Richard Owen

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Richard Owen (1804-1892), English anatomist, is best remembered today for coining the word Dinosauria (from the Greek deinos ("terrible") and sauros ("lizard") ), and for his opposition to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. He gained a reputation as a man who was a stickler for detail, but short of intellectual imagination, who used his authority to suppress his rivals and promote himself ruthlessly. After his death, an Oxford professor described Owen as "a damned liar. He lied for God and for malice." However, he was the main force behind the establishment, in 1881, of the British Museum (Natural History) in London, a great and lasting achievement.[1][2]


Richard Owen was born at Lancaster on the July 10th 1804, and received his early education at the local grammar school. In 1820, he was apprenticed to a local surgeon and apothecary, and in 1824 he enrolled as a medical student at the University of Edinburgh. He left the university the following year, completing his medical course in St Bartholomew's Hospital in London, where he was influenced by the eminent surgeon, John Abernethy. He developed a deep interest in anatomy, and when he was offered the position of assistant to William Clift, conservator of the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, this gave him the opportunity to devote himself to scientific research. By 1830, Owen had identified and labelled all of the 13,000 specimens in the Hunterian collection and prepared a series of catalogues; by doing so he acquired the detailed knowledge of comparative anatomy which was to facilitate his research on extinct animals.

In 1836, he was appointed Hunterian professor in the Royal College of Surgeons, and in 1849 he succeeded Clift as conservator. In 1856, he became superintendent of the natural history department of the British Museum. He devoted much of his energies to a 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). In 1884, he received the distinction of K.C.B., and thereafter lived quietly in retirement at Richmond Park, until his death on the 18th of December 1892.

Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy

"Paleontology is the science which treats of the evidences in the earth's strata of organic beings, consisting of fossil remains, casts and impressions, of plants and animals, belonging, for the most part, to species that are extinct. The endeavour to interpret such evidences has led to comparisons of the forms and structures of existing plants and animals, which have greatly advanced the science of comparative anatomy, especially as applied to the hard and enduring parts of the animal frame, such as corals, shells, spines, crusts, scales, scutes, bones, and teeth. In applying the results of these comparisons to the restoration of extinct species, physiology has benefited by the study of the relations of structure to function requisite to obtain an idea of the food and habits of such species. It has thus been enriched by the well-defined law of "correlation of structures. ...By this science the law of the geographical distribution of animals, as deduced from existing species, is shewn to have been in force during periods of time long antecedent to human history, or to any evidence of human existence; and yet, in relation to the whole known period of life-phenomena upon this planet, to have been a comparatively recent result of geological forces determining the present configuration and position of continents" [3]

While cataloguing the Hunterian collection, Owen took every opportunity of dissecting fresh subjects, including the animals which died in the Zoological Society's gardens; when that society began to publish scientific proceedings in 1831, he contibuted many anatomical papers. His first notable publication was on the Pearly Nautilus (1832), and he continued to make important contributions to comparative anatomy and zoology for the next fifty years.

In the sponges, he was the first to describe the "Venus's flower basket" or Euplectella (1841, 1857). Among Entozoa, his most noteworthy discovery was that of Trichina spiralis (1835), the parasite infesting the muscles of man in the disease trichinosis. Among Mollusca, as well as the pearly nautilus, he described Spirula (1850) and other [[Cephalopoda], both living and extinct; and he proposed the subdivision of this class into the two orders of Dibranchiata and Tetrabranchiata (1832).

Owen's descriptions of the vertebrates were even more numerous. [4] He devoted particular attention to extinct groups. Early in his career he made exhaustive studies of teeth[5], and described the complex structure of the teeth of the extinct animals which he named Labyrinthodonts. His memoir on the African mud-fish, which he named Protopterus, laid the foundations for the recognition of the Dipnoi. He also pointed out the serial connexion between the teleostean and ganoid fishes, grouping them in one sub-class, the Teleostomi. Most of his work on reptiles related to the skeletons of extinct forms[6] He published the first important general account of the great group of Mesozoic land-reptiles, to which he gave the now familiar name of Dinosauria. He also first recognized the curious early Mesozoic land-reptiles, with affinities both to amphibians and mammals, which he termed Anomodontia. 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 (1876). His writings on birds included a paper on Apteryx (1840-1846), a series of papers on the extinct Dinornithidae of New Zealand, and other memoirs on Aptornis, Notornis, the dodo, and the great auk. His monograph on Archaeopteryx (1863), the long-tailed, toothed bird from the Bavarian lithographic stone, was also important.

On living mammals, Owen was the first to name the two natural groups of typical Ungulata, the odd-toed (Perissodactyla) and the even-toed (Artiodactyla), while describing some fossil remains in 1848. Most of his writings on mammals, however, deal with extinct forms, to which his attention was drawn by the fossils collected by Charles Darwin in South America. Loxodon, from the pampas, was then described, and gave the earliest clear evidence of an 'extinct generalized hoof animal, a "pachyderm with affinities to the Rodentia, Edentata, and Herbivorous Cetacea."

Owen's interest in South American extinct mammals led to the recognition of the giant armadillo, which he named Glyptodon (1839), and to memoirs on the giant ground-sloths, Mylodon (1842) and Megatherium (1860), among other contributions. At the same time, Sir Thomas Mitchell's discovery of fossil bones in New South Wales provided material for a series of papers on the extinct mammals of Australia. He discovered Diprotodon and Thylacoleo, besides extinct kangaroos and wombats of gigantic size.

While occupied with material from abroad, Owen was also collecting facts on similar fossils from Britain, 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 (1871). One of his last 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 (1884).

Owen was a pioneer in concise anatomical nomenclature; and, for the vertebrate skeleton, his terms were based on a carefully reasoned scheme which distinguished between "analogy" and "homology." In his Theory of the Archetype and Homologies of the Vertebrate Skeleton (1848), and On the Nature of Limbs (1849), Owen treated the vertebrate frame as a series of fundamentally identical segments, each modified according to its position and function. [7] [8]

Much of this was speculative, and inconsistent with the facts of embryology, which Owen ignored. His generalities rarely extended beyond strict comparative anatomy, the phenomena of adaptation to function, and the facts of geographical or geological distribution. However, his lecture on "virgin reproduction" or parthenogenesis (1849) contained the essence of the theory of the germ-plasm elaborated later by August Weismann, and he made some vague remarks about 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 ancestors of the crocodiles (1884) and horses (1868); but it is not clear how much of the theory of organic evolution he accepted. He contented himself with the 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." [9]


Owen was a favourite of the conservative Victorian elite, and even gave the Queen's children biology lessons. However, he was less popular with his fellow scientists, for his ruthless ambition and an occasionally vicious temperament. His later career was tainted by accusations that he took credit for other people's work; most notably, Owen credited himself and Georges Cuvier with the discovery of the Iguanodon, excluding any credit for the true discoverer, Gideon Mantell.


  1. Richard Owen Natural History Museum
  2. Richard Owen: the greatest scientist you've never heard of The Telegraph17 June 2011]
  3. Richard Owen (1861) Palaeontology or a systematic summary of extinct animals and their geological relations
  4. Richard Owen Comparative Anatomy and Physiology of Vertebrates (3 vols., London, 1866-1868)
  5. Odontography (1840-1845)
  6. His chief memoirs on British specimens were reprinted in a connected series in his History of British Fossil Reptiles (4 vols., London, 1849-1884).
  7. Richard Owen (1848) On the archetype and homologies of the vertebrate skeleton "When the structure of organized beings began to be investigated, the parts, as they were observed, were described under names or phrases suggested by their forms, proportions, relative position, or likeness to some familiar object. Much of the nomenclature of human anatomy has thus arisen, especially that of the osseous system, which, with the rest of man's frame, was studied originally from an insulated point of view, and irrespective of any other animal structure or any common type." (intoductory sentence)
  8. Thomas Huxley was skeptical of Owen's contributions in this particular respect. (TH Huxley (1894)Owen's Position in the History of Anatomical ScienceIn The Life of Richard Owen by Rev. Richard Owen (London 1894): 273-332; SM 4:658-89) "I believe I am right in saying that hardly any of these speculations and determinations have stood the test of investigation, or, indeed, that any of them were ever widely accepted. I am not sure that any one but the historian of anatomical science is ever likely to recur to them; and considering Owen's great capacity, extensive learning, and tireless industry, that seems a singular result of years of strenuous labour."
  9. See The Life of Richard Owen, by his grandson, Rev. Richard Owen (2 vols., London, 1894). (A. S. Wo.)