Othniel Charles Marsh

Othniel Charles Marsh (October 29, 1831 – March 18, 1899) was an American paleontologist, specializing primarily in vertebrates. He is highly renowned as one of the most prominent scientists of his time, having discovered and described dozens of new species. Marsh is also credited with developing what is currently the most widely accepted theory of the origin of birds.

Marsh was born in Lockport, New York, to a family of moderate means. Thanks to the generosity of his uncle, George Peabody, a wealthy philanthropist and banker, he was able to afford higher education. He graduated from Phillips Academy, Andover in 1856 before attending Yale College (now Yale University), and pursuing geology and mineralogy at Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School, from which he graduated in 1862. His education continued at the University of Berlin from 1862-1865, where he studied paleontology and anatomy.

While in Germany, Marsh met Edward Drinker Cope, and the two quickly bonded over a love of fossils. Once Marsh completed his studies, he returned to Yale as a professor of vertebrate paleontology and department chair. This position was endowed to him by his uncle Peabody, who he also persuaded to establish the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale.

Upon returning to the United States in the mid-1860s, Marsh and Cope continued corresponding. Each named a fossil find after the other. In 1868, the tides turned when Marsh visited one of Cope’s digs at a New Jersey quarry. Behind Cope’s back, he paid the quarry owner to send any new fossil finds directly to his lab at Yale. Later that year, Cope rushed to publish a description of Elasmosaurus platyurus — a new species of plesiosaur — and in doing so made a mistake: he mistakenly reversed the vertebrae and placed the head of the creature on its tail. Marsh was the one to correct his mistake, and what was once an amicable relationship between the two men became a famous rivalry.

The “Bone Wars” between these two paleontologists continued for around 20 years; with the help of their crews their goal was to discover, identify, and describe more fossils than the other. When the feud began, only 18 species of North American dinosaur had been discovered. By the end of the feud, the two had together discovered and documented more than 130 new species.

It was Marsh who discovered well-known dinosaurs like the Stegosaurus and Triceratops, and in 1877 the sauropod Apatosaurus, which he later called “Brontosaurus”. While his rival Cope found 56 species, Marsh “won” the “Bone Wars” with his newly identified 80.

The two not only found dinosaurs, but made great discoveries of other vertebrates and fossil mammals. Among Marsh’s other finds were early horses, flying reptiles, and toothed birds. In total, he and his crew unearthed and named around 500 new species of fossil animals.

In the late-1880s, Marsh was placed at the head of the consolidated government survey, thanks to head of the US Geological Survey, John Wesley Powell and his contacts in Washington. He also received the Cuvier Prize from the French Academy of Science in 1897. He died of pneumonia on March 18, 1899. His home in New Haven, Connecticut was donated to Yale University and is now a National Historic Landmark known as Marsh Hall. The grounds are known as the Marsh Botanical Garden.

His finds live on, as they formed the core of the Peabody Museum’s collection, and the Great Hall is dominated by the Apatosaurus skeleton.

Marsh is credited with naming the genera Ceratosaurus in 1884, the Anchisaurus and Camptosarus in 1885, and the Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Atlantosaurus, Dryptosaurus, Nanosaurus, and Stegosaurus in 1877. In 1888 he named the Ceratops and Priconodon followed by the Triceratops and Nodosaurus in 1889.  He named the Ammosaurus, Barosaurus, Claosaurus, and Ornithomimus in 1890, and the Torosaurus in 1891. He also named many suborders and individual species of dinosaurs.

In 1976, the dinosaur Marshosaurus bicentesmus was named by Madsen as a tribute to Marsh, as was the dinosaur Othnielia (P. Galton, 1976).

Image Caption: Portrait of Othniel Charles Marsh (c. 1855-1880). Credit: Library of Congress/Brady-Handy/Wikipedia