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.  ↩

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