The feverish competition behind the Academy of Natural Sciences' legacy | Philly History

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Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, watercolor (1876), David J. Kennedy watercolor collection.

Starting this month, visitors to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University will have the opportunity to watch as conservators open up and renovate dioramas that have remained untouched since they were installed in the 1930s. Workers will remove the accumulated dust and install updated lighting and labeling in the Gorilla and Takin scenes, created in 1938 and 1935, respectively. The process will provide the public insight into the artistry and resilience of the dioramas, which have educated visitors and sparked curiosity for the better part of a century.

The academy’s legacy, of course, stretches back long before the first dioramas went up in 1929.  The institution — founded in 1812 — is the oldest of its kind in all of the Americas. Scores of preeminent scientists and scholars have passed through the academy’s halls, including the famous ornithologist John James Audubon. Charles Darwin acted as a corresponding member.

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Edward Drinker Cope, photograph (1876), HSP portrait collection (Collection V88).

One idiosyncratic Philadelphia native associated with the academy contributed enormously to the field of paleontology, though he stirred up a bit of trouble in the process. Edward Drinker Cope was born in 1840. A son of wealthy Quakers, Cope displayed a precociousness throughout his adolescence and began publishing scientific essays during his teenage years. He started volunteering at the academy when he was 18. Eschewing his father’s wish for him to become a farmer, Cope took classes under the famous paleontologist Joseph Leidy at the University of Pennsylvania in 1860 and — after a stint in Europe to avoid the Civil War — became a professor of comparative zoology and botany at Haverford at the young age of 24. By 1865, he was curating for the academy.

During the late 1860s, Cope began his extensive travels across the United States, and spent a considerable amount of time unearthing fossils outside of Haddonfield. His renown began to grow, and so too did his rivalry with the Yale paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh.

Cope first met Marsh during his travels overseas when the latter was studying at the University of Berlin. The two kept up a cordial relationship as they embarked on their scientific careers, but their relationship soured after Marsh bribed Albert Voorhees  — one of Cope’s contacts in New Jersey — to send any bones discovered on the site to Yale instead of the academy in Philadelphia. Thus the opening salvos of the “Bone Wars” were fired, commencing a decades-long rivalry that would generate a wealth of paleontological knowledge accrued through questionable professional decorum.

On one hand was Cope, a dedicated bone hunter passionate about fieldwork, and on the other was Marsh, a more institutional academic in possession of immense resources at Yale University. The two men deployed increasingly sinister means to derail the other’s work as their rivalry intensified: they would pay teams to show up at the other’s dig sites; each bribed the other’s workers to squirrel away unique bones behind their boss’ back; they even endeavored to destroy each other’s findings.

To compete with Marsh’s influence in premier scientific journals, Cope purchased the American Naturalist out of his own pocket in 1878, moving it from Salem, Mass., to Philadelphia and utilizing it as an organ in his academic war with Marsh. He published frantically, sometimes making mistakes in his categorization that paleontologists would fix years later. The magazine — among Cope’s many other expenditures in the conflict — drained his personal wealth, which was greatly diminished in his older years.

This feverish competition resulted in a stunning accumulation of scientific knowledge; Cope discovered or identified more than 1,000 creatures, described in the nearly 1,500 scientific papers he published throughout his life. His work made the academy a central institution in the worldwide development of paleontology.

In 1883, Cope resigned from the academy over disagreements regarding management, though he came back around to the institution toward the end of his life. In his will, he allocated monies earned from the sale of his collections for the academy to create “an endowment for a professorship or curatorship of Vertebrate palaeontology” [sic]. Though in typical form, he mandated that only those who “have the approval of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences” could occupy the position. The ever-competitive Cope would only have the best associated with his name.

He passed away on April 12, 1897.

Patrick Glennon is a communications officer at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. pglennon@hsp.org