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Edward Drinker Cope

Geology People

A Visionary Paleontologist and the Enigma of the Bone Wars

Edward Drinker Cope was one of the most influential American paleontologists of the 19th century, known for his groundbreaking discoveries, extensive research, and deep passion for prehistoric life. Although his legacy is often overshadowed by the infamous Bone Wars, Cope’s contributions to the field of paleontology were substantial and enduring.

Early Life and Education

Edward Drinker Cope was born on July 28, 1840, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, into a family with a long tradition of intellectual pursuits. From an early age, Cope displayed an insatiable curiosity and an avid interest in natural history. His father, Alfred Cope, a prominent surgeon, encouraged his son’s scientific interests, and together they explored the rich natural surroundings of their home.

At the age of nine, Cope’s passion for scientific inquiry led him to conduct his own experiments and collect specimens, particularly focusing on reptiles and amphibians. This fascination with the natural world laid the foundation for his future career as a paleontologist.

Cope received a private education, followed by enrollment at the University of Pennsylvania in 1857, where he studied comparative anatomy under the guidance of Joseph Leidy, a prominent paleontologist and anatomist. Leidy’s influence had a profound impact on Cope’s intellectual development and passion for paleontology.

Paleontological Pursuits and Early Discoveries

Cope’s fascination with fossils led him to conduct field expeditions across the eastern United States during his time at the university. His first significant contribution came in 1858 when he unearthed the remains of an ancient marine reptile, the Mosasaurus, from the Late Cretaceous deposits of New Jersey. This discovery garnered attention within the scientific community and marked the beginning of his remarkable career in paleontology.

In 1864, Cope embarked on an extensive expedition to the Western United States, an area rich in dinosaur fossils. This journey proved to be a turning point in his life as he made several significant discoveries, including the remains of Hadrosaurus, one of the first nearly complete dinosaur skeletons found in North America. This groundbreaking find further established Cope’s reputation as a skilled paleontologist and contributed to the growing interest in American dinosaur discoveries.

The Bone Wars Begin

While Cope’s early career was filled with promising discoveries and recognition, his rivalry with fellow paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh would come to define the latter half of his life. The conflict between the two eminent scientists, known as the Bone Wars, intensified during the 1870s.

The Bone Wars were characterized by intense competition, unseemly tactics, and a race to publish new discoveries. Cope and Marsh frequently attacked each other’s work and rushed to name and describe new species, leading to occasional inaccuracies and confusion within the scientific community. This fierce rivalry not only detracted from their individual accomplishments but also impeded the progress of American paleontology as a whole.

During this period, Cope expanded his fieldwork in the western territories, particularly in Wyoming and Colorado. He made several important discoveries, including the identification of more than 1,000 new species, many of which were dinosaurs.

Contributions to Paleontology

Cope’s contributions to paleontology were far-reaching and diverse. He published numerous scientific papers and monographs covering a wide range of subjects, including comparative anatomy, vertebrate paleontology, herpetology, and paleoethnology.

Cope’s research extended beyond dinosaurs and included other prehistoric creatures such as fossilized mammals, fish, reptiles, and early birds. His work helped advance the understanding of the evolutionary history and diversity of ancient life forms. In addition, he proposed influential theories on vertebrate evolution, emphasizing the importance of the direct development of higher vertebrates from lower ones, a concept now known as “Cope’s Law.”

Edward Drinker Cope's study in 1897
Edward Drinker Cope’s study in 1897

Legacy and Later Years

In the late 1880s, Cope faced personal and financial challenges. He struggled to secure stable funding for his paleontological expeditions and found it increasingly difficult to compete with the growing number of new paleontologists in the field.

Despite these difficulties, Cope’s reputation as a paleontologist remained significant, and he continued to publish scientific papers. In 1889, he was appointed Professor of Geology and Paleontology at the University of Pennsylvania, which provided him with some stability in his later years.

Tragically, Edward Drinker Cope’s life and illustrious career came to an end on April 12, 1897, at the age of 56. He passed away due to complications arising from kidney failure. Despite the controversies and struggles of his later years, Cope left behind a remarkable legacy, comprising a wealth of scientific discoveries and a profound impact on American paleontology.


Edward Drinker Cope’s life and work are emblematic of a remarkable era of scientific discovery in the United States. His early passion for the natural world, cultivated through the support of his family and mentors, laid the groundwork for his groundbreaking contributions to paleontology. While his legacy is inevitably intertwined with the tumultuous Bone Wars, Cope’s dedication to the pursuit of knowledge and the exploration of prehistoric life has left an indelible mark on the scientific community. Edward Drinker Cope is remembered as a visionary paleontologist, whose work has significantly enriched our understanding of the Earth’s ancient past.