Popular Science Monthly/Volume 13/September 1878/Sketch of Professor O. C. Marsh

PSM V13 D530 Othniel Charles Marsh.jpg




AMONG the younger workers in science in America, no name stands higher than that of Prof. O. C. Marsh. Enthusiastic, energetic, and capable of an unlimited amount of work, he has already contributed more than any one else to our knowledge of the ancient life of this continent. Many of his discoveries have proved of the greatest interest to the student of biology, and have a direct and highly-significant bearing on some of the most important scientific problems of the day. The genealogy of the horse, brought forward by Prof. Huxley in his New York lectures as the demonstrative evidence of evolution, was worked out mainly by Prof. Marsh, and was the result of his vigorous field-work and patient study.

Prof. Othniel Charles Marsh was born in Lockport, New York, October 29, 1831, and his boyhood was spent mainly in that vicinity. As a boy he was passionately fond of field-sports, and devoted much of his time to fishing and shooting. The writer has heard him remark that he was a sportsman before he was a naturalist; and it cannot be doubted that the open-air life of his early years gave him the vigorous health he has since enjoyed, while to the habits of observation acquired in the woods and fields much of his subsequent success in science has been due. He is still a keen sportsman, and very hard to beat with rod or gun. In 1852 he entered Phillips Academy at Andover, Massachusetts, where he graduated in 1856, the valedictorian of his class. He entered Yale College the same year, and graduated with high honors in the class of 1860. The next two years were spent in the study of chemistry and mineralogy in the Sheffield Scientific School at New Haven. He then went to Europe, and spent three years in the Universities of Berlin, Heidelberg, and Breslau. While in Germany he studied zoölogy and geology under the eminent teachers Ehrenberg, Rose, Bunsen, Peters, Beyrich, and Roemer. His vacations were devoted to Alpine explorations and other work in the field, during which he made several discoveries of interest, and published accounts of them in papers read before the Geological Society of Germany. He returned to New Haven in 1866, to fill the chair of Paleontology in Yale College, a position which he now holds.

During his school-days at Andover, and throughout his college course, Prof. Marsh was a devoted student of mineralogy, and many of his vacations were spent in Nova Scotia, collecting minerals and investigating the geology of that peninsula. It was here that he discovered, while yet in college, the two celebrated vertebrae of Eosaurus Acadianus, which still remain unique, and are thought to have been the first remains of reptiles found in the Palæozoic rocks of America. His studies in archæology also began in college.

To many readers, Prof. Marsh is best known in connection with his explorations in the Rocky Mountains, which he has crossed no less than eleven times on his various expeditions. His first visit to that country was a short excursion in 1868, which produced results of no little interest. From an alkaline lake in Wyoming he then obtained live specimens of larval Siredons, the remarkable change in which, occurring, under his own eye, after his return, called forth the paper "On the Metamorphosis of Siredon into Amblystoma." On this trip, too, a number of interesting Tertiary fossils were obtained from a well at Antelope Station, Nebraska, in the bed of an ancient lake, and at several other localities. The discoveries thus made indicated to Prof. Marsh the importance of this previously-unknown field, and he made preparations to undertake its systematic exploration. During the years immediately following his return from Europe, he had studied with much care the Cretaceous and Tertiary fauna of New Jersey; but it now became apparent to him that the fossil resources of these deposits were of much less importance than those of the West. In June, 1870, the first of the Yale Scientific Expeditions was organized and took the field, returning after an absence of five months, richly laden with fossil treasures. Over one hundred species of extinct vertebrates, new to science, were discovered on this trip. Most of these were from two Tertiary lake-basins before unknown. During the four years which followed, Prof. Marsh led other expeditions, which were scarcely less successful than the first, and the vertebrate fossils thus collected soon came to be reckoned by tons, instead of by hundreds or thousands of specimens. These various expeditions were attended with much danger and hardship, as the regions explored were often infested with hostile Indians, and explorations could be carried on only under the protection of a strong escort of Government troops. Prof. Marsh's early experience as a sportsman was also of great advantage, as the fact that he was the quickest and best shot in the expedition was soon acknowledged, and commanded respect from the soldiers and rough mountaineers who accompanied him. The expenditure of time which the leadership of these expeditions involved was, however, so great, that recently parties of trained collectors have been sent out, who pack the fossils on the ground and ship them to the Peabody Museum of Yale College, where they are examined by Prof. Marsh and his assistants. The expenses incurred in these various explorations have been great, and were mainly borne by Prof. Marsh, who has already contributed more than $100,000 to this work.

Among the most interesting of Prof. Marsh's recent discoveries are, a new mammal (Dryolestes); a new order of Reptilia (Stegosauria), and many new and gigantic Dinosaurs, all from the Jurassic of the Rocky Mountains, and the first found in this formation in this country. From the Cretaceous of Kansas he has obtained the first American Pterodactyles, including a new order (Pteranodontia), a new sub-class of birds with teeth (Odontornithes), including two new orders, the Odontolcæ and Odontotormæ and many new Mosasauroid reptiles. In the anatomy of the latter group he has made a number of interesting discoveries which have been of great value in determining its relationship. From the Eocene Tertiary of the Rocky Mountains, he has brought to light the first monkeys, bats, and marsupials, found in this country; two new orders of mammals, the Tillodontia, which seem to be related to the Carnivores, Ungulates, and Rodents; and the Dinocerata, which were huge Ungulates, elephantine in bulk, bearing on their skulls two or more pairs of horn cores. From the same Eocene come the two earliest equines, Eohippus and Orohippus, and a host of other strange forms, all of them widely different from anything now living.

In the Miocene lake-basins of the West, Prof. Marsh has found numerous other forms, many of them apparently descendants of their predecessors in the Eocene, while others seem to stand alone. In the Miocene of the Plains occur the huge Brontotheridæ, a new family of Ungulates, first defined by Prof. Marsh. In size they equaled the Dinocerata of the Eocene, and like them their skulls were armed with horns. The same formation has also yielded to this explorer the first Miocene monkey found in America, while from the Oregon lake of this age he has described the oldest known Edentates. The new fossils obtained from the Pliocene lake-basins of the Plains and of Oregon are not less numerous than those from the earlier ones, but they are of less interest to the general reader. The remains of these ancient creatures, preserved in the Museum of Yale College, present a series which, for its interest and value to the biologist, is not surpassed by any collection in the world. Not less than four hundred new species of fossil animals have been collected by Prof. Marsh, and their remains are all at present in New Haven.

Prof. Marsh is President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and will preside at the St. Louis meeting this year; and, as retiring president, will deliver his address in 1879. At the meeting of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, in April last, he was elected vice-president of that body, and, by the death of Prof. Henry, he has become its presiding officer. He is a member of several scientific societies in Europe, and has recently received from the Geological Society of London the Bigsby medal for his important discoveries in paleontology.

Prof. Marsh is a nephew of the late George Peabody, Esq., of London, and the most important gifts to science by this philanthropist are due to his influence. The Peabody Museum of Natural History, at New Haven, the Peabody Museum of Archæology and Ethnology, at Cambridge, as well as the Peabody Academy of Science, in Salem, Massachusetts, are largely the results of his advice and carefully-considered plans. He has followed his uncle's example in princely gifts to science, and, thus far, likewise, we may add, in remaining a bachelor.

Prof. Marsh is a firm believer in evolution, and enjoys the personal acquaintance and friendship of Darwin, Huxley, Wallace, Spencer, and other prominent advocates of this doctrine. He is at present in England with his scientific friends, but will return in time for the St. Louis meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Science.

Aside from his scientific reputation, Prof. Marsh became well known to the general public, a short time since, through his contest with Secretary Delano and the Interior Department. It will be remembered that while Prof. Marsh was on his perilous expedition to the "BadLands," near the Black Hills, in the winter of 1874, he was twice driven back by the Sioux Indians, who supposed him to be in search of gold rather than bones. In endeavoring to propitiate the savages, he held various councils with Red Cloud and the other principal chiefs, and at last gained permission to proceed with his party only by promising Red Cloud to take his complaints and samples of his rations to the Great Father at Washington. The fulfillment of this promise, together with an exposure of the frauds which he had seen practised upon the Indians,[1] led to a sharp fight with Secretary Delano and the Indian ring. Secretary Delano began by calling the professor "a Mr. Marsh," and ended by retiring to private life and political death in Ohio. The scalps of several lesser officials and contractors were taken by the professor in the same fight, and subsequent events have more than substantiated all of the charges he made. This is perhaps the only instance in which a private citizen has successfully fought a department of the Government in his efforts to expose wrong-doing. Red Cloud has since sent the professor an elegant pipe and tobacco-pouch, as a token of his gratitude, and with them the complimentary message that "the Bone-hunting Chief," as he calls the professor, "was the only white man he had seen who kept his promises."

Prof. Marsh's scientific publications, which began while he was a student, number more than one hundred, and are mostly papers in scientific journals. One of the most important of these publications is his address as Vice-President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, delivered in August, 1877, at Nashville, Tennessee, and published in The Popular Science Monthly for March and April, 1878. He is now engaged in the preparation of a series of monographs, with full illustrations, of his discoveries, which will be published under Government auspices. The first volume, upon the "Odontornithes, or Birds with Teeth," illustrated with forty quarto plates, is now in press, and will soon be published.

Among the more noteworthy of Prof. Marsh's scientific papers are the following:

The Gold of Nova Scotia (American Journal of Science (2), vol. xxxii., pp. 395-400, November, 1861).

Description of the Remains of a New Enaliosaurian (Eosaurus Acadianus), from the Coal Formation of Nova Scotia (American Journal of Science (2), vol. xxxiv., pp. 1-16, November, 1862).

Catalogue of Mineral Localities in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland (American Journal of Science (2), vol. xxxv., pp. 210-218, March, 1863).

Description of an Ancient Sepulchral Mound near Newark, Ohio (American Journal of Science (2), vol. xlii., pp. 1-11, July, 1866).

Contributions to the Mineralogy of Nova Scotia (American Journal of Science (2), vol. xliv., pp. 362-367, November, 1867).

Observations on the Metamorphosis of Siredon into Amblystoma (American Journal of Science (2), vol. xlvi., pp. 364-374, November, 1868).

Notice of some New Mosasauroid Reptiles from the Greensand of New Jersey (American Journal of Science (2), vol. xlviii., pp. 392-397, November, 1869).

Notice of some Fossil Birds from the Cretaceous and Tertiary Formations of the United States (American Journal of Science (2), vol. xlix., pp. 205-217, March, 1870).

On the Geology of the Eastern Uintah Mountains (American Journal of Science (3), vol. i., pp. 191-198, March, 1871).

Description of some New Fossil Serpents from the Tertiary Deposits of Wyoming (American Journal of Science (3), vol. i., pp. 322-329, May, 1871).

Notice of some New Fossil Reptiles from the Cretaceous and Tertiary Formations (American Journal of Science (3), vol. i., pp. 447-459, June, 1871).

Note on a New and Gigantic Species of Pterodactyle (American Journal of Science (3), vol. i., p. 472, June, 1871).

Notice of some New Fossil Mammals from the Tertiary Formation (American Journal of Science (3), vol. ii., pp. 35-44, July, 1871).

Notice of some New Fossil Mammals and Birds from the Tertiary Formation of the West (American Journal of Science (3), vol. ii., pp. 120-127, August, 1871).

On the Structure of the Skull and Limbs in Mosasauroid Reptiles, with Descriptions of New Genera and Species (American Journal of Science (3), vol. iii., pp. 448-464, June, 1872).

Preliminary Description of New Tertiary Mammals; Part I. (American Journal of Science (3), vol. iv., pp. 122-128, August, 1872).

Preliminary Description of New Tertiary Reptiles; Part I. (American Journal of Science (3), vol. iv., pp. 299-304, October, 1872). Part II. (American Journal of Science (3), vol. iv., pp. 305-309, October, 1872).

Notice of some New Tertiary and Post-Tertiary Birds (American Journal of Science (3), vol. iv., pp. 256-262, October, 1872).

Notice of some Remarkable Fossil Mammals (American Journal of Science (3) vol. iv., pp. 343, 344, October, 1872).

Notice of a New and Remarkable Fossil Bird (American Journal of Science (3), vol. iv., p. 344, October, 1872).

Discovery of Fossil Quadrumana in the Eocene of Wyoming (American Journal of Science (3), vol. iv., pp. 405, 406, November, 1872).

On the Gigantic Fossil Mammals of the Order Dinocerata (American Journal of Science (3), vol. v., pp. 117-122, February, 1873).

On a New Sub-Class of Fossil Birds (Odontornithes) (American Journal of Science (3), vol. v., pp. 161, 162, February, 1873).

On the Structure and Affinities of the Brontotheridæ (American Journal of Science (3), vol. vii., pp. 81-86, January, 1874).

Notice of New Equine Mammals from the Tertiary Formation (American Journal of Science (3), vol. vii., pp. 247-258, March, 1874).

New Order of Eocene Mammals (American Journal of Science (3), vol. ix., p. 221, March, 1875).

On the Odontornithes, or Birds with Teeth (American Journal of Science (3), vol. x., pp. 403-408, November, 1875).

Principal Characters of the Dinocerata (American Journal of Science (3), vol. xi., pp. 163-168, February, 1876).

Principal Characters of the Tillodontia (American Journal of Science (3), vol. xi., pp. 249-251, March, 1876).

Principal Characters of the Brontotheridæ (American Journal of Science (3), vol. xi., pp. 335-340, April, 1876).

On a New Sub-Order of Pterosauria (American Journal of Science (3), vol. xi., pp. 507-509, June, 1876).

Recent Discoveries of Extinct Animals (American Journal of Science (3), vol. xii., pp. 59-61, July, 1876).

Notice of New Tertiary Mammals; Part V. (American Journal of Science (3), vol. xii., pp. 401-404, November, 1876).

Principal Characters of American Pterodactyles (American Journal of Science (3), vol. xii., pp. 479, 480, December, 1876).

Notice of a New and Gigantic Dinosaur (American Journal of Science (3), vol. xiv., pp. 87, 88, July, 1877).

Principal Characters of the Coryphodontidæ (American Journal of Science (3), vol. xiv., pp. 81-85, July, 1877).

Characters of the Odontornithes, with Notice of a New Allied Genus (American Journal of Science (3), vol. xiv., pp. 85-87, July, 1877).

Address on Introduction and Succession of Vertebrate Life in America (American Journal of Science (3), vol. xiv., pp. 338-378, November, 1877).

A New Order of Extinct Reptilia (Stegosauria) from the Jurassic of the Rocky Mountains (American Journal of Science (3), vol. xiv., pp. 513, 514, December, 1877).

New Species of Ceratodus, from the Jurassic (American Journal of Science (3), vol. xv., p. 76, January, 1878).

Notice of New Dinosaurian Reptiles (American Journal of Science (3), vol. xv., pp. 241-244, March, 1878).

Notice of New Fossil Reptiles (American Journal of Science (3), vol. xv., pp. 409-411, May, 1878).

Fossil Mammal from the Jurassic of the Rocky Mountains (American Journal of Science (3), vol. xv., p. 459, June, 1878).

Other scientific papers of interest by Prof. Marsh will be found in the same journal, as well as in the Zeitschrift of the Geological Society of Germany; American Naturalist; "Proceedings of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences;" "Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society; "Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science;" and in other periodicals.

  1. A statement of affairs at the Red Cloud Agency, made to the President of the United States, Yale College, July, 1875.