Cope sits a desk.
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Edward Drinker Cope, circa 1875.
Cope was born into a wealthy Philadelphia Quaker family on July 28, 1840. Attending Quaker schools, he learned about natural history and science through self-study and from trips to the Academy. His father wanted him to be a farmer, but Cope was interested in natural history. In 1859, he worked at the Academy as a volunteer re-cataloguing the herpetological collection (reptiles and amphibians).

During the Civil War, Cope studied and trained with noted Pennsylvania paleontologists Spencer F. Baird (1823-1887), at the Smithsonian Institution, and Dr. Joseph Leidy (1823-1891), at the University of Pennsylvania. By age twenty-two, Cope was recognized as one of the nation's reptile experts. In 1865, he became a curator at the Academy and briefly served as the chair of comparative zoology and botany at Haverford College, and there began to analyze fossilized dinosaur bones from archeological digs in New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia.

Black and white photograph of a balding, bearded man wearing a suit.
Yale University professor of paleontology Othniel Marsh, circa 1880.
ICope also participated in the government-sponsored expeditions to the West that took place in the decades following the Civil War. From 1871 to 1879, he worked with one of the four U.S. geological surveys, visiting fossil fields where he discovered and named dozens of new dinosaur species and demonstrated that the "age of mammals" began earlier than scholars had previously thought. This work earned him an international reputation, numerous honors, and the presidency of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1896.

In the 1870s, Cope became involved in an acrimonious public feud with his rival, O.C. Marsh of Yale University. Both men were ambitious, and they used their work on the western scientific expeditions to jockey for position as the nation's new leading paleontologist. As the competition grew more and more vicious, they hired away each other's bone hunters, stole fossils, and attacked each other's work.

In 1869, the simmering dispute exploded into the so-called "Bone Wars" after Cope named and pieced together a marine reptile, the elasmosaurus, and placed its head on the wrong end of the skeleton. Marsh exposed the error, and Leidy resolved the problem dispute by placing the skull in the proper place. But Cope was furious. He had already published an illustrated article describing his findings, and then tried, unsuccessfully, to buy every copy of the journal. Marsh managed to obtain two copies that he eagerly shared with scholars to embarrass Cope.

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Elasmosauras illustration by Edward Cope, from "The Fossil Reptiles of New Jersey,"...
In the late 1800s, paleontology was a still a new and inexact science. Marsh would make his own blunder in 1879 when he placed the skull of a camarasaurus, a plant-eating dinosaur named by Cope, on the body of an apatosaurus, a plant-eating dinosaur Marsh had already named, and christened the resulting fictional creature a brontosaurus, or "thunder lizard." Paleontologists would not realize Marsh's error until the 1970s.

The Bone Wars raged on into the 1890s, hampering scholarship, driving scholars out of the field, undermining public confidence in paleontology, and contributing to the end of the federal geological survey program. They did not, however, hold Cope back from pioneering work in other areas. In Batrachian of North America (1889) and Crocodilians, Lizards and Snakes of North America (1900), he described the natural history of reptiles and amphibians, laying the foundation for future work in those fields. In 1913, scientists named the leading journal for the study of fish, amphibians, and reptiles Copeia, in Cope's honor.

Cope's inherited wealth enabled him to pursue his scientific work and to support his family until the 1880s when he lost a large portion of his fortune in a western mining scam. After that, he earned money through a series of popular scientific lecture tours, and in 1889, accepted a professorship in geology and mineralogy at the University of Pennsylvania. Still in dire financial straits in 1894, he sold the bulk of his personal fossil collection to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. A year later, after the death of his mentor Leidy, he became the chair of comparative anatomy and zoology at the University of Pennsylvania, a position he held until his death. Edward Cope died alone in 1897 on a cot in his Pine Street office surrounded by his books and papers, the last remnants of his fossil collection, and a pet tortoise. Cope willed his body to the University of Pennsylvania's markerWistar Institute for scientific research.
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