The Time 19th Century Paleontologists Punched it Out

Cope vs Frazer. Art by Zander and Kevin Cannon, from Brinkman, 2015.
Cope vs Frazer. Art by Zander and Kevin Cannon, from Brinkman, 2015.

Edward Drinker Cope wasn’t exactly the most even-keeled of paleontologists. The great “Bone Wars” that sparked a race to uncover America’s prehistory required the enmity of two fossil fanatics, after all, and Cope certainly proved himself capable of throwing jabs and haymakers in print at his friend-turned-nemesis Othniel Charles Marsh. Even among friends Cope was known as “pugnacious” and “quarrelsome.” And as historian Paul Brinkman points out in a new paper, Cope didn’t always hold his punches in face-to-face confrontations, either. On a spring night in 1888, in the hall at Philadelphia’s American Philosophical Society, Cope brawled with his friend Persifor Frazer.

The blow-by-blow account, rediscovered by Brinkman in the University of Pennsylvania archives, was recorded by Frazer the day after the scuffle. The episode was especially strange, Brinkman writes, because Frazer was Cope’s closest friend. The naturalist often came to Cope’s defense as the cranky paleontologist’s reputation suffered in Philadelphia’s scientific community, with Frazer trying to quell “certain controversies” surrounding his friend. And while it ended up being Frazer who jumped to violence, Cope’s pig-headed attitude is what brought the fellows to blows.

The spark for the scuffle was a letter. Cope, Frazer wrote, had written that his friend held an opinion that was “false” and “untrue.” Frazer asked Cope to change the wording of his accusations to something softer, something less directly offensive, but Cope refused, adding that Frazer “had better let the personal part of this matter drop.”

But Frazer didn’t give up. He asked his friend, geologist N.H. Winchell, to intercede to change Cope’s mind at a meeting of the International Congress of Geologists in April of 1888. Again Cope refused, leaving Frazer to request a private meeting with Cope after the meeting’s proceedings were over. Frazer and Cope both sat there, attending to meeting business for six hours, but when it was all over Cope disappeared. He left the city before Frazer could catch him.

Frazer wouldn’t let it rest. We don’t know what the disagreement was about, but he felt so strongly that he found out Cope was to give a presentation at the American Philosophical Society on May 4th and asked another of his friends, Admiral McCauley, to speak to the irascible paleontologist. Cope didn’t answer any of Frazer’s pleas to meet. And still Frazer didn’t give up. He was so in a knot about the problem that he cancelled his plans with his wife to go to the opera that night and instead went to the scientific meeting in the hope that Cope would be there.

And so Cope was. Frazer let McCauley try to talk to Cope first, and just as the meeting was about to start Frazer closed the meeting door behind him to confront his friend in the hall. This was Cope’s last chance. “Prof. Cope the simple question is do you characterize what I wrote you as falsehood?” Frazer asked. Cope didn’t bite. “I do not know whether it is or not”, he replied, and at that point Frazer slapped Cope twice across the face. Here, in Frazer’s own words, is what happened next:

He gathered himself and plunged at me into the middle of the passage not reaching me. I struck him several blows one a hard one after which he reeled and stepping backwards fell on the staircase heading into the Janitor’s rooms overhead.

As he rose he clinched with me and I backed him to the wall where first he and then I took one step upwards. He tried hard to throw me sideways and at one instant nearly succeeded. Meantime placing my elbow against his throat & forcing his neck against the wall I held him motionless for some time. He had both my hands fast so that I could not remove them without a struggle which would have brought us both to the floor with great noise & made a public scandal by bringing out the members <of the A. P. S.> en masse which I wished if possible to avoid.

Here McCauley interceded, calling the fight. The two scientists loosened their grip on each other, and this was still not enough for Frazer. He demanded a further meting to talk about the upset, but McCauley told the obsessed naturalist to stop picking at his emotional wound. “No, there is nothing more to be said.”

Cope avoided Frazer for almost a year after the fight. In time, though, the two reconciled and Frazer remained one of Cope’s greatest supporters until the end. But if two such friends could so readily black each other’s eyes, I can only imagine the injuries Cope would have inflicted and sustained if his rival Marsh had cornered him. The Bone Wars could have been far worse.

Reference:

Brinkman, P. 2015. Remarking on a blackened eye: Persifor Frazer’s blow-by-blow account of a fistfight with his dear friend Edward Drinker Cope. Endeavour. doi: 10.1016/j.endeavour.2015.06.001

One thought on “The Time 19th Century Paleontologists Punched it Out

  1. Such petty, violent beings from an age when science was riddled with homophobia and hatred. Death was far to kind to both.

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