A Ghost Story
by Ray Troll
I read the tale of Edwin Drinker Cope’s wandering skull in Louis Psihoyos terrific book ‘Hunting Dinosaurs’ published in 1994. Professor Cope had donated his body to science when he died in 1897 and his skull ended up in a museum collection with the collection number 4989 attached to it. Louis filled out the requisite paperwork and borrowed Cope’s skull for a few years and traveled around the US photographing many a paleontologist with the infamous professor’s skull.
I loved the idea that Bob Bakker and Louise came up with to actually name Cope the type specimen for all mankind, since Carl Linnaeus had failed to so when he named our species back in 1758. Legend has it that Cope himself wanted this honor and that’s why he’d donated his body to science in the first place. It may have also been his final ‘fuck you’ to his lifelong rival at Yale, Professor O.C. Marsh.
Cope, a well known fish and reptile scientist in his day, is revered by the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (ASIH). In 1997 I was asked to do the logo for this hallowed organization when they had their annual meeting in Seattle. I commemorated Cope by including his skull in the background between the jaws of an alligator with his skull, appropriately tagged with his specimen number WI 4989.
In 1998 my ‘Dancing to the Fossil Record’ museum exhibit traveled to the Academy of Natural Sciences. I was eager to feature my ASIH artwork in the show and really wanted to tell the story of Cope’s skull and the whole ‘type specimen’ concept in the exhibit. I thought it was an enthralling tale and could help folks understand the importance of type specimens and what they’re all about. I was told that Cope’s body had actually been dissected and prepared in the academy’s Ichthyology lab, which sorta freaked me out a bit as I worked late nights at the museum preparing for the show to open.
Well the Academy’s administration would have none of it. It seems that the whole idea of Cope’s skull traveling around the states with a photographer for years had really ruffled a lot feathers. And besides, some of Cope’s descendants were museum members. Not cool, not cool at all, said they.
Ted Daeschler, a friend of mine and a paleontologist at the Academy, told me that Cope was known around Philly as an eccentric sort of collector. The Academy has hundreds of domestic dog skulls in their collection because Cope wanted to analyze their cranial dimensions and whenever a dog would die in his neighborhood the old professor was there to snatch it up. Ted suggested that maybe I could do something with the dog skull and NOT tell the tale of Cope’s skull. The story of 4989 was off limits.
Feeling somewhat deflated, I ended up hanging a large reproduction of my ASIH artwork on the wall and placed a bust of Cope directly in front of it. Next I randomly piled numerous dog skulls of all sizes and shapes around the sculpture as a sort of ‘art installation’ homage to the man. The label for the piece talked about Cope’s studies in evolution and how he collected the skulls to measure descent with modification.
BUT as fate would have it…
A couple of days after the show opened I toured a bunch of students visiting from Colgate University through the exhibit. Since it was an unofficial tour I was free to regale them with the forbidden story of the skull. When I mentioned the specimen number 4989 one of the more attentive students said, “Excuse me, but did you notice the number on that large dog skull placed directly in front of Cope’s bust?”
A shiver ran down my spine as if I’d been grabbed by an icy hand. 4989 was written in small black numbers on the skull. I think I actually let out a scream.
I was flabbergasted. I’m not a guy who believes in ghosts, but what the hell are the chances? I think about it to this day, Edwin Drinker calling me from ‘the other side’. He still really wants to be the type specimen for all of us.