Owen, Richard, 1804-1892

Alternative names
Birth 1804-07-20
Death 1892-12-18

Biographical notes:

Richard Owen was a comparative anatomist and palaeontologist.

From the description of Letter from Richard Owen to Charles Léopold Laurillard to introduce John Gould, 1833 [manuscript]. [1833] (Libraries Australia). WorldCat record id: 277137992

Professor of the Royal College of Surgeons of London; authority on comparative anatomy, vertebrate paleontology and geology.

From the description of Osteological contributions to the natural history of the chimpanzees (Troglodytes) & orangs (Pithecus). No. V, Comparison of the lower jaw & vertebrate column of the Troglodytes Gorilla, Troglodytes niger, Pithecus Satyrus, and different varieties of the human race / by Professor Owen. (American Museum of Natural History). WorldCat record id: 35661405

From the description of The ethnology of Egypt : holograph manuscript, [between 1870 and 1875] / by professor Owen. (American Museum of Natural History). WorldCat record id: 29179572

Sir Richard Owen was an English biologist, comparative anatomist, and paleontologist. He was the first Hunterian Professor of Comparative Anatomy and Physiology at the Royal College of Surgeons in London from 1836 to 1856. (This was a large collection of human and animal anatomical specimens belonging to John Hunter). He did pioneer work on parthenogenesis and opposed Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. He produced a vast array of scientific work, and famously coined the word "dinosaur." One of Owen's greatest achievements was his campaign to get a new home for the natural specimens in the British Museum. This resulted in the now famous Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London. Richard Owen was knighted in 1884.

From the description of Sir Richard Owen collection, 1824-1866. (Peking University Library). WorldCat record id: 156040799

Richard Owen delivered the annual series of Hunterian lectures, at the Royal College of Surgeons, London, from 1837-1855.

From the description of Lecture: joints--modifications of vertabral column : lecture on vertebral column : London : ms., 1837. (University of California, Berkeley). WorldCat record id: 84655573

English cleric William Buckland worked as a geologist and vertebrate paleontologist. The first Reader of Geology, University of Oxford (from 1819), Buckland is most noted as the scientific discoverer of dinosaurs.

From the guide to the William Buckland papers, 1817-1848, 1817-1848, (American Philosophical Society)

Richard Owen was an English anatomist.

From the description of Miscellaneous manuscripts, 1850. (University of Pennsylvania Library). WorldCat record id: 191700291

English naturalist.

From the description of Autograph letter signed : British Museum, 1867 Apr. 30. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270609850

From the description of Autograph letter signed : Richmond Park, 1860 Jul. 12. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270610805

From the description of Autograph letter signed : British Museum, to the Secretary of the Ray Society, 1860 Aug. 1. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270609848

From the description of Autograph letter signed : Richmond Park, to Mr. White, 1884 Oct. 8. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270610806

British zoologist and anatomist.

From the description of Papers, 1837-1850. (Duke University). WorldCat record id: 35201580

Richard Owen was an English naturalist.

From the description of Papers, 1827-1889. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 173465864

Richard Owen, a prominent British anatomist and zoologist, was born on July 20,1804 in Lancaster, England. In 1826 Owen became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, where he began a long career as a lecturer and researcher in the study of comparative anatomy (1826-1856).

In 1856 Owen accepted an appointment as Superintendent of the Natural History Department of the British Museum shere he distinguish ed himself in the study of invertebrates and ornithology. Owen pub- lished on the subjects of New Zealand birds, the marsupials of Aus- tralia, reptiles of South Africa, the aborigines of the Andaman Is- lands, the cave remains of South France, and on the extinct reptiles of the British Isles.

Owen worked to enlarge the facilities of the British Museum, trav- elled extensively in Africa,published and lectured, and gained notice as an outspoken critic of Darwin's theories on natural selection.

From the description of Papers, 1826-1889. (Temple University Libraries). WorldCat record id: 122489961

Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892, APS 1845) was a comparative anatomist, zoologist and paleontologist. Owen gained a deep knowledge of veretbrate anatomy while cataloging the natural history specimens of the Hunterian Museum. French naturalist Georges Cuvier and the Oxford geologist William Buckland excited his interest in “fossil zoology”. From the mid-1840’s to the mid-1850’s Owen's focus shifted to paleontology. Owen’s caustic review of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in the Edinburgh Review led to attacks by Darwin's ally Thomas Huxley (1825-1895, APS 1869) on Owen’s science and ideology. Spurned by practitioners of the new biology, Owen retreated retreated from the fray and concentrated on bringing together earlier writings in monumental compilations such as Palaeontology (1860) and Anatomy of the Vertebrates (1866-68). Owen also worked to establish an independent British natural history museum..

Richard Owen was born in Lancaster on July 20, 1804, the sixth child and second son of Richard Owen, a merchant in the West Indies trade, and Catherine Longworth, a descendant of French Huguenots. Owen’s father died five years after his son's birth, and to support her family Catherine Owen opened a girls’ boarding school with her three unmarried daughters. In 1810, Owen entered the Lancaster grammar school as a day student. He was not very studious and prone to practical jokes.

At age 16, Owen was unable to proceed to university, and instead decided to become a surgeon-apothecary, beginning a succession of three apprenticeships over a four year period. As a surgeon’s apprentice, he developed a skill for dissection and a knowledge of human anatomy. Lancaster had few opportunities for scientific training, and Owen left for Edinburgh to complete his medical education. Arriving in October 1824, he took classes for two terms with John Barclay, completing the required course for students preparing to enter medical practice. He was most impressed with Barclay’s final course that placed human anatomy in the context of the wider animal kingdom. Barclay introduced Owen to an anti-materialistic, holistic approach to surgery, and his “earnest teaching” inspired Owen’s interest in zoology. Barclay recommended that Owen leave Edinburgh and go to London to complete the requirements for membership in the Royal College of Surgeons. Barclay gave him a letter that strongly recommending him to John Abernethy, a professor of the St. Bartholomew’s Hospital medical program and president of the Royal College of Surgeons, who hired Owen as a teaching assistant. After reaching the minimum age requirement of twenty-two, Owen passed the examination for membership in the College, and in 1826 set up a practice at the nearby Inns of Court. Abernethy’s continued patronage opened other doors for Owen in the croweded London medical community.

In the mid-1820s, the medical journal Lancet criticized the Royal College of Surgeons for not producing a catalog for its Hunterian collection of specimens in comparative anatomy, pathology, osteology and natural history. Conservator William Clift was unable to produce the catalog, and when a Conservator’s assistant position opened up, Abernethy arranged for Owen to fill it. The appointment began his career as a natural scientist. Owen supplemented his museum stipend by maintaining his surgical practice and doing odd jobs. In 1828 he presented optional lectures in comparative anatomy at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital while assisting senior members of the college. Although he briefly considered a position as a hospital surgeon-apothecary in Birmingham, Owen decided to remain at the college to make his future as a comparative anatomist. Owen’s principal tasks as Clift’s assistant was to redescribe the specimens in the Hunterian's collection and to prepare soft tissue samples after further dissection and comparison with recent acquisitions. His situation gave him an opportunity to explore the new fields of comparative anatomy and zoology that were being expanded by continental scientists. Owen occasionally substituted for Clift, providing guided tours of the collection for distinguished visitors. Such an opportunity came when French naturalist and zoologist Georges Cuvier arrived in 1830. Since Owen knew French, he acted as guide. Cuvier reciprocated by inviting Owen to visit him in Paris at the Jardin des Plantes.

In 1830 Owen also became the youngest and most active member of the new Zoological Society of London. In what would be his first publication, Owen described his recent dissection of an orangutan that had died shortly after its arrival at the society’s garden. The availability of specimens at the Zoological Society’s gardens led Owen to focus on vertebrates.

During the summer of 1831, Owen spent a month in Paris visiting Cuvier and examining the osteological collection that served as a source for Cuvier’s comparative anatomy and “fossil zoology” research. At public and private meetings of the Institut de France Owen witnessed a lively discussion of differing views of nature, including Cuvier’s teleological functionalism, the transformationism of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and the materialism of Jean Baptiste Lamarck.

After Owen’s return to London, the Hunterian Museum provided him with other specimens received from travelers and members who had visited colonial outposts. One of these was a rare specimen of a pearly nautilus, similar to the fossilized ammonites often found in Mesozoic marine deposits. Another rare specimen that Owen examined was the duck-billed platypus, whose classification was disputed because it laid eggs and had mammalian characteristics. Although Owen’s immediate prospects remained uncertain, his research on the anatomy of the nautilus, his early papers on marsupial and monotreme generation and his Zoological Society memoir on the orangutan all proved fruitful for his career. These works distinguished him as a professional comparative anatomist. During his first five years at the Hunterian, Owen emerged as an active member of a small community of researchers who were constructing and defining a new discipline. One of its most important members was the geologist William Buckland, who followed Cuvier’s functionalist model for shaping fossil remnants into life forms of earlier eras. In 1832 Owen heard him present an animated public lecture in which Buckland vividly described the extinct giant Megatherium of South America at the meeting of the new British Association for the Advancement of Science. He returned to London, excited about developing the potential of fossil zoology through the use of comparative anatomy, and in subsequent correspondence with Buckland established a close professional and personal friendship through which the older man provided Owen with advice, support and patronage.

In September, 1832 after the death of William Clift’s son, Owen became Clift's de facto co-conservator at the Hunterian Museum, and three years later married Clift’s daughter Caroline. In 1834 Owen was elected a member of the Royal Society, and in 1836 he was appointed Hunterian Professor of Comparative Anatomy and Physiology at the Royal College of Surgeons. During the first decade of his career as a comparative anatomist, he would publish over 150 studies-abstracts, monographs, books, articles and reports on a wide range of anatomical and paleontological topics while fulfilling his regular curatorial duties. The climax of his efforts was a two-part report on British fossil Reptilia, funded by the British Association, which examined the many available collections, described the fossils, and classified them anatomically. The report would serve as a basic resource for paleontological research for the rest of the nineteen century. In the second part of the report in 1841, Owen defined the category of large terrestrial reptiles for which he called Dinosauria. In 1842 he succeeded his father-in-law as Resident Conservator of the Hunterian Museum.

From the mid-1840s to the mid-1850s Owen maintained his scholarly productivity, averaging ten descriptive articles annually but his research focus shifted from zoology to paleontology. Virtually all naturalists at the time rejected ideas of continuous creation to explain the emergence of new species. Owen, as one of the foremost paleontologists of his generation felt the need to weigh in on the topic of species change. In his essay "On the Archtype and Homologies of the Vertebrate Skeleton" (1848), he attempted to explain diversity, change and progress among species by means of prototypes in the mind of God.

In 1856 Owen was appointed superintendent of the natural history departments of the British Museum. He also accepted a three-year appointment as Fullerian Professor of Physiology at the Royal Institution and started a paleontological lecture series at the School of Mines. His 1858 election to the presidency of the British Association for the Advancement of Science seemed to crown his career, recognizing him as a “statesman of science”.

However, Owen’s prominence was undermined during the 1850s by his inability to come to terms with the new biology that assumed the unity of organic nature and belief in transformationalism, thus threatening the fixity of species that was axiomatic to the Cuvierian view. Although Owen was not unsympathetic to the new German developmental physiology and had created a limited transformationist model based upon his notion of vertebrate “archtype,” he considered himself a Cuvierian for whom species were an unchanging reality. The most serious threat to Owen’s reputation resulted from his intemperate review of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in the Edinburgh Review (111, 1860, 487-532) that questioned the author’s professional competence to discuss the species question. For Owen, the problem of organic diversity was an anatomical question that required a laboratory solution. Careful dissections, rather than field work, would shed light on divisions between species. Ignoring much of Darwin’s careful argument, Owen instead aimed his invective at the heresy of species indeterminance. Owen ended the review with a credo that summed up his increasingly dated views of science, namely “That classification is the task of science, but species the work of nature.” Owen also objected to the implications of Darwinian theory for the “man question.” Aware of the numerous physical affinities between humans and other primates, Owen maintained the distinctiveness of the human species based upon an anatomical proof of the uniqueness of the human brain. Owen’s stubborn insistence on his position in the face of repeated proof to the contrary merely showed his fallibility as an anatomist, but the repeated attacks by Thomas Huxley (Darwin’s “bulldog”) on Owen’s science and ideology alienated the younger generation of biologists from Owen's scientific views.

Recognizing his estrangement from the new biology and its proponents, Owen limited the scientific work of his later years to the continued description and classification of the accumulated fossil materials from England and her colonies. In works such as his Palaeontology (1860) and the three-volume Anatomy of the Vertebrates (1866-68) he compiled the results of earlier studies. He followed these with compilations of his earlier works on extinct mammals of Australia (1877-78), the extinct birds of New Zealand (1879) and on British fossil reptiles (1884) from which he supposed his successors might benefit.

Owen also worked for the establishment of an independent British natural history museum. He first proposed the plan to erect one in South Kensington, after discovering the unmet needs of natural science at the British Museum. Although the plan was initially stalled by partisan politics, it was approved in the early 1870s, and finished in 1881. The new British Museum of Natural History was Owen’s last great contribution to natural science

Owen was knighted on January 5, 1884 and retired to Sheen Lodge, but continued to work in his new museum. Owen lived to the age of 88, but was embittered by the suicide of his only son. Disillusioned, he grew old among his grandchildren, who neither understood nor appreciated his life’s work. He died on December 18, 1892, and was buried in the cemetery at Ham churchyard next to his wife Caroline, who had died in 1873.

Although history generally treated him poorly, recalling his invectives against Darwin instead of his lasting contributions to comparative anatomy, paleontology and natural science, Owen was recognized throughout his life with numerous medals and honors. These included the Geological Society’s Wollaston Medal in 1838 for his work on Darwin’s fossils; the Royal and Copley Medals of the Royal Society in 1846 and 1851; membership in the Légion d’honneur in 1855; the Prix Cuvier of the Institut de France in 1856; the Baly Medal of the Royal College of Physicians in 1869; and the honorary medal of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1883. He also held many honorary memberships and degrees, including membership in the American Philosophical Society (1845), and honorary degrees from Edinburgh (1847), Oxford (1852) and Cambridge (1859). In 1873, Queen Victoria created him Commander of Bath and in 1884 Kight Commander of Bath.

From the guide to the Richard Owen papers, 1827-1889, 1827-1889, (American Philosophical Society)


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