Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Edward Drinker Cope and the Story of the Paleontologist’s Wandering Skull

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Edward Drinker Cope’s skull started out on his body, naturally enough. 

Born into a well-off Quaker family in 1840, the Philadelphia native was already journaling and drawing his observations about the natural world at the age of six. By 19 he’d published his first scientific paper, a treatise on salamanders. Like many scholars of his day, Cope was a generalist, studying amphibians and fish and whatever else caught his eye, but he’s most famous for his work in paleontology and his contentious battle with rival Othniel Charles Marsh.

If you think science is a pure pursuit of truth without respect to ego, you know nothing of the Bone Wars. Cope and Marsh sent collectors digging and blasting their way across the American West in search of dinosaur remains, often naming the same species more than once in an attempt to get the most credit. When their collectors were done excavating a site, they weren’t above destroying the evidence to make sure the next group wouldn’t have any fossils to recover for themselves.

The rivalry began when Marsh embarrassed Cope by showing he’d placed the head of an Elasmosaurus on its short tail instead of its long neck. The two paleontologists fought for years in academic circles and newspapers, and both wound up smeared by the end. Along the way they discovered many dinosaurs you’ll see in museums today, including Triceratops, Stegosaurus, and Apatosaurus.

Elasmosaurus, the dinosaur that started Cope's feud with Marsh.

The Bone Wars have been chronicled in books, documentaries, and even a graphic novel, but the story of Cope’s skull rivals any tale of academic intrigue. Like the head of the Elasmosaurus that started the fossil feud, Cope’s own noggin wandered for a while before winding up back where it belonged. Author David Rains Wallace relates a good part of the tale in The Bonehunters’ Revenge: Dinosaurs, Greed, and the Greatest Scientific Feud of the Gilded Age.

Cope died in 1897, most likely alone on a cot surrounded by fossils. Prior to death he’d arranged for his body to be donated to science, specifying that his skeleton should be prepared and preserved but not placed on exhibition. Originally kept by the American Anthropometric Society, a group with a fondness for measuring the brains of famous men, Cope’s skull was passed in 1966 to the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Anthropology, and that’s when things got a little weird.

A distinguished anthropology professor by the name of Loren Eiseley saw Cope’s name on a box and left a note that said, “Gone to lunch—Edward Drinker Cope.” Eiseley took the bones back to his office and laid them out on a conference table to make sure everything was intact before placing them back into the box. Over the years, the paleontologist's remains became a fixture in Eiseley’s office, and the anthropologist toasted “Eddie” with sherry and even bought him a birthday present of a skeleton-bedecked printing block. The office staff also decorated Cope for Christmas.

Eiseley had a nephew named Jim Hahn, a sailor who studied physical anthropology under his uncle at Penn. The two men looked and sounded a lot alike, and they had little adventures together, one time finding some .356 Magnum shells in a parking lot and ransacking a nearby Salvation Army drop box in search of the gun, according to Fox at the Wood’s Edge, Gale E. Christianson’s biography of Eiseley. So it was not surprising when the professor, after deciding he wanted to be buried with Cope’s bones, picked his nephew to help him with the task.

Eiseley died in July 1977, and Jim Hahn found himself in the professor’s office at the Penn Museum trying to tape Cope’s bones to his own arms and legs. Hahn was sweating in the summer heat and worried he’d fall apart right before the museum guard’s eyes, so he opted instead to carry Cope out in a box with a bunch of his uncle’s books. That went off without a hitch, but at the funeral home Hahn realized there was no way he could get Eddie in the coffin without the mortician noticing, so back to the museum the bones went.

Cope rested in peace until the Jurassic Park mania of the early 1990s, when a photographer named Louie Psihoyos was traveling around the country shooting paleontology artifacts. Psihoyos would later direct The Cove, the 2009 Academy Award-winning documentary about dolphin hunting in Japan, but he was already a successful photographer by the time he found himself talking to paleontologist Ted Daeschler at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. The discussion turned to Cope, and Daeschler mentioned that Eddie’s bones were sitting in a box across town. Daeschler made a call and the museum left Cope at the front desk for Psihoyos, who picked up the two boxes and took Cope on the road.

“The box with the skull was last used for electrical parts,” says Psihoyos, who, along with collaborator John Knoebber, started treating Cope like one of the crew. Knoebber made a velvet-lined mahogany box for the skull, which they didn’t like leaving in the van, so “Do you have Ed?” became a common refrain every time they left a diner.

Cope’s skull was a conversation starter, granting them entrée with paleontologists they interviewed for their book Hunting Dinosaurs. “That was like bringing Elvis to a rock ‘n’ roll convention,” says Psihoyos. “You felt like you knew him, because you’d read a lot of his history.”

But there was a problem: The museum had no idea Psihoyos and Knoebber were taking the skull on the road. “They didn’t return it, and they took it on a trip,” says Daeschler. “Which is just not cool. Granted, they’re not scientists, and they don’t know the ways of loans that come from scientific institutions.”

Psihoyos estimates he had the skull for three years. Near the end, a paleontologist named Bob Bakker (who is famous for helping popularize the theory that some dinosaurs were warm-blooded) declared Cope’s remains as the ideal example of humankind. Every time a new species is classified, one example is declared to be the type specimen. When Carl Linneaus, the father of modern taxonomy, originally named Homo sapiens in 1758, he skipped that part and said, “Know thyself.” Bakker went ahead and basically tried to change that to “Know Edward Drinker Cope.”

“The legend I heard was that Cope wanted to be the type specimen,” says Psihoyos. “This is the dark part of the history. Cope was part of a group of scientists back then who were trying to set forth the idea that the Caucasian race is superior, and they were using brain case size and all these notions to legitimize it. Well, that never came to fruition.”

Today’s historians and paleontologists don’t deny that Cope, like many of his contemporaries, held some very racist ideas about human anatomy, but what’s much less clear is whether Cope wanted to become the type specimen when he donated his body to science. As Wallace explains in The Bonehunters’ Revenge, Cope had few teeth at the end of his life, and some of Cope and Marsh’s biggest contributions to science dealt with dentition, so the Philadelphia Quaker would’ve known he wasn’t suitable. But the legend persists, probably because it would’ve been one final way for Cope to best his rival.

Drawing by artist Charles R. Knight of two Lealaps fighting. It's considered to be symbolic of Cope and Marsh's feud.

“Cope didn’t want people to do what Psihoyos did,” says Daeschler. “He did not want to be paraded around because he was the great Professor Cope. He had a high opinion of himself, so he thought that might happen. And it did. It absolutely did happen.”

The Penn Museum demanded Cope back, and they added another wrinkle to the story: Professor Eiseley had loaned the skull to an artist from the Museum of Natural History in the 1970s, and they weren’t even sure if the right one ever came back. So maybe Psihoyos, Knoebber, and Bakker had been hanging out with the wrong skull all along.

“They were embarrassed to have rented him out like a library book,” says Psihoyos, who shipped the remains back via FedEx. “I’m convinced it was Ed.”

That’s one part of the story where the Penn Museum now agrees with the photographer. The skull, whose jaw went missing long before Psihoyos’ journey, has been compared to older drawings of Cope’s remains and determined to be the real deal. Cope is not the type specimen, however. The academic community gives that honor to Linneaus.

Cope’s skull is back under the care of the Penn Museum, in that fancy velvet-lined box. Janet Monge, associate director at the museum, says she sometimes brings Cope out for classes on the type-specimen controversy, but as for his current whereabouts:

“He’s on the shelf right now.”

All photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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17 Things to Know About René Descartes
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The French polymath René Descartes (1596-1650) lived after the Renaissance, but he personified that age's interest in mathematics, philosophy, art, and the nature of humanity. He made numerous discoveries and argued for ideas that people continue to grapple with. (His dualist distinction between mind and the brain, for example, continues to be debated by psychologists.) Get to know him better!

1. NOBODY CALLED HIM RENÉ.

Descartes went by a nickname and often introduced himself as “Poitevin” and signed letters as “du Perron.” Sometimes, he went so far to call himself the “Lord of Perron.” That’s because he had inherited a farm from his mother’s family in Poitou, in western France.

2. SCHOOL MADE HIM FEEL DUMBER.

From the age of 11 to 18, Descartes attended one of the best schools in Europe, the Jesuit College of Henry IV in La Flèche, France. In his later work Discourse on the Method, Descartes wrote that, upon leaving school, “I found myself involved in so many doubts and errors, that I was convinced I had advanced no farther in all my attempts at learning, than the discovery at every turn of my own ignorance."

3. HIS DAD WANTED HIM TO BE A LAWYER.

Descartes’s family was chock-full of lawyers, and the budding intellectual was expected to join them. He studied law at the University of Poitiers and even came home with a law degree in 1616. But he never entered the practice. In 1618, a 22-year-old Descartes enlisted as a mercenary in the Dutch States Army instead. There, he would study military engineering and become fascinated with math and physics.

4. HE CHANGED CAREER PATHS THANKS TO A SERIES OF DREAMS.

In 1618, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Ferdinand II, attempted to impose Catholicism on anybody living within his domain. The result of this policy would be the Thirty Years' War. It would also prompt Descartes, a Catholic, to switch allegiances to a Bavarian army fighting for the Catholic side. But on his travels, he stopped in the town of Ulm. There, on the night of November 10, he had three dreams that convinced him to change his life’s path. “Descartes took from them the message that he should set out to reform all knowledge,” philosopher Gary Hatfield writes in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

5. HE COULD BE EASILY DISTRACTED BY BRIGHT AND SHINY OBJECTS.

In 1628, Descartes moved to the Netherlands and spent nine months doggedly working on a theory of metaphysics. Then he got distracted. In 1629, a number of false suns—called parhelia, or “sun dogs”—were seen near Rome. Descartes put his beloved metaphysics treatise on the back burner and devoted his time to explaining the phenomenon. It was a lucky distraction: It led to his work The World, or Treatise on Light.

6. HE LAID THE GROUNDWORK FOR ANALYTIC GEOMETRY ...

In 1637, Descartes published his groundbreaking Discourse on the Method, where he took the revolutionary step of describing lines through mathematical equations. According to Hatfield, “[Descartes] considered his algebraic techniques to provide a powerful alternative to actual compass-and-ruler constructions when the latter became too intricate.” You might have encountered his system in high school algebra: They’re called Cartesian coordinates.

7. ... AND THE REST OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY.

Everybody knows Descartes for his phrase Cogito, ergo sum (which originally appeared in French as "Je pense, donc je suis"), or "I think, therefore I am." The concept appeared in many of his texts. To understand what it means, some context is helpful: At the time, many philosophers claimed that truth was acquired through sense impressions. Descartes disagreed. He argued that our senses are unreliable. An ill person can hallucinate. An amputee can feel phantom limb pain. People are regularly deceived by their own eyes, dreams, and imaginations. Descartes, however, realized that his argument opened a door for "radical doubt": That is, what was stopping people from doubting the existence of, well, everything? The cogito argument is his remedy: Even if you doubt the existence of everything, you cannot doubt the existence of your own mind—because doubting indicates thinking, and thinking indicates existing. Descartes argued that self-evident truths like this—and not the senses—must be the foundation of philosophical investigations.

8. HE'S THE REASON YOUR MATH TEACHER MAKES YOU CHECK YOUR WORK.

Descartes was obsessed with certainty. In his book Rules for the Direction of the Mind, “he sought to generalize the methods of mathematics so as to provide a route to clear knowledge of everything that human beings can know,” Hatfield writes. His advice included this classic chestnut: To solve a big problem, break it up into small, easy-to-understand parts—and check each step often.

9. HE LIKED TO HIDE.

Descartes had a motto, which he took from Ovid: “Who lives well hidden, lives well.” When he moved to the Netherlands, he regularly changed apartments and deliberately kept his address a secret. Some say it's because he simply desired privacy for his philosophical work, or that he was avoiding his disapproving family. In his book titled Descartes, philosopher A. C. Grayling makes another suggestion: "Descartes was a spy."

10. HE WASN'T AFRAID OF CRITICS. IN FACT, HE RE-PUBLISHED THEM.

When Descartes was revising his Meditations on First Philosophy [PDF], he planned to send the manuscript to “the 20 or 30 most learned theologians” for criticism—a sort of proto-peer review. He collected seven objections and published them in the work. (Descartes, of course, had the last word: He responded to each criticism.)

11. HE COULD THROW SHADE WITH THE BEST OF THEM.

In the 1640s, Descartes’s pupil and friend Henricus Regius published a broadsheet that distorted Descartes’s theory of the mind. (Which, put briefly, posits that the material body and immaterial mind are separate and distinct.) The two men had a falling out, and Descartes wrote a rebuttal with a barbed title that refused to even acknowledge Regius’s manifesto by name: It was simply called “Comments on a Certain Broadsheet.”

12. HE NEVER BELIEVED MONKEYS COULD TALK.

There’s a “fun fact” parading around that suggests Descartes believed monkeys and apes could talk. He believed no such thing. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Descartes denied that animals were even conscious, let alone capable of speech. The factoid comes from a misreading of a letter Descartes had written in 1646, in which he attributed the belief to “savages.”

13. HE TOTALLY HAD THE HOTS FOR CROSS-EYED WOMEN.

In a letter to Queen Christina of Sweden, Descartes explained that he had a cross-eyed playmate as a child. “I loved a girl of my own age ... who was slightly cross-eyed; by which means, the impression made in my brain when I looked at her wandering eyes was joined so much to that which also occurred when the passion of love moved me, that for a long time afterward, in seeing cross-eyed women, I felt more inclined to love them than others.”

14. WHEN HE MET BLAISE PASCAL, THEY GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT ... ABOUT VACUUMS.

In 1647, a 51-year-old Descartes visited the 24-year-old prodigy and physicist Blaise Pascal. Their meeting quickly devolved into a heated argument over the concept of a vacuum—that is, the idea that air pressure could ever be reduced to zero. (Descartes said it was impossible; Pascal disagreed.) Later, Descartes wrote a letter that, depending on your translation, said that Pascal had “too much vacuum in his head.”

15. HIS WORK WAS BANNED BY THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.

Back in the late 1630s, the theologian Gisbert Voetius had convinced the academic senate of the University of Utrecht to condemn the philosopher’s work. (Descartes was Catholic, but his suggestion that the universe began as a “chaotic soup of particles in motion,” in Hatfield's words, was contrary to orthodox theology.) In the 1660s, his works were placed on the church’s Index of Prohibited Books.

16. HE REGULARLY SLEPT UNTIL NOON (AND TRYING TO BREAK THE HABIT MIGHT HAVE KILLED HIM).

Descartes was not a morning person. He often snoozed 12 hours a night, from midnight until lunchtime. In fact, he worked in bed. (Sleep, he wisely wrote, was a time of “nourishment for the brain.”) But according to the Journal of Historical Neuroscience, he may have had a sleep disorder that helped end his life. A year before his death, Descartes had moved to Stockholm to take a job tutoring Queen Christina, a devoted early-riser who forced Descartes to change his sleep schedule. Some believe the resulting sleep deprivation weakened his immune system and eventually killed him.

17. HIS SKELETON HAS TRAVELED FAR AND WIDE.

Descartes died in Stockholm in 1650 and was buried outside the city. Sixteen years later, his corpse was exhumed and taken to Paris. During the French Revolution, his bones were moved to an Egyptian sarcophagus at the Museum of French Monuments. Decades later, when plans were made to rebury Descartes in an abbey, officials discovered that most of his bones—including his skull—were missing. Shortly after, a Swedish scientist discovered a newspaper advertisement attempting to sell the polymath’s noggin [PDF]. Today, his head is in a collection at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

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8 Arresting Facts About Scotland Yard
Jack Taylor, Getty Images
Jack Taylor, Getty Images

Depicted in fiction for well over a century as the world's premier police force, Scotland Yard might be the most famous banner for law enforcement in history. Though the name itself is officially a term for the location of the London Metropolitan Police headquarters, it’s taken on a colloquial use to describe the collective brain trust of that station’s patrolmen and detectives. Here’s what we’ve deduced about the past, present, and future of this historic—and sometimes controversial—institution.

1. IT GOT ITS NAME FROM A TRICKY BIT OF GEOGRAPHY.

London didn’t have a formal police force until 1829, when Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel arranged for a squad to replace the fractured system of watchmen, street patrols, and the River Police. Colonel Charles Rowan and Richard Mayne were tasked with organizing the force: Mayne’s house at 4 Whitehall Place opened to an adjacent courtyard that had once been a medieval palace that hosted Scottish royalty while they were in London. This “Great Scotland Yard,” which was also reportedly the name of the street behind the building, became synonymous with Rowan and Mayne’s efforts to create a new era in law enforcement.

2. CHARLES DICKENS TAGGED ALONG ON PATROLS.

Author Charles Dickens poses for a photo
London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images

The renowned author of Great Expectations and other literary classics wasn’t a policeman, but he did perform the 19th-century equivalent of a ride-along. Dickens was friends with Charles Frederick Field, a Scotland Yard inspector, and their relationship led to Dickens occasionally accompanying patrolmen on their nightly rounds. He even based a character in his novel Bleak House on Fields.

3. THERE WERE DIRTY COPS AMONG THE RANKS IN THOSE EARLY DAYS.

For all of the public acceptance of Scotland Yard—Londoners were initially wary of the plainclothes cops walking among them—the squad suffered a sensational blow to its image in 1877. Known as the “Turf Fraud Scandal” or the “Trial of the Detectives,” the controversy erupted after a Parisian socialite named Madame de Goncourt was conned by two men named Harry Benson and William Kurr. Scotland Yard inspector Nathaniel Druscovich was dispatched to Amsterdam to capture a fleeing Benson while others pursued Kurr. The men proved surprisingly elusive, which prompted suspicion among Scotland Yard officials. When the two con men were finally arrested, they explained that an inspector named John Meiklejohn was taking bribes in exchange for tipping off Kurr to police activity. Two other policemen were implicated; the three each received two years in prison. The high-profile breach led to a reorganization, with the Yard inserting detectives into a new Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to help minimize misconduct.

4. THEY HELPED PIONEER FINGERPRINTING.

A Scotland Yard employee examines fingerprints
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At one time, the science of fingerprinting was more of a theory than anything that could be put into practice. Most police forces instead relied on anthropometry, a system created by French police officer Alphonse Bertillon, which used 11 body measurements taken by calipers to provide a unique physical identity for an individual. While fingerprinting was beginning to take off in India in the late 1800s, the English-speaking world didn’t adopt the forensic technique of lifting and matching prints until 1901, when Sir Edward Henry, then the assistant commissioner of Scotland Yard, instituted the Metropolitan Police Fingerprint Bureau. In 1902, a billiard ball thief was convicted based on a fingerprint he left on a windowsill. In 1904, a Yard detective demonstrated the efficacy of fingerprinting at the St. Louis World’s Fair, helping spread the new science to American law enforcement officials.

5. THEIR PATROL OFFICERS DIDN’T CARRY GUNS UNTIL 1994.

The uniformed police officers who wander London’s streets with an eye on keeping the peace were unarmed for most of the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1994 that select patrol officers were permitted to carry guns, a policy shift that stemmed from increased assaults on police. The addition of firearms was limited to armed response cars intended to be dispatched to high-risk calls; previously, officers were instructed to keep their weapons in a lockbox inside their vehicles. Today, 90 percent of Metropolitan police officers go on duty without a gun, a policy largely maintained in response to a relatively low number of guns carried by civilians. Less than four in 100 British citizens own a firearm.

6. THEY HAVE A SQUAD OF “SUPER RECOGNIZERS.”

A surveillance camera is posted in London
Leon Neal, AFP/Getty Images

With surveillance cameras dotting London, facial recognition for identifying criminal suspects is in high demand. But no software can outperform Scotland Yard’s team of “super recognizers,” who are recruited for their ability to match a face to a name based on their own memory. These officers are hired by administering a facial recognition test first implemented by Harvard in 2009. Those in the top percentile have an uncanny ability to retain facial feature details and are often dispatched to cull out known criminals like pickpockets at public gatherings. One such specialist, Constable Gary Collins, identified 180 people out of 4000 while examining footage of the 2011 London riots. Software was able to identify exactly one.

7. THEY KEEP A SECRET CRIME MUSEUM HIDDEN FROM THE PUBLIC.

Housed across two floors at the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police in London is the Black Museum, a macabre cavalcade of evidence from nearly 150 years of investigative work. Established in 1875, the collection houses body parts (gallstones that failed to dissolve in acid along with the rest of a murder victim) and seemingly innocuous items that take on sinister connotations: A set of pots and pans that once belonged to Scottish serial killer Dennis Nilsen and were used to boil human flesh. It’s closed to the public, though visiting law enforcement and sometimes celebrities can secure an invite: Laurel and Hardy and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have toured its inventory. A sample of the collection went on display at the Museum of London in 2015.  

8. YOU COULD LIVE THERE ONE DAY.

The former New Scotland Yard building at 10 Broadway
Jack Taylor, AFP/Getty Images

The Metropolitan Police have changed locations several times over the years. It was situated at its original location of 4 Whitehall Place from 1829 to 1890, then housed in a large Victorian building on the Victoria Embankment from 1890 until 1967. That’s when the operation was moved to a 600,000 square-foot building at 10 Broadway in Westminster: a famous revolving sign announced a New Scotland Yard was taking up residence. In 2014, the building was sold to investors from Abu Dhabi for $580 million: London cited operating expenses and budget cuts as the reasons for the sale. The buyers plan to mount a residential housing project in the spot. Scotland Yard staff moved to a trimmed-down facility at the Curtis Green Building in Westminster and within walking distance of the Houses of Parliament.   

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