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Othniel Charles Marsh

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Othniel Charles Marsh
Born(1831-10-29)October 29, 1831
Lockport, New York, United States
DiedMarch 18, 1899(1899-03-18) (aged 67)
Alma materYale College (BA, MA)
University of Berlin
Heidelberg University
University of Breslau
AwardsBigsby Medal (1877)
Scientific career
InstitutionsYale University

Othniel Charles Marsh (October 29, 1831 – March 18, 1899) was an American professor of Paleontology in Yale College and President of the National Academy of Sciences. He was one of the preeminent scientists in the field of paleontology. Among his legacies are the discovery or description of dozens of new species and theories on the origins of birds.

Born into a modest family, Marsh was able to afford higher education thanks to the generosity of his wealthy uncle George Peabody. After graduating from Yale College in 1860 he travelled the world, studying anatomy, mineralogy and geology. He obtained a teaching position at Yale upon his return. From the 1870s to 1890s, he competed with rival paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope in a period of frenzied Western American expeditions known as the Bone Wars. Marsh's greatest legacy is the collection of Mesozoic reptiles, Cretaceous birds, and Mesozoic and Tertiary mammals that now constitute the backbone of the collections of Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution. Marsh has been called "both a superb paleontologist and the greatest proponent of Darwinism in nineteenth-century America."[1]


Early life and family[edit]

Othniel Charles Marsh[a] was born on October 29, 1831, near Lockport, New York. He was the third of four children born to Mary Gaines Peabody (1807–1834) and Caleb Marsh (1800–1865). The Marsh (nee Marshe) family and Peabody families immigrated to America from England in the 1630s. Mary died shortly after the birth of her fourth child in 1834.[4] Caleb remarried in 1836 and Othniel moved with the family to Bradford, Massachusetts.[5] Soon after, Caleb's business fortunes soured, and Othniel's early years were marked by financial struggles.[2]

Caleb purchased a farm in Lockport when Marsh was twelve.[6] As the eldest son, Othniel was expected to assist his father on the farm, and the two had a contentious relationship. Othniel much preferred excursions in the woods to his chores.[7] Among his childhood influences was Ezekiel Jewett, a former military officer and amateur scientist who influenced Othniel's interest in the sciences. Jewett had been drawn to the area by the fossils unearthed by the enlargement of the Erie Canal, and the two would hunt and prospect for specimens together.[8][9][7]

By 1847, Othniel was attending school at the Wilson Collegiate Institute, and later attended the Lockport Union School.[10] Othniel was undecided as to what he would do for a living, but the course of his future was dramatically changed due to the intervention of his uncle George Peabody, who was a successful banker.[11] With Peabody's financial assistance (spurred by Marsh's aunt, Judith), Marsh enrolled in Phillips Academy in 1851.[8][12] Older than most of the other students, he was nicknamed "Daddy" by his peers.[8] He was initially an unremarkable student, devoting much of his time to leisure and games, but the next year decided to focus on his studies. "I changed my mind," he later told a biographer, "during an afternoon spent on Dracut Heights [Lowell]. I resolved that I would return to Andover, take hold, and really study."[b][13]

Marsh applied himself to his studies and graduated valedictorian of his class in 1856.[14] In the summers off of school, he prospected for minerals in New York, Massachusetts, and Nova Scotia.[15] Upon gradation, Marsh decided to attend Yale, rather than Harvard, where many of his relatives had attended. He ran his letter to George Peabody asking for the funds by Aunt Judith first, who disapprovingly noted it contained two spelling errors.[16] Peabody agreed to cover Marsh's expenses and give him an allowance for spending money, and Marsh moved to New Haven in September.[17] Marsh was a good student, but not a thrifty one; Aunt Judith, who was in charge of monitoring Marsh while Peabody was in Europe, regularly upbraided her nephew for his lax accounting habits and large expenses.[18][19] Marsh graduated eighth in his class, using a scholarship he won for the best examination in Greek to finance a masters degree from Yale's Sheffield Scientific School, as he developed an interest in becoming a professor of science. While in graduate school, Marsh published his first scientific papers on minerals and vertebrate fossils from his Nova Scotia trips, which possibly inspired Marsh's interest in vertebrate paleontology. He obtained his masters degree in 1862.[18][20]

European travels[edit]

Following school, Marsh declined a professorship at Yale[21][c] and instead took a tour of Europe; it is possible the trip was to avoid being drafted into the American Civil War, although he might have also been disqualified from service on account of his eyesight.[3] Marsh traveled through England, France, Germany, and Switzerland, studying with or making the acquaintance of prominent scientists such as Heinrich Ernst Beyrich, Wilhelm Peters, Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg and Henry Woodward. In discussions with his uncle, Marsh convinced the businessman to fund a natural history museum at Yale.[23][24][25] While studying at the University of Berlin in late 1863, the 32-year-old Marsh first met 25-year-old Edward Drinker Cope, who was also on a scientific tour of Europe. Cope had much less formal schooling than Marsh, but had already published thirty-seven papers. The two Americans spent a few days together and would become friends.[26][27]

After a salmon fishing excursion with Peabody in Ireland, Marsh returned to America in July or August 1865.[25][28] Marsh had expected Peabody's gift would have resulted in a position at Yale, but it took until 1866 when Yale established a chair of paleontology at the university. Marsh was given the position, but no salary was attached; biographer George Grinnell suggested that this suited Marsh just fine, as we was more interested in research than teaching.[29][30] Marsh's interests shifted entirely to paleontology, and after 1869 his other scientific contributions mostly ceased.[30]

Trips west[edit]

Othniel Marsh (center, back row) and assistants ready for digging in 1872

While teaching, Marsh toured the country, visiting museums to inform the planning of the Yale Museum.[31] In 1868, he visited Cope; since their meeting, they had expressed warm wishes in letters to each other and even named species after each other.[32] Cope took Marsh on a tour of the marl pits in New Jersey where he was finding fossils; unbeknownst to Cope, Marsh would later pay the pit operators to divert their finds to him instead of Cope.[33] Marsh later noted that Cope's reconstruction of his newest find, the aquatic reptile Elasmosaurus, was flawed: Cope had placed the head of the animal where its tail should have been. Marsh's criticism wrankled Cope, and threatened his nascent career; he responded by critiquing errors in Marsh's work, and moving in on areas Marsh was prospecting in. Their relationship began to sour.[34]

Marsh was looking further afield than New Jersey for fossils. After visiting Chicago for a meeting of the American Association, Marsh elected to join other members to Omaha on a "geological excursion"; it was Marsh's first trip to the far western United States, and it inspired him to return to prospect.[35]

Marsh organized a series of private expeditions starting in 1870 to 1874, with the prospecting groups composed of Yale students or recent graduates. The first of these uncovered more than a hundred new species of vertebrate fossils.[36] After 1876, Marsh employed bone hunters who shipped specimens back to him; he did not return west himself until 1879.[37]

When Cope began prospecting for fossils in the Bridger Basin, which Marsh considered "his" territory, their relationship deteriorated into hostility.[38]

Marsh served as Vertebrate Paleontologist of the U.S. Geological Survey from 1882 to 1892.[39] Thanks to John Wesley Powell, head of the USGS, and Marsh's contacts in Washington, Marsh was placed at the head of the consolidated government survey in the late 1880s.[40]

Other career[edit]

In 1880, Marsh caught the attention of the scientific world with the publication of Odontornithes: a Monograph on Extinct Birds of North America, which included his discoveries of birds with teeth. These skeletons helped bridge the gap between dinosaurs and birds, and provided invaluable support for Darwin's theory of evolution.[41] Darwin wrote to Marsh saying, "Your work on these old birds & on the many fossil animals of N. America has afforded the best support to the theory of evolution, which has appeared within the last 20 years" (since Darwin's publication of Origin of Species).[42][43]

Hesperornis regalis, a species of ancient flightless bird with teeth, as drawn by Othniel Marsh, and published in his book, Odontornithes: A Monograph on the Extinct Toothed Birds of North America.

Between 1883 and 1895, Marsh was President of the National Academy of Sciences.[39]

The pinnacle of Marsh's work with dinosaurs came in 1896 with the publication of his two quartos, Dinosaurs of North America and Vertebrate Fossils, which demonstrated his unsurpassed knowledge of the subject.[44]

On December 13, 1897, Marsh received the Cuvier Prize of 1,500 francs from the French Academy of Science.[45]

Scientific legacy[edit]

According to Peter Dodson, Cope and Marsh "[have] left a legacy, and each was a distinguished researcher. But really it seems impossible to say one name without the other. Cope and Marsh." Marsh's names for three dinosaur groups, and nineteen genera, have survived, and though only three of Cope's named genera are still in use, he published a record 1400 scientific papers.[46]

Marsh named the following dinosaur genera:

He named the suborders Ceratopsia (1890), Ceratosauria (1884), Ornithopoda (1881), Stegosauria (1877), and Theropoda (1881).

He also named the families Allosauridae (1878), Anchisauridae (1885), Camptosauridae (1885), Ceratopsidae (1890), Ceratosauridae, Coeluridae, Diplodocidae (1884), Dryptosauridae (1890), Nodosauridae (1890), Ornithomimidae (1890), Plateosauridae (1895), and Stegosauridae (1880).

Marsh dubbed many additional species of dinosaur as well, notable taxa including Allosaurus fragilis, Triceratops horridus, Stegosaurus stenops, Ornithomimus velox, and Brontosaurus excelsus.

Dinosaurs named by others in honour of Marsh include Hoplitosaurus marshi (Lucas, 1901), Iaceornis marshi (Clarke, 2004), Marshosaurus (Madsen, 1976), Othnielia (Galton, 1977), and Othnielosaurus (Galton, 2007).

Marsh's finds formed the original core of the collection of Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History. The museum's Great Hall is dominated by the first fossil skeleton of Brontosaurus that he discovered, which was reclassified as Apatosaurus for a time. However, an extensive study published in 2015 concluded that Brontosaurus was a valid genus of sauropod distinct from Apatosaurus.[47][48][49] Some other Marsh taxa like Camarasaurus lentus, Nanosaurus agilis, and Camptosaurus dispar are also represented in the Peabody fossil hall.

He donated his home in New Haven, Connecticut, to Yale University in 1899. The Othniel C. Marsh House, now known as Marsh Hall, is designated a National Historic Landmark. Marsh Hall serves as the home of the Yale School of Forestry at the Yale School of the Environment. The grounds are now known as the Marsh Botanical Garden.

Marsh was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1877.[50]

Marsh formulated the Law of brain growth, which states that, during the tertiary period, many taxonomic groups presented gradual increase in the size of the brain. This evolutionary law remains being used due to its explanatory, and to a certain extent, predictive potential [51]

Prior to Marsh's efforts, the entirety of fossil remains known in North America was quite small. As a result of the generosity of George Peabody, Marsh was able to keep discovery teams in the field almost continuously from 1870 until his death. The material recovered in his 30 years of collection was simply astonishing to the scientific community. At the Peabody Museum, Marsh was the first to create skeletal displays of dinosaurs, which are now common in countless museums of natural history.[52]

Marsh biographer Mark J. McCarren summed it up this way, Marsh's "contributions to the understanding of extinct reptiles, birds and mammals are unequaled in the history of paleontology."[53]

Marsh Butte, located in the Grand Canyon, was officially named in his honor in 1906.

On December 15, 2023, McSweeney's published the piece “IT’S A COMEDIAN’S JOB TO MAKE FUN OF EVERYBODY, AND THAT’S WHY MY ACT IS ENTIRELY ABOUT 1880s PALEONTOLOGIST OTHNIEL MARSH”, by Anthony Scibelli.[54]


  1. ^ Marsh would not go by his given name outside of childhood, with Othniel omitted from his passport entirely,[2] and preferred "O.C."[3]
  2. ^ Author Mark Jaffe suggests Marsh's sudden change in mindset was sparked by the death of his sister Mary, who died at age 23, almost the same age as his mother.[8]
  3. ^ Biographers Charles Schuchert and Clara Mae LeVene say that the story of the professorship is "probably true" as Marsh included it in an outline of his life, but that there was no confirming record of such an offer.[22]


  1. ^ McCarren 1993, p. 1.
  2. ^ a b Schuchert & LeVene 1978, pp. 15–16.
  3. ^ a b Wilford 1985, p. 112.
  4. ^ Schuchert & LeVene 1978, pp. 6–13.
  5. ^ Schuchert & LeVene 1978, pp. 13–15.
  6. ^ Grinnell 1910, p. 284.
  7. ^ a b Grinnell 1910, pp. 284–285.
  8. ^ a b c d Jaffe 2000, p. 22.
  9. ^ Schuchert & LeVene 1978, pp. 16–18.
  10. ^ Schuchert & LeVene 1978, pp. 18.
  11. ^ Schuchert & LeVene 1978, pp. 13.
  12. ^ Schuchert & LeVene 1978, pp. 20–21.
  13. ^ Grinnell 1910, pp. 285–286.
  14. ^ Grinnell 1910, p. 287.
  15. ^ Schuchert & LeVene 1978, pp. 22, 25–27.
  16. ^ Schuchert & LeVene 1978, p. 29.
  17. ^ Schuchert & LeVene 1978, p. 30.
  18. ^ a b Jaffe 2000, p. 23.
  19. ^ Schuchert & LeVene 1978, pp. 39–40.
  20. ^ Schuchert & LeVene 1978, pp. 41–45.
  21. ^ Grinnell 1910, p. 290.
  22. ^ Schuchert & LeVene 1978, p. 47.
  23. ^ Jaffe 2000, pp. 23–24.
  24. ^ Schuchert & LeVene 1978, pp. 49, 56–57.
  25. ^ a b Grinnell 1910, p. 291.
  26. ^ Davidson 1997, p. 29.
  27. ^ Jaffe 2000, pp. 11–13.
  28. ^ Schuchert & LeVene 1978, p. 63.
  29. ^ Schuchert & LeVene 1978, pp. 59–60, 65.
  30. ^ a b Grinnell 1910, p. 290–291.
  31. ^ Schuchert & LeVene 1978, pp. 94.
  32. ^ Jaffe 2000, p. 12.
  33. ^ Gallagher 1997, pp. 34–36.
  34. ^ Jaffe 2000, pp. 13–20.
  35. ^ Schuchert & LeVene 1978, pp. 96–97.
  36. ^ Grinnell 1910, p. 293.
  37. ^ Grinnell 1910, pp. 296–297.
  38. ^ Wilford 1985, p. 118.
  39. ^ a b "Othniel Charles Marsh". Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. 2017. Retrieved 2017-07-27.
  40. ^ Wallace 2000, pp. 175–179.
  41. ^ McCarren, Mark J. The Scientific Contributions of Othniel Charles Marsh, pp. 16-17, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1993. ISBN 0-912532-32-7.
  42. ^ Plate, Robert. The Dinosaur Hunters: Othniel C. Marsh and Edward D. Cope, pp. 210-11, David McKay Company, Inc., New York, New York, 1964.
  43. ^ Cianfaglione, Paul. "O.C. Marsh Odontornithes Monograph Still Relevant Today", 20 Jul 2016, Avian Musings: "going beyond the field mark."
  44. ^ McCarren, Mark J. The Scientific Contributions of Othniel Charles Marsh, p. 11, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1993. ISBN 0-912532-32-7.
  45. ^ "Minor Paragraphs". Popular Science Monthly: 574. Feb 1898. Retrieved 13 May 2013.
  46. ^ Jaffe 2000, pp. 381–382.
  47. ^ Tschopp, E.; Mateus, O. V.; Benson, R. B. J. (2015). "A specimen-level phylogenetic analysis and taxonomic revision of Diplodocidae (Dinosauria, Sauropoda)". PeerJ. 3: e857. doi:10.7717/peerj.857. PMC 4393826. PMID 25870766.Open access icon
  48. ^ Gorman, James (7 April 2015). "A Prehistoric Giant Is Revived, if Only in Name". New York Times. Retrieved 7 April 2015.
  49. ^ Choi, Charles. "The Brontosaurus Is Back". Scientific American.
  50. ^ "MemberListM | American Antiquarian Society". www.americanantiquarian.org.
  51. ^ Faria, Felipe (2017). "Marsh's law of brain growth and the idea of biological progress in evolution". Scientiae Studia. 15 (2): 387–410. doi:10.11606/51678-31662017000200009.
  52. ^ McCarren, Mark J. The Scientific Contributions of Othniel Charles Marsh, pp. 2, 8-9, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1993. ISBN 0-912532-32-7.
  53. ^ McCarren, Mark J. The Scientific Contributions of Othniel Charles Marsh, p. 55, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1993. ISBN 0-912532-32-7.
  54. ^ Scibelli, Anthony. "It's a Comedian's Job to Make Fun of Everybody, and That's Why My Act Is Entirely About 1880s Paleontologist Othniel Marsh". McSweeney's Internet Tendency.


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