Othniel Charles Marsh (b. 1831, d. 1899) was born in Lockport, New York, on October 29, 1831. His mother, George Peabody’s younger sister Mary, died when the boy was not quite 3 years old.
Marsh’s early love of the outdoors led to friendship with the geologist Colonel Ezekiel Jewett, and young Othniel acquired a taste for collecting natural history specimens as his boyhood idol taught him about the local minerals and the excellent trilobite, brachiopod, and crinoid specimens that could be found near his home.
When Marsh reached the age of 21, he inherited the dowry that Peabody had provided for his mother; with it he entered preparatory school, Phillips Academy at Andover, Massachusetts. After graduating from Andover, he attended Yale College with his uncle’s financial support, receiving the degree of Bachelor of Arts in 1860. Peabody continued his support while Marsh pursued graduate studies at Yale and at several German universities.
It was at this time, in the early 1860s, while Peabody was making plans for the eventual distribution of his fortune to worthy causes, that Marsh persuaded him to include Yale in his list of beneficiaries. In 1866 the Peabody Museum of Natural History was founded with a gift of $150,000 from George Peabody. In the same year O.C. Marsh was made Professor of Paleontology at Yale, the first such appointment in the United States. In 1867 he was appointed one of the Museum’s first curators (with George J. Brush and Addison E. Verrill), and also assumed the (unofficial) directorship of the Museum which he had been instrumental in establishing.
Marsh himself received a substantial inheritance after Peabody’s death in 1869, which spared him the necessity of receiving a salary from Yale — and doing the teaching to earn it. Marsh used his inheritance to build a large house (now the home of Yale’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies) — in which he entertained visitors ranging from Sioux Chief Red Cloud to Alfred Russel Wallace — and to amass large collections of vertebrate fossils, fossil footprints, invertebrate fossils, osteological specimens, and archaeological and ethnological artifacts. In 1898 Marsh presented his extraordinary collections to Yale.
Between 1870 and 1873 Marsh led 4 expeditions of Yale students into the American West in search of fossils.
During his career Marsh published about 300 scientific papers and books. In these he described and named approximately 500 new species of fossil animals that he and his collectors found. From 1883 to 1895 Marsh was President of the National Academy of Sciences. From 1882 to 1892 he was Vertebrate Paleontologist of the U.S. Geological Survey.
In 1890 the climax of one of American science’s most colorful (and scandalous) episodes — the “fossil feud” that had been simmering for 20 years between Marsh and and his rival, Edward Drinker Cope — erupted into the newspapers.
O.C. Marsh died of pneumonia at his home in New Haven, Connecticut, on March 18, 1899. His tombstone reads: “To Yale he gave his services, his collections, and his estate.”
Portrait of O.C. Marsh by Thomas LeClear. © YPM.