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Cope's 1991-1994 world tour
DEATH'S-HEAD TAKES A HOLIDAY IN THE COMPANY OF A PRANKISH AUTHOR
By MARK BOWDEN
Knight-Ridder News Service
WHEN the folks at the University of Pennsylvania Museum agreed to loan out
the bones of famed paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope three years ago, they
figured it was for a simple photo shoot.
They hadn't figured on Louis Psihoyos, a longtime National Geographic
photographer, getting attached to them. When curators learned earlier this
month that Psihoyos had adopted ''Ed'' as his traveling companion while
researching a book on dinosaur hunters, they were furious.
What follows is a story about a prankish author, zany paleontologists, shoddy
history, arcane racist theory and some thoroughly outraged museum curators.
And at the end, there's a delicious surprise.
Cope was one of this country's most prominent 19th-century scientists, and
also a fervent racist, sexist and anti-Semite. He made notable contributions
to the growing cult of bone-digging, presided for a time over the Academy of
Natural Sciences, and -- despite famous, alarming lapses in judgment -- is
revered by modern paleontologists.
It seems Cope's ambition for immortality outstripped even his broad earthly
celebrity. Where most people wish to be esteemed, respected or at least
fondly remembered, Cope aspired to be recognized as nothing less than the
ultimate model of humanity, the ''type specimen'' for the species Homo
SO after his death in 1897, taxonomists at the Wistar Institute, following
the wishes of the dapper gentleman with the handlebar mustache, stripped the
skin, muscle and viscera from his bones, which were then cleaned, lacquered,
labeled and boxed.
Alas, no one ever registered Cope as the type specimen. Almost 70 years after
Cope died, his remains were rescued from basement storage by Loren Eiseley, a
University of Pennsylvania anthropologist, who pirated them from a loading
In 1991, Psihoyos and his co-author, John Knoebber, got permission from the
university museum to photograph Cope's boxed remains.
''We pulled back the unsealed flaps of the cardboard box and found the skull
of Professor Cope loosely wrapped in old want ads,'' Psihoyos wrote in
''Hunting Dinosaurs,'' to be published this month. ''It was disconcerting to
see the great professor's illustrious career come to this, but he seemed to
be smiling, as skeletons do.''
Psihoyos and Knoebber got such a charge out of taking possession of one of
the most celebrated fossil hunters of all time that they decided not to
return the remains.
Instead, they carted Cope's skull with them all over America as they
researched and photographed their book.
Knoebber fashioned a velvet-lined mahogany box to house the skull, which they
took with them to photo shoots with a number of prominent paleontologists.
''Everybody wanted to meet and be photographed with him -- even in his
present condition,'' Psihoyos wrote.
Ever since Carolus Linnaeus codified a method for classifying species in the
18th century, taxonomists have selected the most representative skeleton for
each new animal and had it officially registered as the type specimen with
the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. Linnaeus, sensibly,
had decided back in 1758 that there was no need for a type specimen for Homo
sapiens. In lieu of a detailed official description for this species,
Linnaeus simply and artfully penned, ''Know thyself.''
Cope had his own agenda. He taught that all races other than those stemming
from his own Nordic roots were inferior.
PSIHOYOS and popular bone-hunter Bob Bakker, ignorant of Cope's underlying
intent, decided to help. Bakker knew that in the absence of an original type
specimen, a scientist could designate one simply by publishing the claim in a
reputable scientific journal. Bakker drew up a paper that they submitted to
the obscure but respectable Wyoming Geological Association Journal, to be
published this month.
Then officials at the museum and the National Academy of Sciences found out
about the skull's travels.
''What they've done is abhorrent,'' said Ted Daeschler, a collections manager
at the academy. ''There is a code among scientists about handling borrowed
specimens, and there is a respectful protocol for handling human skeletal
Now, for the surprise. It turns out the skull is most likely not the skull of
Edward Drinker Cope.
Eiseley, the late anthropologist who spirited Cope's bones from the loading
dock at the Wistar Institute, loaned the skull to an artist in the mid-1970s
to help make a model for a bust of Cope, said Gale Christianson, author of a
biography of Eiseley. It appears the skull was never returned.
Psihoyos, who has reluctantly mailed ''Ed'' back to the museum, is not
----(my editor cut out the last of this article which basicly went on to say
that the skull seems to match early drawings that are identified with Cope's
skull. But no real conclusions are drawn)