Othniel Charles Marsh

October 29, 1831 - March 18, 1899

Othniel Charles Marsh

Othniel Charles Marsh was born on October 29, 1831 in the town of Lockport, New York to Caleb Marsh and Mary Gaines Peabody on their family farm. Marsh was born into a family with modest means, and was expected to be his father's mainstay on the family farm as his duty as the eldest son. Caleb and Mary had three more children after Othniel. Tragically, soon after the birth of her fourth child, Mary Gaines contracted cholera and died within fourteen hours. Caleb was grief stricken, sold his farm soon after Mary's death, and returned with his children to his old home in Danvers, Massachusetts (Schuchert, 1938).

Soon after, in 1836 Caleb was remarried to Mary Lattin, the daughter of a well-to-do man of Lockport, New York. At this time, the family of four soon grew to seven with the introduction of Lattin and her two children. Because of this, financial hardships drove a wedge between Othniel and his father Caleb. Othniel was only able to go to school during the winter, but had gained enough knowledge to grant him entrance to Wilson Collegiate Institute in Wilson, New York in 1848 (Schuchert, 1938).

Academic Pursuit

Even during the beginning of his academic career, Marsh showed promise in the natural sciences. In 1851, Marsh decided to turn his passion into a career and left behind his fossil collecting days as a child in the Erie Canal to obtain the academic training at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts (LeClear, 2011). Upon obtaining high merit, awards, and prizes for his academic achievements at the academy, Marsh decided to further pursue his education and was accepted to Yale University where he enrolled in Classics. Still in need to pursue both his passion for the natural sciences and academic ambition, he continued his studies (1860-1862) in the newly developed Sheffield School of Science of Yale, under the direction of some of the most renowned naturalists at the time. At Yale, he studied geology and mineralogy (LeClear, 2011).

Continuing with his education, Marsh traveled to Germany to attend the University of Berlin in 1863 to obtain a second degree. During his time at the University of Berlin, Marsh became acquainted with Edward Drinker Cope, another highly passionate paleontologist and naturalist. Soon after their brief stint of sharing samples, papers, and correspondence, it was apparent that both Cope and Marsh would become fierce rivals. This rivalry supposedly began when Marsh suggested that Cope placed the skull of a marine reptile on the wrong end of the skeleton. It was likely that this rivalry acted as the catalyst for the successful careers of both men who shared a deep passion for paleontology and the natural sciences.

Marsh's academic dreams of obtaining Professorship were supported by his ultra wealthy banker uncle, George Peabody, his mother's brother, who donated $150,000 to Yale in the creation of the Peabody Museum of Natural History in 1866. It was during this same year that Marsh was made a professor of Paleontology at Yale - the first of such appointments in the United States.

Career & Later Life

At the beginning of his career, Marsh was a creationist (highly common at the time), but noted the importance of the findings of his European colleagues which suggested the theory of evolution was highly plausible. Throughout his own work and his career, however, he would ultimately become an advocate for the theory of evolution through observations made in his own work. After his appointment to Yale, Marsh became a leading pioneer in American paleontology. He discovered the bones of gigantic reptilian vertebrates in the western plains, numerous species of dinosaurs, and demonstrated beyond doubt that the horse first emerged in the Americas and had undergone early evolution (early horse), then migrated to Eurasian continents over a land bridge to eventually evolve into the modern horse we see today.

Other important work included determining the ratio of brain to bone weight for specific dinosaur species and reptilian relatives. Marsh noted that the brain cavities of these creatures were relatively small when compared to modern mammals of comparative size. Further study of ancient mammal brain/bone ratio also indicated that brain cavities of these ancient mammals were also small. This led Marsh to make the connection that through the course of the geologic record, intelligence had likely increased relative to the increase in brain cavities of discovered species (LeClear, 2011).

Throughout his career, Marsh uncovered and identified about 500 new species of fossil animals with the help of his hired field hands. Marsh did not spend much time in the field collecting samples, but through his good luck and the fortune provided by his uncle, he was able to obtain a prominent role in both the academic world and scientific community (Othniel C. Marsh, n.d.). It was this good fortune that allowed Marsh to compile a massive collection of fossils, and ultimately enabled him to fill in a number of gaps in the fossil record. This led him to be one of the first American converts to follow Darwin's Theory of Evolution.

Marsh developed a reputation as an "armchair paleontologist", which stems from his hired field help (Othniel C. Marsh, n.d.). His field workers sent samples directly to Marsh. This ultimately led to sloppy work and the mixing up of collected samples. Regardless of this minor informality, Marsh has made his mark on the scientific community as one of the world's leading American Vertebrate Paleontologists through his long and dedicated career.

On March 18, 1899 Marsh died and was buried at the Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven, Connecticut.

Grave of Othniel Charles Marsh

back to top