American Experience Series
January 17, 2011
Source: Received for Preview from WGBH
“In the late 19th century, paleontologists Edward Cope and O.C. Marsh uncovered the remains of hundreds of prehistoric animals in the American West, including dozens of previously undiscovered dinosaur species. But the rivalry that developed between them would spiral out of control, permanently damaging their careers and threatening the future of American paleontology.”I really wasn’t sure what to expect when setting out to watch this episode – I hadn’t read the blurb above – but I got something very different than what I thought. The focus of this episode really was not about the dinosaurs or the fossils themselves (like I thought) but more about the two men that drove the paleontology field to where it would be today. There was certainly a lot more drama in paleontology than I would have ever expected.
The episode does a great job of fleshing out the two main characters – O. C. Marsh and Edward Cope. You get a lot of background information and a look at what really drove their rivalry. You also learn a lot about how scientific discovery happened during the 1800’s. It is very different than it is today. Basically they would both discover things (often the same things) and call them something different – so there would look like they had discovered all of these new things, but really they were just rediscovering. These men were considered experts in their fields – although they did not have any credentials or PhD’s – simply because there wasn’t any development in that field at the time. It really was like the Wild West out there. The episode looked at each of the things these men did that spurned on their rivalry.
There were also a great variety of primary sources that were referred to in the episode (many of which you can check out at the American Experience website). There were letters from Charles Darwin, photos of the work being done, images of drawings that the two men had made, newspaper articles from the time. It was very well put together.
This episode opened my eyes to something I had never even thought about when I would go to museums and look at the fossils. I never once thought “how did they get here”. I have even been to the museum where many of O. C. Marsh’s finds ended up and never knew anything about the man and story behind them. You will certainly learn something from this episode.
If you missed this episode during its initial airing, check out the American Experience website during the coming week as it will be available to watch online. If you are interested in further reading, PBS has some great site recommendations and primary sources you can check out.
Copyright © 2011 by The Maiden’s Court