Edward Drinker Cope

Edward Drinker Cope (July 28, 1840 – April 12, 1897) was an American Paleontologist and a founder of the Neo-Lamarckism school of thought. Despite little formal scientific training, Cope was one of the most prolific researchers in his field, publishing 1,400 papers during his lifetime. His expeditions and dedication enabled him to discover, describe and name more than 1,000 vertebrate species, making him one of the greatest contributors to the field of paleontology to date.

Edward Cope was born to a wealthy Quaker family near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His father, Alfred operated a shipping business and was a philanthropist. Edward’s mother, Hanna, passed away when he was three, but his father soon remarried to a woman named Rebecca. The Copes emphasized learning; they taught their children to read and write at a young age, and took them on frequent trips to various New England zoos & museums. These trips ignited Edward Cope’s desire to learn about animals and science – something that would fuel him for the rest of his life.

Alfred Cope valued education; he sent Edward to a day school, then an expensive boarding school for several years. Edward enjoyed learning, especially studying science, but his fiery temper often found him in trouble and receiving poor marks from his teachers. His father brought him home during summers to train him on the farm, as he thought this would be a lucrative career that would shape Edward into a wholesome gentleman. Edward didn’t take to farming; he greatly preferred his scientific studies. Much to his disdain, by sixteen years of age, his father required him to stay on the farm instead of sending him back to school.

At 18, during his years on the farm, he began working part-time at the Academy of Natural Sciences. There he catalogued and reclassified specimens and published his first scientific paper on salamanders. Alfred could no longer resist his son’s desire to study the sciences, so he gave in to his son’s wishes and paid for his classes at University of Pennsylvania. While in school, he re-catalogued the herpetological collection at the Academy of Natural Sciences, and became a member of both it and the American Philosophical Society. These memberships gave him outlets to publish his work, and he published more than 30 during his years at the University.

In 1863, Edward’s father sent him overseas to avoid the draft for the American Civil War. Throughout his European travels he met several esteemed scientists, including Othniel Charles Marsh who was attending the University of Berlin at the time.  The two took a liking to one another and bonded over a love of discovery. After Edward left Europe they continued correspondence, sending fossils, photographs, and manuscripts to one another.

In 1864, upon his return to the states, Edward’s father secured him a teaching job as the Professor of Zoology at a Quaker school, Haverford College. He was awarded with an honorary Masters degree so he could fill the position. He made the time to make several trips throughout the Eastern US which expanded his scientific studies. During these trips he discovered several fish, a whale, and his first paleontological contribution, an amphibian, Amphibamus grandiceps. Cope felt that growing the fossil record was a vital step to understanding evolution, especially in light of the running conflict of various theories of evolutionary processes and his own conflicts between his Quaker upbringing and his evolving viewpoints.

Cope married Annie Pim, a distant cousin, in 1855. The two had a daughter named Julia in 1866.  Cope enjoyed teaching, but he reveled more in scientific discovery, so he quit his job and moved his family to New Jersey to be closer to fossil beds in Haddenfield. His father sold the farm that he had once longed for Edward to run, to finance Edwards’ scientific career. Throughout the late-1860s Cope traveled to Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and the Western United States, continuing to collect and describe fossil specimens.


In 1868, Cope, still in communication with his colleague Marsh, invited him to a dig at his beloved Haddenfield. During this visit, Marsh struck a deal with the quarry owner, offering to pay him to send new fossil finds directly to Marsh at Yale. Not long after this incident, Marsh discovered an error in one of Cope’s published papers. Cope had rushed to publish a description of a new species of plesiosaur, and he had mistakenly put the skull on the wrong end of the snake-like creature. Marsh publicly exposed Cope’s mistake, and the two became openly hostile toward one another, igniting the “Bone Wars,” which would continue for nearly 20 years. Cope and Marsh battled incessantly, each trying to best the other by discovering, identifying and describing the most new vertebrate fossils. The two raced to publish their finds, trying to discredit one another in the process, and often resulting in errors on both sides.

Despite the feud, the 1870s were good for Cope – he averaged 25 publications per year (75 from 1879-80), and made several prominent discoveries and descriptions. In 1874, Cope was employed with the Wheeler Survey mapping parts of the United States west of the 100th meridian, and was able to explore areas of New Mexico Marsh and his other contemporaries had never set foot in.

In 1875 his father died and left him an inheritance of nearly a quarter of a million dollars, which enabled him to hire multiple teams to search for fossils year-round. In 1878 he described what is possibly the largest dinosaur ever discovered, the sauropod Amphicoelias.  When the “Bone Wars” began, only 18 species of North American dinosaur had been discovered. By the feud’s end, the two had discovered and documented more than 130 new species.

The war between the two took its final toll in the 1880s, when Marsh accepted a position with the US Geological Survey, which enabled him to cut Cope off from government funding that both men relied on to support their expeditions. What remained of his inheritance was not sufficient to support his rivalry, so Cope invested in mining. For several years, he was able to make good money with this venture, but eventually the mines stopped producing. By the 1890s, Cope had lost nearly everything, and he was forced to sell off much of his fossil collection.

Cope died on April 12, 1897, just short of his 57th birthday. Though his efforts left him with little, his vast contributions to the field of paleontology and his studies on evolution became his legacy.  He published theoretical papers throughout his lifetime, such as “Origin of the Fittest: Essays in Evolution” and “Theology of Evolution.” He eventually founded the Neo-Lamarckism school of thought, which claims that individuals can pass on traits acquired in their lifetime to their offspring. His Quaker upbringing often tied in to his evolutionary studies; in fact, he credited God with building a life force into evolution that propelled organisms toward higher levels of consciousness.

Image Caption: Portrait of Edward Drinker Cope. Credit: Frederick Guntekunst/Wikipedia