Remarking on a blackened eye

One of the most infamous fistfights in the history of science went down on May 5, 1888, at Philadelphia’s Philosophical Hall, just as a meeting of the American Philosophical Society was getting underway. The two combatants were dear friends. Hot-headed paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope was scheduled to give a formal presentation on fossil ear bones. Cope’s opponent, geologist Persifor Frazer, was dressed for an evening at the opera with his beloved wife. For Frazer, a matter of honor was at stake. When he confronted Cope in the hallowed hall, fisticuffs, rather than apologies, ensued.

Cope vs. Frazer, drawn by Zander and Kevin Cannon of Big Time Attic.
Cope vs. Frazer, drawn by Zander and Kevin Cannon of Big Time Attic.

The only published account of this unfortunate incident appears in Cope: Master Naturalist, a biography written by Henry Fairfield Osborn, which, regrettably, includes precious few details about the altercation. According to this one-sided account, Osborn chanced upon Cope, who was looking somewhat worse for wear, on the morning after the brawl. Osborn wrote, “I happened to meet Cope and could not help remarking on a blackened eye. ‘Osborn,’ [Cope] said, ‘don’t look at my eye. If you think my eye is black, you ought to see Frazer this morning!'”

A portrait of Persifor Frazer
A portrait of Persifor Frazer

While researching another matter related to Cope’s troubled professional career, I happened to find a document written by Frazer that provides a blow-by-blow narrative of the fight, as well as some additional context. I plan to publish a transcription of this document in the near future.

A portrait of Cope
A portrait of Edward Drinker Cope

During the course of this project, I read the graphic novel Bone Sharps, Cowboys and Thunder Lizards, which chronicles the scientific feud between Cope and his nemesis, Othniel Charles Marsh. I was so impressed with the book’s illustrations that I commissioned the artists, Zander and Kevin Cannon (no relation), to draw a cartoon of the fistfight between Cope and Frazer. Their work is featured above.

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