Tag: Edward Drinker Cope

Oliver Wendell Holmes to E. D. Cope

Oliver Wendell Holmes thanks E. D. Cope for sending a copy of his “Outline of the Philosophy of Evolution,” though he confesses he cannot find the time to read it. This letter and many others are in the collection of Edward Drinker Cope Papers, 1848–1940 in Haverford’s Quaker and Special Collections.

Oliver Wendell Holmes could write a thank-you letter. Here he thanks E. D. Cope for sending him a copy of his latest essay. Holmes regrets that he has not yet found the free time to concentrate on Cope’s essay and so has yet to read it, though he looks forward to doing so.

Boston, Nov. 26th 1889

My dear Sir,
I am much obliged to you for sending me your “Outline of the Philosophy of Evolution”. I have had it on my table for more days than I like to recall—but it is because I cannot read it as it should be read until I get a little respite from other pressing occupations. It is a most welcome visitor to my library.

On October 4, 1889 E. D. Cope read a paper before a meeting of the American Philosophical Society, which was immediately published as “An Outline of the Philosophy of Evolution” in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. In it he ruminated on the question cognition and how it was possible. He promises,

Hitherto the nature of cognition has been chiefly considered in the realist-idealist discussion, but the nature of will is equally involved in it. Free will is in some sense a priori will or unconditioned will. I propose to devote a few pages to this old question, both as to the intellect and the will. My apology for doing so is that our knowledge of evolution is now greater than has been the case hitherto; and also because it appears to me that the attempt to develop a metaphysical system on a basis of Darwinian evolution has been only partially successful. Let us see what results follow the introduction into philosophy of the Lamarckian principle of evolution.[1]

Shortly after delivering his lecture, Cope sent a copy of it to Holmes, prompting Holmes to write his thank you note. Not only is Holmes’s note gracious, it is perfectly timed in that he wrote it before he read Cope’s essay. You should always send thank you notes for books or essays before you read them. In your ignorance of its quality, you can be genuine in your thanks. After reading the essay or book you might find it difficult to thank the person.


  1. It is unsurprising that Cope would introduce Lamarckian principles; he was a well-known Neo-Lamarckian. I’ve written about Cope before.  ↩

Maria Wants Her Sextant Back

Buried in Haverford’s Special Collections is a brief letter from Maria Mitchell to E.D. Cope.[1] When she wrote to Cope, Mitchell was a senior member of the scientific community. She was director of Vassar College’s observatory, where she was also professor of astronomy. On October 1, 1847, when she was 29, she had discovered a comet,[2] which discovery brought her considerable fame (and a gold medal from the King of Denmark). Following her discovery she was elected the first woman fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She spent the next two decades working for the U.S. Nautical Almanac Office computing ephemerides for Venus, was appointed to the American Philosophical Society in 1865, and in the same year she became the first female faculty member at Vassar College when it opened. By any measure, Mitchell was an accomplished scholar.

The first building completed at Vassar College was the observatory, long called the Maria Mitchell Observatory. Read more about it here, which is where I got the image.
The first building completed at Vassar College was the observatory, long called the Maria Mitchell Observatory. Read more about it here, which is where I got the image.

Cope too was an accomplished scholar, though his area of expertise was paleontology rather than astronomy. Although he had taught briefly at Haverford College, he didn’t seem to enjoy teaching, complaining that the students required too much time and attention, and so retired. His irritation was not limited to students and their incessant questions. When he left Haverford and moved into Philadelphia (his adjoining townhouses still stand at the corner of 21st and Pine St.) he became so annoyed by the herding of livestock down his street, that he wrote to the mayor demanding that the city outlaw it. The mayor’s response was polite but dismissive. He said he would look into it.

When Mitchell wrote to Cope in 1881, she had a very specific request: she hoped he would return her sextant.

Maria Mitchell’s letter to E. D. Cope asking him to return her sextant if he finds it in a box of James Orton’s things.
Maria Mitchell’s letter to E. D. Cope asking him to return her sextant if he finds it in a box of James Orton’s things.

1881 Nov 7
Observatory of Vassar College
Po’keepsie

Prof. Kope
Dear Sir,
A gentleman named Heath, who called on me yesterday, tells me that the boxes of the late Professor Orton are likely to reach your hands.
I lent Prof. Orton a valuable sextant which I hope may be found in the collection sent to you. May I trouble you, if it is among them, to send it to me by Express.
Yours,
Maria Mitchell

Apparently, Mitchell had loaned her sextant to Professor Orton. She was probably referring to James Orton, who in 1867 had borrowed various instruments from the Smithsonian for his expedition up the Amazon and into the Andes and then in 1869 had introduced natural history instruction to Vassar College.[3] in the 1870 Orton made two other trips to the upper Amazon and the Andes.

Mitchell’s sextant probably resembled this one, perhaps even with a nice mahogany case. 19th-century sextant’s are readily available for reasonable prices. Bamford’s auctioned this one a couple years ago.
Mitchell’s sextant probably resembled this one, perhaps even with a nice mahogany case. 19th-century sextant’s are readily available for reasonable prices. Bamford’s auctioned this one a couple years ago.

Orton’s interests in zoology and his explorations of the Andes seems to have linked Cope’s paleontology to Mitchell’s astronomy. Orton, who had a history of borrowing astronomical instruments, probably borrowed Mitchell’s sextant for one of his later trips to the Andes. We can imagine Orton exploring the Amazon jungle and the Andes using Mitchell’s sextant to chart his way. Then, after he died, Cope had arranged to acquire some of Orton’s material related to his zoological work. Apparently, Mitchell suspected that in one of those boxes Cope would find her valuable sextant.

Unfortunately, we don’t know if Mitchell ever received her sextant or even if Cope replied—unfortunately, Haverford’s collection of Cope letters doesn’t include any of his responses. Maybe the observatory at Vassar College has Mitchell’s sextant now on display with other historically significant instruments.[4]


  1. This letter is in the collection of E. D. Cope letters, which includes letters from all sorts of interesting people, including a letter from Ernst Haekel. To find other letters in the collection, see the Edward Drinker Cope Papers finding aid. If you want to read more about Cope, see these posts.  ↩

  2. Known for years (and probably still in various circles) as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet,” it is formally identified as C/1847 T1.  ↩

  3. Orton was apparently a supporter of coeducation and wrote a text based on his experiences teaching natural history at Vassar: Liberal Education of Women. He also wrote Comparative Zoology, Structural and Systematic, based on Agassiz’s functional approach to zoology.  ↩

  4. Haverford College used to have some 19th-century instruments, including sextants. But the college recently sold them. In a strange denial of expertise, the astronomer at the time didn’t consult with the historian of science (me) before deciding we no longer needed the instruments and deciding to sell them (the proceeds were used to support public programs at the observatory, if I recall correctly). We have lost the chance to learn anything more about those instruments.  ↩

Ernst Haeckel’s Letter to E.D. Cope

E.D. Cope received letters from all sorts of people, including one from Charles Darwin’s son Francis, who sought copies of any letters Cope and Darwin might have exchanged. Another of Cope’s correspondents was the German biologist Ernst Haeckel. Haeckel is best known for his particular theory of evolution, which combined aspects of Darwinism with German Naturphilosophie and Lamarckian ideas, best known for its central tenet: “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” The development of any individual organism from embryo to maturity recapitulates the evolutionary steps that successive ancestors of the species had reached.

Haeckel wrote to Cope in December 1894 asking him to forward along some books to other addresses.

Ernst Haeckel’s letter to Cope asking him to forward the “enclosed books.” (Source: Quaker and Special Collections, Haverford College)
Ernst Haeckel’s letter to Cope asking him to forward the “enclosed books.” (Source: Quaker and Special Collections, Haverford College)[1]

Jena 4.12.94
Dear Professor Cope!
Will you be so kind, to send the enclosed books to their adresses [sic]?
I hope you have received my „System. Phylogenie”.
With best thanks for your valuable works presented
Yours very truly
Ernst Haeckel

Regrettably, there is no evidence either of the “enclosed books” nor the “adresses [sic]” to which they were to be sent. Haeckel also mentions his Systematische Phylogonie, one of his more famous works.

If Cope had received a copy of Haeckel’s text, there is no evidence of it. It is interesting to note that Haeckel indicated that he had already forwarded a copy of his own book to Cope (or had requested that a copy be forwarded to him) and that Haeckel had received copies of Cope’s “valuable works.” It would be fascinating to see copies of these texts to look for how the two might have read each other’s work. It is also interesting that Haeckel felt comfortable enough with Cope to ask him to send along books to other recipients. Perhaps the two had met during Cope’s years in Europe—he had spent considerable time in Germany during his trip.

[Reposted from PACHSmörgåsbord: Ernst Haeckel’s Letter to E.D. Cope]


  1. Haverford Special Collections has a considerable collection of Cope papers. See Edward Drinker Cope Papers.
    Regrettably, there is no evidence either of the “enclosed books” nor the “adresses [sic]” to which they were to be sent. Haeckel also mentions his Systematische Phylogonie, one of his more famous works.  ↩

E.D. Cope’s Residence in Philadelphia

Edward Drinker Cope, the petulant paleontologist and neo-Lamarckian who complained about livestock being driven past his house and thought he was “an ideal model of homo sapiens and scientist” (see the section on “Cope’s Corpse”) lived for a time in adjoining townhouses on the corner of Pine Street and 21st in Philadelphia. He used one of the two townhouses as his laboratory and office, the other as his home. He would, no doubt, be upset to learn that his homes have been converted into apartments, quite a few apartments judging from the pile of phonebooks lying on the stoop. The solar-powered trash compactor in front of his house probably would have annoyed him as well.

E.D. Cope’s townhouses at the corner of Pine and 21st in Philadelphia. Note the pile of phonebooks on the stoops, suggesting that these two townhouses have been subdivided into a dozen or more apartments.
E.D. Cope’s townhouses at the corner of Pine and 21st in Philadelphia. Note the pile of phonebooks on the stoops, suggesting that these two townhouses have been subdivided into a dozen or more apartments.

In 2009 the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission erected a plaque in front of the townhouses celebrating Cope’s reputation.[1]

The plaque identifying Cope’s house and noting some of his achievements.
The plaque identifying Cope’s house and noting some of his achievements.

The plaque is appropriately hagiographic:

Edward Drinker Cope (1840–1897)
Internationally renowned vertebrate paleontologist and zoologist, Cope lived and worked here in his later years. He wrote many scientific papers describing hundreds of fossil & living animals and is famous for his long-standing feud with O.C. Marsh of Yale.

Strangely, they forgot to mention that just up the road, at the Academy of Natural Science, Cope had put the head of his Elasmosaurus at the end of the animals tail and then had three kinds of fits when O.C. Marsh and Joseph Leidy pointed out his error (see the brief account here). The plaque also fails to mention that many of Cope’s papers corrected errors that he committed in his frenzy to publish his results as quickly as possible.

Nevertheless, Cope’s residence is another landmark in Philadelphia’s rich tradition in the history of science.

[Reposted from PACHSmörgåsbord: The E.D. Cope Residence]


  1. Or maybe they replaced an earlier plaque in 2009. In any case, this shiny new plaque is dated 2009 at the bottom.  ↩

The Choleric Cope: An Exhibition Panel on Edward Drinker Cope

Last fall, as part of Haverford College’s exhibition on things Darwin—“Charles Darwin, Edward Drinker Cope, and the Evolution of the Natural Sciences at Haverford College”—I wrote a panel on Haverford’s most famous evolutionist, the Neo-Lamarckian Edward Drinker Cope. Although he is something of a local hero, Cope seems to have been a jerk (see, for example, this post). Having only a panel made it difficult to capture Cope’s personality, but I think I got pretty close.

After the exhibit ended in February, the library gave me the panel I wrote. I had largely forgotten about it, having stuffed it behind my filing cabinet, until today when I was looking for something else. Anyway, here is the text of the panel:

Edward Drinker Cope: The Choleric Naturalist

Edward Drinker Cope never hid his disdain for the rustic life. In 1894 he wrote to Edwin S. Stuart, the Mayor of Philadelphia, to complain about the livestock that farmers were driving down his street. The mayor politely but firmly reminded Cope that “the City Ordinances do not absolutely prohibit the driving of cattle, sheep, swine, etc. through the streets in the built up sections of the City, but as it is such driving is permitted at certain hours.”[1] Four decades earlier Cope had struggled to subvert his father’s efforts to make him into a gentleman farmer. Throughout his career Cope tried to distance himself from the country life and overcome the academic lacuna that separated him from his peers.

Exhibition Panel on Edward Drinker Cope from Haverford College’s Exhibition on Darwin and Evolution.
Exhibition Panel on Edward Drinker Cope from Haverford College’s Exhibition on Darwin and Evolution.

Formal Education

Edward was born on 28 July 1840 to a wealthy business family. His early schooling first at a day school in Philadelphia and later at Westtown School,an elite Friends’ boarding school in West Chester, reflected the ideals of wealthy 19th-century Philadelphians. During his time at Westtown his father began to groom Edward for life as a gentleman farmer. Edward spent summers working on a local farm in West Chester. Edward’s formal education ended in 1856, when his father pulled him out of school and purchased a farm for him. Except for a brief stint at the University of Pennsylvania in 1861, Edward was largely self taught. His lack of formal university training with its concomitant academic and social prestige troubled Edward for his entire career.

Cope’s Wanderjahre, 1863–1864

Like many wealthy young men, Edward spent a couple years traveling through Europe. Far from being remarkable, his travels in Europe would have been recognized as the proper finishing for a Victorian gentleman, exposing him to historic sights and introducing him into gentlemanly society. During his visit to Berlin Edward met Othniel Charles Marsh, with whom he would remain friends for a number of years until the two launched into an academic conflict that would define Edward’s career. The two made unlikely friends. Marsh had been groomed to be an academic, had developed all the right social connections and graces, and possessed a university degree from Yale as well as credentials from various German universities. Edward, by contrast, had no university degree and, although he had studied with Joseph Leidy for a year at the University of Pennsylvania, he did not benefit from a network of influential academic patrons. Nevertheless, the two exchanged fossils, manuscripts, and photographs for four or five years.

Professor Cope, Haverford 1864–1867 and Beyond

When Edward returned from Europe his family helped him secure a position at Haverford College. Edward and his family recognized that he did not have the academic pedigree to teach at Haverford, so through his family’s influence, Haverford College’s Board of Managers granted Edward a Master’s degree to overcome his lack of academic credentials. Edward taught at Haverford for three years. Although he was well paid, he complained that the students required too much time and prevented him from getting his own work done: “They [students] come and want long explanations between school hours which is a pleasure to me to give; it nevertheless consumes time.”[2] In 1867 he resigned from Haverford.

The Bone Wars

The friendship between Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh came to an abrupt end sometime in the late 1860s, when Othniel pointed out that Edward had made a significant error in his reconstruction of the fossil Elasmosaurus: Edward had placed the dinosaur’s head at the end of the tail rather than at the end of the neck. The rivalry between Othniel and Edward continued for the remainder of their lives, each trying to beat the other into print with the latest description and name of a new species or trying to expose errors in the other’s work. Edward’s headlong rush to publish contributed to innumerable careless errors; Othniel’s more careful rebuttals often relied on fossils that he had obtained through bribery and coercion. The two exchanged charges of distortion, fraud, shoddy research, and intellectual poaching. Through most of this contest, Edward worked outside of the academy, doing field work in the American West and working on government-sponsored projects, while Othniel remained in his chair of paleontology at Yale University. This dispute is as much a clash of cultures as a scientific controversy. Edward’s frenetic publishing and brash approach to paleontology reflected his efforts to establish his expertise despite his perceived lack of academic standing. Othniel’s more measured, critical attacks represent the academy’s effort to regulate who is granted intellectual authority.

Cope’s Prolific Publishing Accomplishments

One of the key aspects of the history surrounding Edward Cope is his publishing career. His more than 1,200 papers are often cited as some sort of record. Certainly, his conflict with Marsh motivated him to be so prolific. The cost of such a publication rate were the errors that plagued nearly every paper and the considerable repetition in his different articles, many of which were merely correcting errors he had made in earlier articles. Along with his articles, Edward also published books on paleontology, Neo- Lamarkian evolution, and herpetology (many of which are here in Haverford’s Special Collections):

  • The Vertebrata of the Tertiary Formations of the West (1884), often called “Cope’s Bible”
  • The Origin of the Fittest: Essays in Evolution (1887)
  • The Batrachia of North American (1889)
  • The Primary Factors of Organic Evolution (1896)

Cope’s Corpse

Even in death Edward Drinker Cope contrived of ways to aggrandize his reputation. Thinking himself an ideal model of homo sapiens and scientist, he left his brain and skeleton to the Anthropometric Society. In fact, he turned out to be too small of stature to be used as a physical model. His brain, weighing a mere 1345 grams, fell well below the top twelve heaviest brains, which according to research in 1912 ranged from 2102 to 1636 grams.[3]

[Reposted from PACHSmörgåsbord: The Choleric Cope: An Exhibition Panel on Edward Drinker Cope]


  1. Letter, Edwin S. Stuart to Edward Drinker Cope, 25 October 1894, Haverford Special Collections. Haverford Special Collections has a considerable collection of Cope papers. See Edward Drinker Cope Papers.  ↩

  2. Quoted in Davidson, The Bone Sharp, 31.  ↩

  3. E. A. Spitzka, “The Twelve Biggest Brains in the World,” NY Times (29 September 1912), page SM12.  ↩