Richard Owen

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Richard Owen
Richard Owen.JPG
Richard Owen
July 20, 1804
Lancaster, England, UK
December 18, 1892
Richmond Park, London, England, UK

Sir Richard Owen (July 20, 1804 – December 18, 1892) was an English biologist, comparative anatomist, and paleontologist.

Owen is renowned as the person who coined the term dinosaur, but he had numerous scientific accomplishments, particularly in the area of vertebrate anatomy and paleontology, where he was the preeminent authority following Georges Cuvier. Owen also did notable work on the pearly nautilus and other invertebrates, and was the first to recognize the two natural groups of ungulates, the odd-toed ungulates and the even-toed ungulates.

However, Owen also is well-known as a person who stood in opposition to the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin and is famous for his long-standing feud with Darwin's "bulldog," Thomas Huxley. While Owen epitomized some of the virtues of a good scientist—namely hard work, passion, curiosity, and willingness to share his results—he also exhibited some ethical shortcomings that have damaged his reputation to this day. Both in his time and now, Owen has been depicted as a person who often took credit for others' work and who strived to damage the reputation of competing scientists. Thus, despite his accomplishments, which were extraordinary, accounts of Owen's life often present a less than laudatory picture of the man.

Life and career: Synopsis

Owen was born in Lancaster, England in 1804 and attended the Lancaster Royal Grammar School as a youth. His initial life course was toward the field of medicine, beginning in 1820, when at around the age of 16 he began an apprenticeship with a local surgeon. Among his activities at that time was performing post mortems in a local prison. In 1824 Owen began medical studies at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where he had an opportunity to study anatomy. Owen completed his medical studies the following year at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London.

Over time, Owen moved away from the field of medicine into more scientific research. In 1827, upon the advice of surgeon John Abernethy at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, Owen took the position of associate curator at the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. Owen's work including cataloging the holdings of the Hunterian Museum and his reputation grew rapidly. Within a few short years, Owen was elected a fellow of the Royal Society (1834), appointed Hunterian professor (1836) then professor of anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons, and became Fullerian professor of comparative anatomy and physiology at the Royal Institution (FCD 2007). Owen's becoming a fellow of the Royal Society followed upon his acclaimed anatomical work on the pearly nautilus, as well as his work on monotremes and marsupials. In 1849, Owen was promoted to the post of Curator of the Hunterian Museum.

In 1856, Owen left the Hunterian Museum to join the staff of the British Museum, where he became superintendent of the Department of Natural History. He was to hold this position for the next 27 years. One of Owen's main passions was to develop a national Museum of Natural History. Upon becoming superintendent, Owen assessed that the natural history department needed a bigger, separate building. Land in South Kensington was purchased, and in 1864 a competition was held to design the new museum. Construction began in 1873 and was completed in 1880. The new museum devoted to natural history opened in 1881, although the move from the old museum was not fully completed until 1883. After this dream was fulfilled, Owen retired and he was honored with the Order of the Bath. A few years earlier, in 1878, he also was awarded the inaugural Clarke Medal by the Royal Society of New South Wales. After his retirement in 1884, Owen lived at Richmond Park until his death in 1892 at the age of 88.

The Natural History Museum at South Kensington, London. Richard Owen devoted much of his energies to the scheme for its construction. It opened in 1881.

Owen's career was tainted by numerous accusations of failing to give credit to the work of others and even trying to appropriate others' works in his own name. His career was also noted for intense rivalries with Thomas Huxley and Gideon Mantell.

Owen tended to support the status quo, and he attracted conservative patrons. The royal family presented him with the cottage in Richmond Park and Robert Peel put him on the Civil List (a list of individuals to whom money is paid by the government).

Work in zoology, anatomy, and paleontology

Owen's 1832 publication, Memoir on the Pearly Nautilus (1832), brought him much acclaim, but he also made substantial contributions in the zoology and anatomy of other invertebrates, including additional mollusks, both extant and extinct, as well as sponges, brachiopods, and arthropods. In 1835, he discovered the parasite Trichina spiralis that causes the disease trichinosis that affects humans, and he developed a classification scheme for brachiopods.

Owen was particularly acclaimed for his pioneering anatomical and paleontological studies of vertebrates. His studies were wide-ranging, including extant and extinct fish, amphibians, birds, reptiles, and mammals, and he made extensive studies of teeth. The labyrinthodonts (Greek for "maze-toothed"), a group of extinct amphibians, was discovered, named, and described by Owen based on their unique, maze-like pattern of infolding of the dentine and enamel of the teeth, which are often the only part of the creatures that fossilize. Owen identified the fish clade Teleostomi, and did studies on the dodo, kiwi, and Greak Auk, among other birds. Owen did extensive studies of such mammals as extant marsupials, monotremes, and apes, and extinct forms such as the giant armadillo, ground sloth, kangaroo, and wombat. Through his studies of fossils, Owen delineated and named the two major divisions of ungulates, the Artiodactyla and the Perissodactyla.

Owen is particularly renowned for his studies of and naming of the group Dinosauria (dinosaurs). The first life-sized sculptures of dinosaurs were produced with the help of Owen for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and more were produced subsequently. Owen also completed an important work on Archaeopteryx, an extinct animal with characteristics of a reptile and a bird, although Thomas Huxley pointed out a number of errors in this work.

Among Owen's classic publications on vertebrates are History of British Fossil Mammals and Birds (1844-1846); the four-volume set History of British Fossil Reptiles (1849-1884); the three-volume work Comparative Anatomy and Physiology of Vertebrates (1866-1868); and his Monograph of the Fossil Mammalia of the Mesozoic Formations (1871).

Owen and Darwin's theory of evolution

Sir Richard Owen and Dinornis bird skeleton

As one of the major science authorities at the time of Charles Darwin first presenting his revolutionary ideas on evolution, Owen's name is inextricably linked to both Darwin and his theory.

Prior to Darwin's Origin of Species

Owen's and Darwin's paths first crossed well before Darwin's unveiling of his theory in 1859. Following his voyage on the Beagle 1831 to 1836, Darwin had at his disposal a considerable collection of specimens. On October 29, 1836, he was introduced by Charles Lyell to Owen, who agreed to work on fossil bones collected in South America. Owen's subsequent revelations, that extinct giant creatures were rodents and sloths, showed that they were related to current species in the same locality, rather than being relatives of similarly sized creatures in Africa, as Darwin had originally thought. This was one of the many influences that lead Darwin to later formulate his own ideas on the concept of natural selection.

At this time, Owen talked of his own theories, influenced by Johannes Peter Müller, that living matter had an "organising energy", a life-force that directed the growth of tissues and also determined the lifespan of the individual and of the species. Darwin was reticent about his own thoughts on evolution, understandably, when on December 19, 1838, as secretary of the Geological Society of London, he saw Owen and his allies ridicule another evolutionary idea, the Lamarckian "heresy" of Darwin's old tutor, Robert Edmund Grant. In 1841, when the recently married Darwin was ill, Owen was one of the few scientific friends to visit; however, Owen's opposition to any hint of transmutation of species was a factor in Darwin keeping quiet about his hypothesis.

Today, Owen has a reputation as someone that opposed the idea that species evolved. Indeed, Darwin himself makes this point in the first edition of Origin of Species (1859), where Owen is described as firmly convinced of the immutability of species. And, indeed, early in his career, Owen did not believe in the transmutation of species and accepted that each species had been uniquely designed and created by God (FCD 2007). However, by the mid-1840s, Owen's views had changed, largely because of his work on vertebrates (FCD 2007). He now believed that all vertebrates were based on the same archetype or blueprint, but each was a unique extension of it, a result of various secondary laws; that is, this was divinely influenced evolution (FCD 2007). In later edition of Origin of Species, Darwin described his comments regarding Owen in the first edition as a preposterous error, although he did note the difficulty of understanding Owen's writings on the topic.

During the development of Darwin's theory, prior to the publication of Origin of Species, Darwin's investigation of barnacles showed, in 1849, how their segmentation related to other crustaceans, reflecting an apparent descent with modification from their relatives. To Owen, such "homologies" in comparative anatomy instead revealed archetypes in the Divine mind. Owen demonstrated fossil evidence of an evolutionary sequence of horses as supporting his idea of development from archetypes in "ordained continuous becoming" and, in 1854, gave a British Association for the Advancement of Science talk on the impossibility of bestial apes, such as the recently discovered gorilla, standing erect and being transmuted into men.

Owen, as president-elect of the Royal Association, announced his authoritative anatomical studies of primate brains, showing that humans were not just a separate species but a separate sub-class. Darwin wrote that "Owen's is a grand Paper; but I cannot swallow Man making a division as distinct from a Chimpanzee, as an ornithorhynchus from a Horse" (Darwin 1857)." The combative Thomas Huxley used his March 1858 Royal Institution lecture to claim that, structurally, gorillas are as close to humans as they are to baboons and added that he believed that the "mental & moral faculties are essentially... the same kind in animals & ourselves." This was a clear challenge to Owen's lecture, claiming human uniqueness, given at the same venue.

After the Origin of Species

On the publication of Darwin's theory in 1859 in the Origin of Species, Darwin sent a complimentary copy to Owen, saying "it will seem 'an abomination.’" Owen was the first to respond, courteously claiming that he had long believed that "existing influences" were responsible for the "ordained" birth of species. Darwin now had long talks with him and Owen said that the book offered the best explanation "ever published of the manner of formation of species," although he still had the gravest doubts that transmutation would bestialize people. It appears that Darwin had assured Owen that he was looking at everything as resulting from designed laws, which Owen interpreted as showing a shared belief in "Creative Power."

In his lofty position at the head of science, Owen received numerous complaints about Darwin's book. His own position remained unknown: when emphasizing to a Parliamentary committee the need for a new Natural History Museum, he said:

The whole intellectual world this year has been excited by a book on the origin of species; and what is the consequence? Visitors come to the British Museum, and they say, “Let us see all these varieties of pigeons: where is the tumbler, where is the pouter?” and I am obliged with shame to say, I can show you none of them.... As to showing you the varieties of those species, or of any of those phenomena that would aid one in getting at that mystery of mysteries, the origin of species, our space does not permit; but surely there ought to be a space somewhere, and, if not in the British Museum, where is it to be obtained?

While not publicly commenting at the time, Owen did apparently resort to subterfuge, by writing an anonymous article in the Edinburgh Review in April 1860. In the article, Owen criticized Darwin's reasoning and heaped praise (in the third person) upon his own work, while being careful not to associate any particular mechanism for evolution with his own name (FCD 2007).

Owen showed his anger at what he saw as Darwin's caricature of the creationist position and his ignoring Owen's specific evolutionary position. To Owen, new species appeared at birth, not through natural selection. Owen attacked Darwin's "disciples" Joseph Dalton Hooker and Thomas Huxley as well.

Darwin, Hooker, and Huxley recognized the Edinburgh article as the work of Owen. Darwin wrote of this review in an April 10, 1860 to Charles Lyell:

I have just read the 'Edinburgh' ('Edinburgh Review,' April 1860.), which without doubt is by — [Owen]. It is extremely malignant, clever, and I fear will be very damaging. He is atrociously severe on Huxley's lecture, and very bitter against Hooker. . . . It requires much study to appreciate all the bitter spite of many of the remarks against me; indeed I did not discover all myself. It scandalously misrepresents many parts. He misquotes some passages, altering words within inverted commas... It is painful to be hated in the intense degree with which — hates me.

While Owen is renowned as an individual opposing Darwin's theory of evolution—and Darwin was indeed troubled by some of Owen's published attacks—nonetheless, Owen did accept some level of evolution. However, his infamous reputation is likely exacerbated as a result of Owen's long-standing feud with Darwin's staunchist supporter, Thomas Huxley (FCD 2007). It has been noted of Darwin's bulldog that "throughout his distinguished career, despite being helped early on in that career by Owen, Huxley never missed an opportunity to savage Owen's reputation" (FCD 2007).

On his own part, Owen tried to smear Huxley, by portraying him as an "advocate of man's origins from a transmuted ape." This backfired, and Huxley took the opportunity to publicly turn the anatomy of brain structure into a question of human ancestry and was determined to indict Owen for perjury. The campaign ran over two years and was devastatingly successful, with each attack followed by a recruiting drive for the Darwinian cause. The spite lingered. When Huxley joined the Zoological Society Council in 1861, Owen left, and in the following year, Huxley moved to stop Owen from being elected to the Royal Society Council, accusing him "of wilful & deliberate falsehood."

In January 1863, Owen bought the archaeopteryx fossil for the British Museum. It fulfilled Darwin's prediction that a proto-bird with unfused wing fingers would be found, although Owen described it unequivocally as a bird.

The feuding between Owen and Darwin's supporters continued. In 187 Owen was found to be involved in a threat to end government funding of Joseph Dalton Hooker's botanical collection at Kew, possibly trying to bring it under his British Museum, and perhaps also for spite. Darwin (1872) commented, "I used to be ashamed of hating him so much, but now I will carefully cherish my hatred & contempt to the last days of my life."


Owen made major contributions in anatomy, and even was the first to clearly distinguish between homology and analogy. However, his complex descriptions and writings make difficult reading, partly due to the complex terminology that he employed. Owen made little lasting contribution to theories of evolution, although his work did provide some support for descent with modification, such as noting changes within forerunners of crocodiles and horses.

While Owen's anatomical, zoological, and paleontological contributions were enormous, and he is famous for having named the dinosaur, descriptions of his personality have not been so laudatory. Owen has been described by some as a malicious, dishonest, and hateful individual. He has been called a person driven by jealousy and arrogance, and Deborah Cadbury stated that Owen possessed an "almost fanatical egoism with a callous delight in savaging his critics." Indeed, an Oxford University professor once described Owen as "a damned liar. He lied for God and for malice" (Scott 2006).

Gideon Mantell, who had found and described many of the first dinosaurs, but was often a target of Owen, claimed it was "a pity a man so talented should be so dastardly and envious." Indeed, Owen famously credited himself and Georges Cuvier with the discovery of the Iguanodon, completely excluding any credit for Mantell, who was the original discoverer. This was not the first or last time Owen would deliberately claim a discovery as his own when in fact it was not. It has been suggested by some authors that Owen even used his influence in the Royal Society to ensure that many of Mantell’s research papers were never published.

When Mantell suffered an accident that left him permanently crippled, Owen exploited the opportunity by renaming several dinosaurs that had already been named by Mantell, even having the audacity to claim credit for their discovery himself. When Mantell finally died in 1852, an obituary carrying no byline derided Mantell as little more than a mediocre scientist, who brought forth few notable contributions. The obituary’s authorship was universally attributed to Owen by local geologists. The president of the Geological Society claimed that it "Bespeaks of the lamentable coldness of the heart of the writer." Owen was subsequently denied the presidency of the society for his repeated and pointed antagonism towards Gideon Mantell.

Despite originally starting out on good terms with Darwin, he turned on him savagely at the first opportunity, despite knowing enough anatomy to understand the explanatory power of Darwin’s theory. The reason for this, some historians claim, was that Owen felt upstaged by Darwin and supporters such as Huxley, and his judgment was clouded by jealousy. That is what Darwin himself believed: "The Londoners say he is mad with envy because my book is so talked about" (Darwin 1887), and "What a strange man to be envious of a naturalist like myself, immeasurably his inferior!" (FCD 2007).

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