Richard Owen (1804-1892)

Owen Portrait

But can the various structures which Comparative Anatomy now unfolds, be referred to one, or do they manifest different types? This is a question which is now in progress of Solution. . . .
-- Richard Owen, Hunterian Lectures for 1837

Biographical Data

Richard Owen was born in Lancaster, England, on July 20, 1804. His family traced its ancestry back to both Lancashire and French Huguenot ancestry; his dark hair and features would suggest his mother's French heritage. Owen's family was not wealthy, and Owen's father died when the boy was five years old. Owen did get a chance to attend Lancaster Grammar School, but was considered "lazy and impudent" by his schoomasters. He soon enlisted as a midshipman in the Royal Navy, but became interested in surgery and came back to Lancaster to pursue a medical career. His medical training began in 1820 with his indenture to a local surgeon.

Owen entered the University of Edinburgh medical school in 1824. However, he was displeased with the quality of teaching, especially in comparative anatomy. Like Darwin after him, Owen enrolled in Barclay School, a private school offering instruction in anatomy. Here he was deeply influenced by John Barclay, who was an avowed anti-materialist. At the time, Edinburgh physicians and scientists were hotly debating whether mind and life could be reduced to material explanations, or whether mind was a completely separate, non-physical entity that could not be reduced to physical phenomena. Barclay supported this anti-materialist, dualist view, arguing that the essence of life was a "Vital Principle" and the essence of mind was a "Soul", neither of which was material. Owen was strongly influenced by Barclay's views. Owen did not get a degree at Edinburgh, but moved to London. With the recommendation of Barclay, Owen apprenticed with John Abernathy, surgeon and philosopher. Like Barclay, Abernathy was an anti-materialist who supported a mind/body duality. Abernathy was also President of the Royal College of Surgeons, and helped grant Owen membership into and licensing from the Royal College in 1826.

Owen was soon to become an assistant in cataloging the Hunterian Collection of thirteen thousand human and animal anatomical specimens, which had been purchased by the Crown after the death of its owner, the famous surgeon John Hunter. The Crown had passed the Hunterian Collection to the Royal College, with the stipulation that the collection be made available to the public and medical community by the founding of a lecture series and a museum. Since the material was to be made available to the public, the College appointed Owen as an assistant curator to the collection. Unfortunately, a previous caretaker of Hunter's estate, the surgeon Sir Everard Home, had burned most of Hunter's papers and documentation (because he had been publishing Hunter's discoveries as his own, and was afraid of getting caught). This meant that Owen had to identify and catalogue the entire collection anew. But by 1830 he had labelled and identified every specimen, reorganized the entire collection and was publishing a catalogue. Owen became more interested in comparative anatomy and less interested in practicing medicine.

After publishing anatomical work on the cephalopod Nautilus, and after meeting Cuvier in 1830 and attending the 1831 debates between Cuvier and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Owen became Hunterian Lecturer in comparative anatomy, charged with giving lectures on anatomy that would use make of the Hunterian collections. In 1837, Owen gave his first series of Hunterian Lectures to the public. These popular lectures were attended by royalty and many important figures in Victorian England. Charles Darwin, back from his expeditions on the H.M.S. Beagle, also attended these lectures. At the same time, Owen was working on describing the fossil vertebrates which Darwin had brought back from South America on the Beagle.

Owen's reputation as a scientist grew rapidly. He served on a series of government committees, took part in the London Exhibition of 1851, and served as an advisor and expert witness to the government on all sorts of scientific matters. He taught natural history to Queen Victoria's children (astonishing the court with the news that tadpoles turned into frogs). Unfortunately, Owen was not easy to get along with; his vain, arrogant, envious, and vindictive personality seems to have inspired distaste in most of his colleagues. Charles Darwin reminisced in his autobiography that Owen became his enemy after the publication of the Origin of Species, "not owing to any quarrel between us, but as far as I could judge out of jealousy at its success."

In 1856, Owen was appointed Superintendent of the natural history collections at the British Museum. He immediatedly started a campaign to make the natural history departments of the British Museum into a separate museum. (He was helped in this by the Librarian, Antonio Panizzi, who hated the natural history department and wanted it out of the British Museum.) His campaign bore fruit with the construction, beginning in 1873, of a new building in South Kensington to house the newly created British Museum (Natural History). The Museum opened its doors in 1881, but only in 1963 was it made fully independent from the British Museum and renamed the Natural History Museum.

Owen's Scientific Thought

Owen synthesized French anatomical work, especially from Cuvier and Geoffroy, with German transcendental anatomy. He gave us many of the terms still used today in anatomy and evolutionary biology, including "homology". Owen famously defined homology in 1843 as "the same organ in different animals under every variety of form and function." To take one example of homology: Structures as different as a bat's wing, a seal flipper, a cat's paw and a human hand nonetheless display a common plan of structure, with identical or very similar arrangements of bones and muscles. Taking homology to its conclusion, Owen reasoned that there must exist a common structural plan for all vertebrates, as well as for each class of vertebrates. He called this plan the archetype; his vertebrate archetype is illustrated below.

Diagram of the vertebrate archetype

However, Owen did not believe that his archetype was anything like an ancestor to the vertebrates. Rather, the archetype represented an idea in the Divine mind, which also "foreknew all its modifications." Owen was not well disposed to Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection when Darwin published Origin of Species in 1859. However, his pronouncements on the subject of evolution were puzzling and contradictory; in later years he alternately denied its validity, professed ignorance on the matter, and claimed to have come up with the idea himself almost ten years before Darwin.

Owen was also a taxonomist, naming and describing a vast number of living and fossil vertebrates. One of his positions was that of prosector for the London Zoo, which meant that he had to dissect and preserve any zoo animals that died in captivity. This gave him vast experience with the anatomy of exotic animals. (It also caused him some domestic difficulties, since he had to do this work at his own house. His wife Caroline recorded in her diary how, one summer day, "the presence of a portion of the defunct elephant on the premises" rendered the house so foul-smelling that she "got R. to smoke cigars all over the house.") He rose to fame as "the British Cuvier" when, in 1839, presented with a bone fragment from New Zealand, he noted that it resembled an ostrich bone, and dared to state that giant flightless birds had lived in New Zealand. A few years later, a missionary sent Owen a large collection of bones that confirmed his conclusion, and Owen named the giant bird Dinornis -- the extinct moa. In 1863, Owen reported on the first specimen of an unusual Jurassic fossil from Germany, the famous bird Archaeopteryx lithographica. Perhaps Owen's most famous taxonomic act resulted from his examination of reptile-like fossil bones that were being found in southern England by naturalists such as Gideon Mantell. Owen concluded that the bones of Iguanodon, Megalosaurus, and Hylaeosaurus were not lizards, but represented "a distinct tribe or sub-order of Saurian Reptiles." In 1842, he named this taxon the Dinosauria.

Owen also described the anatomy of a newly discovered species of ape, which had only been discovered in 1847 -- the gorilla. However, Owen's anti-materialist and anti-Darwinian views led him to state that gorillas and other apes lack certain parts of the brain that humans have, specifically a structure known as the hippocampus minor. The uniqueness of human brains, Owen thought, showed that humans could not possibly have evolved from apes. Owen persisted in this view even when Thomas Henry Huxley conclusively showed that Owen was mistaken -- apes do have a hippocampus. This tarnished Owen's scientific standing towards the end of his life. Victorian author Charles Kingsley satirized the dispute in his childrens' classic The Water-Babies:

You may think that there are other more important differences between you and an ape, such as being able to speak, and make machines, and know right from wrong, and say your prayers, and other little matters of that kind; but that is a child's fancy, my dear. Nothing is to be depended on but the great hippopotamus test. If you have a hippopotamus major in your brain, you are no ape, though you had four hands, no feet, and were more apish than the apes of all aperies. But if a hippopotamus major is ever discovered in one single ape's brain, nothing will save your great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great- great- greater- greatest- grandmother from having been an ape too.

After Owen's death, Huxley reviewed Owen's work, and concluded 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 anyone but the historian of anatomical science is ever likely to recur to them. . . ." But Owen has fared better than the fate Huxley predicted. His taxonomic work included a number of important discoveries, and his role in founding the British Museum of Natural History left a lasting legacy to scientists and lay persons alike. His concept of homology, reinterpreted in evolutionary terms, remains an extremely important and still-contentious biological concept. And, as a public figure, lecturer, and expert, he helped biology grow in prestige and public understanding.

Another short biography of Richard Owen is available from the "Lancaster's Unsung Scientific Heroes" website.

The Natural History Museum in London has pages on the history of the museum, including Owen's role in its founding. The Linda Hall Library has a virtual exhibit entitled Paper Dinosaurs, 1824-1969. This exhibit includes historic papers and illustrations of dinosaurs, including Owen's published report in which he named the Dinosauria. Information about Owen's naming of the Dinosauria is also available at Dinosauria On-Line.