Richard Owen: the greatest scientist you've never heard of
Richard Owen: the greatest scientist you've never heard ofHe founded the Natural History Museum, named the dinosaurs
and taught Queen Victoria’s children – so why has no one heard
of Richard Owen, asks Karolyn Shindler.
By Karolyn Shindler Telegraph, 7/10/2010 - original
Richard Owen, the first Superintendent of the Natural History Museum.
In 1861, William Gladstone, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, stood up in the House of Commons and paid tribute to a man he called a “splendid genius”, and the world’s greatest living naturalist. Yet today, Professor Richard Owen may be remembered as the first superintendent of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, but for little else.
In fact, when listing his achievements, it is hard to know where to start. Elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1834, at the age of 30, he was a comparative anatomist with an extraordinary range and depth of knowledge in zoology, biology and palaeontology. He described and named an astonishing number of creatures new to science, and published more than 600 books and papers on subjects as diverse as the duck-billed platypus and the gorilla. It was Prof Owen who gave the name “dinosaur” to the order of great extinct reptiles that were then being discovered.
Owen’s greatest legacy is the Natural History Museum, but he was also an adviser to governments, reported on environmental health issues and was awarded more than 100 honours – including a knighthood. He was a famous lecturer, tutored the royal children in science and was awarded a grace-and-favour home by Queen Victoria. His friends included Charles Dickens, Sir Robert Peel and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
So why have so few people heard of him? One of the problems was that Owen was a contradictory character. His actions alienated many; others were jealous of the scale of his success. He fell out with Darwin, not over evolution itself but the forces that brought it about. Darwin won the argument, and his supporters wrote history in a way that marginalised Owen. They emphasised his defects: the occasions when he did not credit the work of others, the harshness of some of his reviews and the public disputes. They insinuated he was an anti-evolutionist, when Darwin must have known that he was not. Owen was accused of being too snobbish to involve himself in the dirty business of digging for fossils – when, in fact, his world was the laboratory and museum.
Owen was born in Lancaster on July 20, 1804. His father died when he was five and, soon after, he was sent to Lancaster Grammar School, where his schoolmaster called him “lazy and impudent”, and said he would come to “a bad end”. He did not shine at anything and left school at 16. University was not an option: the family weren’t poor but, unlike Darwin, he had no private means and needed to earn a living.
Owen was apprenticed to a surgeon apothecary and became fascinated by dissection and anatomy. He spent six months as a medical student at the University of Edinburgh, where he so impressed the anatomist Dr John Barclay that he recommended him to the distinguished surgeon Dr John Abernethy at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. In 1825, Dr Abernethy appointed Owen as prosector, dissecting corpses for his anatomical demonstrations.
After a year, Owen passed his medical exams and was accepted as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. And it was through Dr Abernethy, the president of the college, that Owen was offered the post that was to shape his life. The college housed the collection of the surgeon and collector John Hunter – a cornucopia of human and zoological specimens that had never been catalogued.
William Clift, the conservator of the Hunterian Museum, urgently needed someone with Owen’s skills. In March, 1827, Owen began work as assistant conservator at the museum, on a salary of £30 a quarter.
It was here that he made his reputation and literally became part of the family. He fell in love with William Clift’s daughter Caroline, a woman of intelligence and humour.
Within months, they were engaged, but Caroline’s mother forbade the marriage until Owen was earning a decent living. It was not until 1835 that they were allowed to marry.
Caroline had been brought up among Hunter’s specimens, but there were new arrivals of dead animals for Owen to dissect, particularly from London Zoo. These included “a defunct elephant”, which was troublesome even for Caroline, as it “made me keep all the windows open, especially as the weather is very mild. I got R to smoke cigars all over the house.”
In 1836, Owen became Hunterian professor of comparative anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons and embarked on an influential series of 24 lectures a year. By now, his reputation was considerable. In 1839, he was sent a 15cm fragment of bone from New Zealand. From it, he described a large, extinct bird – bigger than an ostrich – even though there was no evidence that such a bird had existed. Four years later, he was sent complete bones that confirmed his identification. The giant moa became the iconic symbol of Owen’s ability to conjure from fragments of bones the likeness of beasts that had once inhabited Earth.
In the 1850s, Owen directed and selected the restorations of dinosaurs and giant sloths in the grounds of the Crystal Palace, which can still be seen there today. But his relationship with the Royal College of Surgeons became fractious. In 1856, he moved to the British Museum, becoming superintendent of the natural history departments. It was a post which he occupied until his retirement in 1883, aged 79.
Since the 1840s, Owen had advocated founding a national museum of natural history, and he began a campaign to get the British Museum’s collection housed in its own great “cathedral to nature”. Despite initial opposition from politicians and scientists, the Natural History Museum opened its doors in 1881.
Looking back, it is hard to think of another scientist whose achievements have been obscured for so long. It is time that we recognised his achievements and his legacy.