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.

34 thoughts on “Remarking on a blackened eye”

  1. fascinating. eagerly awaiting the transcribed details of this altercation- as this post leaves many questions unanswered. Excellent illustration.

    1. Pretty sure, Kaytee. Frazer’s account provides a partial explanation for their fight. I’ll be sure to forward a copy to you when the paper becomes available!

  2. Zander Cannon is fantastic. He also contributed to Alan Moore’s “Top Ten” (think Hill Street Blues meets superheroes) as well as Moore’s “Smax,” one of the best “fractured fairy tales” you’ll ever read.

    1. Both Cannons are fantastic, although I don’t know their canon as well as you do! Thanks for your comment, Bob.

  3. What a tease! Why not give a preview of that blow-by-blow account? But I did order the Marsh-Cope graphic novel right away.

    1. Great! Now Big Time Attic owes me a nickel. I’ll be sure to send you a PDF when it’s available. Thanks for your comment, Michel.

    1. A complete list? Now that’s a tall order! Complete list or not, you’d be hard pressed to find a more notorious fistfight between scientists than this one, I’ll wager. Thanks for your comment.

  4. That is an interesting document, to be sure. I can only chime in with the praise for “Bone Sharps”, one of those few books/comics that can be enjoyed on a number of levels.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Bryan. I hope to relate other untold stories about Cope on this blog in the future…stay tuned!

  5. Please send me a copy of the transcript when it is available. I would love to read more of your work, so please finish that next book.

    I also wish we had more knock-down drag-outs at our paleo meetings, as it could liven things up. Maybe that will be the next meeting I organize, if people bring their own insurance.

  6. Now you need to set the incident to music. You could call it “A Boy Named Persifor,” a sequel to the Johnny Cash classic, “A Boy Named Sue.”

    1. I have at least one friend with some musical talent. I’ll see if I can get him interested in your idea. Thanks for your comment, Rich.

  7. Next time we do a presentation on stage, maybe we should do a reenactment of this notorious fight? Why should Civil War fans have all the fun?

    Looking forward to hearing the gory details of the fight!

  8. Another great post! I love reading accounts of scientists behaving badly. How else would we, mere mortals, know that scientists are human too?

    1. The subtext of my entire body of work is that scientists are only human, and that science, like other human endeavors, is sometimes deeply flawed. Thanks, LB, for your comment.

    1. Cope’s talk was about fossil ear bones, but the fight was over a matter of honor. More details to follow. I should note here, though, that after the fight, Cope cleaned himself up and delivered his talk. Is that hard-core enough for you, Lonzo?

    1. Good news, Pat! I just received news that Persifor’s account will soon appear in the journal Endeavour. I will post again when the article gets published.

      1. No news yet. The editor of Endeavour has the revised article and all the figures in hand, though, so it’s just a matter of time. I will post here again when the article is published.

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