For other uses, see Richard Owen (disambiguation).
|Born||(1804-07-20)20 July 1804
|Died||18 December 1892(1892-12-18) (aged 88)
Richmond Park, London, England
|Alma mater||University of Edinburgh|
|Known for||Coining the term dinosaur, presenting them as a distinct taxonomic group.|
|Awards||Wollaston Medal (1838)|
Despite being a controversial figure, Owen is generally considered to have been an outstanding naturalist with a remarkable gift for interpreting fossils.
An outspoken critic of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, Owen agreed with Darwin that evolution occurred, but thought it was more complex than outlined in Darwin's On the Origin of Species.
Owen's approach to evolution can be seen as having anticipated the issues that have gained greater attention with the recent emergence of evolutionary developmental biology.
Owen also campaigned for the natural specimens in the British Museum to be given a new home.
Bill Bryson argues that, "by making the Natural History Museum an institution for everyone, Owen transformed our expectations of what museums are for".
While he made several contributions to science and public learning, Owen was a controversial figure among his contemporaries, such as Thomas Henry Huxley.
His later career was tainted by controversies, many of which involved accusations that he took credit for other people's work.
Owen was born in Lancaster in 1804, one of six children of a West Indian Merchant named Richard Owen (1754–1809).
In July 1835 Owen married Caroline Amelia Clift in St Pancras by whom he had one son, William Owen.
He outlived both wife and son.
After his death, in 1892, he was survived by his three grandchildren and daughter-in-law Emily Owen, to whom he left much of his £33,000 fortune.
This occupation led him to abandon medical practice in favor of scientific research.
He prepared a series of catalogues of the Hunterian Collection, in the Royal College of Surgeons and, in the course of this work, he acquired a knowledge of comparative anatomy that facilitated his researches on the remains of extinct animals.
In 1836, Owen was appointed Hunterian professor, in the Royal College of Surgeons and, in 1849, he succeeded Clift as conservator.
He held the latter office until 1856, when he became superintendent of the natural history department of the British Museum.
He then devoted much of his energies to a great scheme for a National Museum of Natural History, which eventually resulted in the removal of the natural history collections of the British Museum to a new building at South Kensington: the British Museum (Natural History) (now the Natural History Museum).
He retained office until the completion of this work, in December, 1883, when he was made a knight of the Order of the Bath.
He lived quietly in retirement at Sheen Lodge, Richmond Park, until his death in 1892.
His career was tainted by accusations that he failed to give credit to the work of others and even tried to appropriate it in his own name.
Owen had failed to acknowledge that the belemnite had been discovered by Chaning Pearce, an amateur biologist, four years earlier.
Owen always tended to support orthodox men of science and the status quo.
In 1843, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
In 1844 he became an associated member of the Royal Institute of the Netherlands.
When this Institute became the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1851, he joined as foreign member.
Work on invertebrates
While occupied with the cataloguing of the Hunterian collection, Owen did not confine his attention to the preparations before him but also seized every opportunity to dissect fresh subjects.
He was allowed to examine all animals that died in London Zoo's gardens and, when the Zoo began to publish scientific proceedings, in 1831, he was the most prolific contributor of anatomical papers.
His first notable publication, however, was his Memoir on the Pearly Nautilus (London, 1832), which was soon recognized as a classic.
Henceforth, he continued to make important contributions to every department of comparative anatomy and zoology for a period of over fifty years.
Among Entozoa, his most noteworthy discovery was that of Trichina spiralis (1835), the parasite infesting the muscles of man in the disease now termed trichinosis (see also, however, Sir James Paget).
Of Brachiopoda he made very special studies, which much advanced knowledge and settled the classification that has long been accepted.
Among Mollusca, he described not only the pearly nautilus but also Spirula (1850) and other Cephalopoda, both living and extinct, and it was he who proposed the universally-accepted subdivision of this class into the two orders of Dibranchiata and Tetrabranchiata (1832).
In 1852 Owen named Protichnites – the oldest footprints found on land.
Applying his knowledge of anatomy, he correctly postulated that these Cambrian trackways were made by an extinct type of arthropod, and he did this more than 150 years before any fossils of the animal were found.
Owen envisioned a resemblance of the animal to the living arthropod Limulus, which was the subject of a special memoir he wrote in 1873.
Fish, reptiles, birds, and naming of dinosaurs
His Comparative Anatomy and Physiology of Vertebrates (3 vols. London 1866–1868) was indeed the result of more personal research than any similar work since Georges Cuvier's Leçons d'anatomie comparée.
Early in his career, he made exhaustive studies of teeth of existing and extinct animals and published his profusely illustrated work on Odontography (1840–1845).
Most of his work on reptiles related to the skeletons of extinct forms and his chief memoirs, on British specimens, were reprinted in a connected series in his History of British Fossil Reptiles (4 vols. London 1849–1884).
He published the first important general account of the great group of Mesozoic land-reptiles, and he coined the name Dinosauria from Greek δεινός (deinos) "terrible, powerful, wondrous" + σαύρος (sauros) "lizard".
Most of these were obtained from South Africa, beginning in 1845 (Dicynodon) and eventually furnished materials for his Catalogue of the Fossil Reptilia of South Africa, issued by the British Museum, in 1876.
Among his writings on birds, his classical memoir on the kiwi (1840–1846), a long series of papers on the extinct Dinornithidae of New Zealand, other memoirs on Aptornis, the takahe, the dodo and the great auk, may be especially mentioned.
With Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, Owen helped create the first life-size sculptures depicting dinosaurs as he thought they might have appeared.
Owen famously hosted a dinner for 21 prominent men of science inside the hollow concrete Iguanodon on New Year's Eve 1853.
However, in 1849, a few years before his death in 1852, Gideon Mantell had realised that Iguanodon, of which he was the discoverer, was not a heavy, pachyderm-like animal, as Owen was proposing, but had slender forelimbs; his death left him unable to participate in the creation of the Crystal Palace dinosaur sculptures, and so Owen's vision of dinosaurs became that seen by the public.
He had nearly two dozen lifesize sculptures of various prehistoric animals built out of concrete sculpted over a steel and brick framework; two Iguanodon, one standing and one resting on its belly, were included.
Work on mammals
Owen was granted right of first refusal on any freshly dead animal at the London Zoo.
His wife once arrived home to find the carcass of a newly deceased rhinoceros in her front hallway.
Most of his writings on mammals, however, deal with extinct forms, to which his attention seems to have been first directed by the remarkable fossils collected by Charles Darwin, in South America.
Owen's interest in South American extinct mammals then led to the recognition of the giant armadillo, which he named Glyptodon (1839) and to classic memoirs on the giant ground-sloths, Mylodon (1842) and Megatherium (1860), besides other important contributions.
Owen also first described the false killer whale in 1863.
At the same time, Sir Thomas Mitchell's discovery of fossil bones, in New South Wales, provided material for the first of Owen's long series of papers on the extinct mammals of Australia, which were eventually reprinted in book-form in 1877.
Most fossil material found in Australia and New Zealand was initially sent to England for expert examination, and with the assistance of the local collectors Owen became the first authority on the palaeontology of the region.
While occupied with so much material from abroad, Owen was also busily collecting facts for an exhaustive work on similar fossils from the British Isles and, in 1844–1846, he published his History of British Fossil Mammals and Birds, which was followed by many later memoirs, notably his Monograph of the Fossil Mammalia of the Mesozoic Formations (Palaeont.
One of his latest publications was a little work entitled Antiquity of Man as deduced from the Discovery of a Human Skeleton during Excavations of the Docks at Tilbury (London, 1884).
Owen, Darwin, and the theory of evolution
Owen's detailed memoirs and descriptions require laborious attention in reading, on account of their complex terminology and ambiguous modes of expression.
The fact that very little of his terminology has found universal favour causes them to be more generally neglected than they otherwise would be.
At the same time, it must be remembered that he was a pioneer in concise anatomical nomenclature and, so far at least as the vertebrate skeleton is concerned, his terms were based on a carefully reasoned philosophical scheme, which first clearly distinguished between the now-familiar phenomena of analogy and homology.
Owen's theory of the Archetype and Homologies of the Vertebrate Skeleton (1848), subsequently illustrated also by his little work On the Nature of Limbs (1849), regarded the vertebrate frame as consisting of a series of fundamentally identical segments, each modified according to its position and functions.
Much of it was fanciful and failed when tested by the facts of embryology, which Owen systematically ignored, throughout his work.
However, though an imperfect and distorted view of certain great truths, it possessed a distinct value at the time of its conception.
To the discussion of the deeper problems of biological philosophy, he made scarcely any direct and definite contributions.
His generalities rarely extended beyond strict comparative anatomy, the phenomena of adaptation to function and the facts of geographical or geological distribution.
His lecture on virgin reproduction or parthenogenesis, however, published in 1849, contained the essence of the germ plasm theory, elaborated later by August Weismann and he made several vague statements concerning the geological succession of genera and species of animals and their possible derivation one from another.
He referred, especially, to the changes exhibited by the successive forerunners of the crocodiles (1884) and horses (1868) but it has never become clear how much of the modern doctrines of organic evolution he admitted.
He contented himself with the bare remark that "the inductive demonstration of the nature and mode of operation of the laws governing life would henceforth be the great aim of the philosophical naturalist."
He was the first director in Natural History Museum in London and his statue was in the main hall there until 2009, when it was replaced with a statue of Darwin.
There is a blue plaque in his honour at Lancaster Royal Grammar School.
Conflicts with his peers
Owen has been described by some as a malicious, dishonest and hateful individual.
He has been described in one biography as being a "social experimenter with a penchant for sadism.
Addicted to controversy and driven by arrogance and jealousy".
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".
Gideon Mantell claimed it was "a pity a man so talented should be so dastardly and envious".
This was not the first or last time Owen would falsely claim a discovery as his own.
It has also been suggested by some authors, including Bill Bryson in A Short History of Nearly Everything, that Owen even used his influence in the Royal Society to ensure that many of Mantell’s research papers were never published.
Owen was finally dismissed from the Royal Society's Zoological Council for plagiarism.
When Mantell suffered an accident that left him permanently crippled, Owen exploited the opportunity by renaming several dinosaurs which 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 every geologist.
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.
Even more extraordinary was the way Owen ignored the genuine scientific content of Mantell's work.
For example, despite the paucity of finds Mantell had worked out that some dinosaurs were bipedal, including Iguanodon.
Mantell did not live to witness the discovery in 1878 of articulated skeletons in a Belgium coal-mine that showed Iguanodon was mostly bipedal (and in that stance could use its thumb for defence).
Owen made no comment or retraction; he never did on any errors he made.
Moreover, since the earliest known dinosaurs were bipedal, Mantell's idea was indeed insightful.
Despite originally starting out on good terms with Darwin, Owen was highly critical of the Origin in large part because Darwin did not refer much to the previous scientific theories of evolution that had been proposed by people like Chambers and himself, and instead compared the theory of evolution by natural selection with the unscientific theory in the Bible.
Another reason for his criticism of the Origin, some historians claim, was that Owen felt upstaged by Darwin and supporters such as Huxley, and his judgment was clouded by jealousy.
Owen in Darwin's opinion was "Spiteful, extremely malignant, clever; the Londoners say he is mad with envy because my book is so talked about".
"It is painful to be hated in the intense degree with which Owen hates me".
Owen also resorted to the same subterfuge he used against Mantell, writing another anonymous article in the Edinburgh Review in April 1860.
In the article, Owen was critical of Darwin for not offering many new observations, and heaped praise (in the third person) upon himself, while being careful not to associate any particular comment with his own name.
Owen did praise, however, the Origin's description of Darwin's work on insect behavior and pigeon breeding as Huxley, Thomas H., (1861), "On the Zoological Relations of Man with the Lower Animals", Natural History Review 1: 67–84.
- "There is no doubt that rivalry resulted between the British Museum, where there was the very important Herbarium of the Department of Botany, and Kew. The rivalry at times became extremely personal, especially between Joseph Hooker and Owen... At the root was Owen’s feeling that Kew should be subordinate to the British Museum (and to Owen) and should not be allowed to develop as an independent scientific institution with the advantage of a great botanic garden."
It has been suggested by some authors that the portrayal of Owen as a vindictive and treacherous man was fostered and encouraged by his rivals (particularly Darwin, Hooker and Huxley) and may be somewhat undeserved.
In the first part of his career he was regarded rightly as one of the great scientific figures of the age.
In the second part of his career his reputation slipped.
This was not due solely to his underhanded dealings with colleagues; it was also due to serious errors of scientific judgement that were discovered and publicized.
A fine example was his decision to classify man in a separate subclass of the Mammalia (see Man's place in nature).
In this Owen had no supporters at all.
Also, his unwillingness to come off the fence concerning evolution became increasingly damaging to his reputation as time went on.
Owen continued working after his official retirement at the age of 79, but he never recovered the good opinions he had garnered in his younger days.
Credits to the contents of this page go to the authors of the corresponding Wikipedia page: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard Owen.