Sir Richard Owen
(20 Jul 1804 - 18 Dec 1892)
from The Speaker (1892)
Caricature of Richard Owen (1873) (source)
[p.761] IN the calm and peaceful retirement of Sheen Lodge, Richmond Park, there has passed away, in his 89th year, Professor Sir Richard Owen, K.C.B., the most celebrated comparative anatomist and palaeontologist of this century—a man whose life has been almost incessantly occupied in one pursuit, the study and description of the recent and fossil remains of vertebrate animals, and whose greatest public service has been the acquisition, through his persistent importunity, of the magnificent building in Cromwell Road, in which are now preserved the entire series of Natural History collections, formerly so inadequately housed in the old British Museum in Bloomsbury.
Professor Owen has occupied so prominent a figure in the world of science, and has been so frequently interviewed and written about, especially during the past thirty years, that it seems hardly possible to say anything with which the reader is not already familiar. Few, however, are aware that in early youth he served as midshipman on board H.M.S. Tribune; but the close of the American war, in 1814, effectually precluded all chances of promotion in the Navy, and the youthful middy returned to school on shore, and subsequently studied medicine with Mr. Baxendale, in his native town of Lancaster, matriculating in the University of Edinburgh in 1824. Two years later he obtained the diploma of the Royal College of Surgeons in London, and acted as dissector at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, under the famous Dr. Abernethy, who quickly recognised his rising talent. He spent some time in attending the École de Médecine in Paris, where he listened to the lectures of the illustrious Cuvier, whose labours in fossil osteology he has so closely followed up. In 1827 he commenced a private practice as a surgeon in Serle Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Shortly afterwards he was appointed, on the recommendation of Abernethy, to be Assistant-Curator of the Hunterian Collections. From this time he devoted himself to the pursuit of comparative anatomy, and set to work diligently to prepare a “Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue of the Specimens of Physiology and Comparative Anatomy” in the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, which occupies five quarto volumes. He also prepared the catalogues of Natural History, Osteology, and of Fossil Organic Remains, preserved in the same museum. For many years Owen acted as honorary prosector to the Zoological Society, dissecting the various rare animals which from time to time died in its menagerie, and communicating the results of his studies at its evening meetings.
In 1834 Professor Owen was appointed to the Chair of Comparative Anatomy in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, and married, in 1835, the daughter of Mr. William Clift, Curator of the Hunterian Museum. In the same year he was appointed Hunterian Professor and Conservator of the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, and in 1836 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. Professor Owen also held the Lectureship of Anatomy and Physiology in the College of Surgeons, and continued to lecture there down to the year 1855.
He published his great work on “Odontography,” or comparative studies of the structure of the teeth of animals, in 1840-45, in two large quarto volumes. His memoir on the “Pearly Nautilus “ appeared in 1832, and that on the Belemnite from the Oxford clay, printed in the Philosophical Transactions, which was honoured by the Royal Society with the award of one of the Royal medals in 1846.
Professor Owen was elected President of the British Association in 1857, and presided over Section (D) Zoology, at the Jubilee meeting at York, in 1881.
In 1856 a new interest was given to Owen’s career in the scientific world through his appointment by the Queen to the post of Superintendent of the Departments of Natural History in the British Museum—a position which he held until his retirement from public life at the age of eighty on the 31st December, 1883. From the date of his accepting office to the year 1880, Owen’s most earnest desire, outside his regular scientific work, was to secure for the Natural History collections suitable gallery-space and proper accommodation for the valuable but overcrowded objects which the British Museum contained. He speedily perceived that in all administrative matters he was but a child beside Mr. Panizzi, the Principal Librarian and actual head of the whole Museum, and felt that his only chance of fair play for the Natural History section was in advocating its removal to a new site. This one subject—”the inadequate accommodation at present afforded to the Natural History collections”—was the text of Professor Owen’s reports to the Trustees, of his lectures, his pamphlets, and his various newspaper articles for twenty years. No doubt the principal support which he received was from the Prince Consort, and in Parliament from the late Lord Palmerston and the present Prime Minister, Mr. Gladstone; but his first essay, in May, 1862, proved a failure, the attempt to bring in a Bill to authorise the removal of a part of the Trustees’ collections in the British Museum being thrown out by a majority of ninety-two votes. In 1863 a second effort was made, the Government asking authority to purchase five acres at South Kensington for a Natural History Museum, which was carried, after a long debate, by a majority of 132 votes. But it was not until 1871 that the first grant of £40,000 was voted for the erection of the building which in 1880 was completed and formally handed Over to the Trustees.
Professor Owen had the happiness to see this great work accomplished, but, although allowed to enter his “Promised Land,” he was not permitted to remain, but was retired in 1883, being succeeded by Professor (now Sir W. H.). Flower. On his retirement the Queen conferred upon him the honour of Knight Companion of the Bath, but his best recognised title will ever be that of plain “Professor Owen.”
Much has been said and written by his opponents to the disparagement of Owen’s work, and indeed it cannot be denied that his career as a scientific man was marked by many bitter controversies which one would rather not recall. Considering the long period [p.762] —of more than fifty years—over which that work extended, it need hardly surprise one to learn that many of Owen’s conclusions have since been controverted. But when we reflect that he was a naturalist of the pre-Darwinian epoch, and that the very methods of modern biological research, as now followed, have been introduced since his chief work was accomplished, we shall the more readily understand that the younger school of naturalists have little sympathy with the men of his time. A vast amount of his labour was devoted to descriptive palaeontology and zoology—chiefly of the vertebrata—although, as already mentioned, his earlier laurels were won in invertebrate researches. His chief works have reference to the extinct Birds of New Zealand, but he has also written memoirs on the Dodo, the Archaeopteryx, the Dasornis, and other fossil birds. The extinct Marsupial fauna of Australia and the gigantic Edentata of South America have each claimed many years of his life; he has also described the singular Triassic Reptilia of South Africa, some of which, in their dentition, offer so remarkable an approach to warm-blooded mammals. Of British fossil reptiles he has written most largely, as witness his voluminous contributions in the long array of volumes published by the Palaeontographical Society, of which he was the perpetual President.
Newspaper writers, who deal in the marvellous, love to attribute to Owen the miraculous power of building up entire extinct animals from a tooth or a claw; one even wrote, not long since, “Show him a splinter of an egg-shell and lo! the Dinornis.” That he once prophesied, from the examination of the broken shaft of a bird’s femur found in New Zealand, that large ostrich-like birds would be discovered in that island before any other evidence was forthcoming, is quite true; but all his determinations were based on most careful and patient study and comparison with both recent and fossil bones, and he never made a statement without he had pretty full evidence in support of it, being far too cautious to make guesses.
By his unwearied powers of work, Owen kept up, for nearly forty years, a continuous series of papers and monographs, contributed to the Royal, Zoological, Geological, Linnaean, and other Societies, including the British Association and the Palaeontographical Society.
If it should be asked what led to Owen’s popularity, it would at first sight be difficult to say; one would hardly describe his most popular attempts at writing as amusing or entertaining, although we readily grant they are most instructive. As a lecturer he was certainly successful, carrying his audience with him thoroughly; yet when he once read a discourse at the Royal Institution, on Museums, he wearied out his audience, and persisted in exceeding the time-limit by three-quarters of an hour! His viva-voce demonstrations and lectures were, however, always most interesting, and attracted very large audiences. He made such a favourable impression upon the Prince Consort that he was frequently requested to lecture upon Natural History subjects before the Queen and Royal Family at Buckingham Palace and at Windsor Castle.
Professor Owen cultivated a courtly and polished manner; but perhaps his most successful rôle was that of a conversationalist at the dinner-table, when he had an endless series of anecdotes to retail, chiefly of the illustrious persons he had met and of the places he had visited. His greatest pleasure was to relate his two winters’ experiences in Egypt, one of which was spent in attendance on the Prince and Princess of Wales. Although so immersed in his scientific work, Owen had the happy knack of being able to lay aside his studies and enter into the pursuits of others, even those of children, with whom he was always a favourite. He was a good musician; he delighted to take part in a quartette, and could play upon the violin with great skill. His friend, Dr. Arthur Farre, and his late colleague, Mr. George R. Waterhouse, were
frequently his fellow-performers at these musical reunions, whilst Mrs. Waterhouse presided at the pianoforte.
His strikingly tall figure and antiquated attire– always a marked feature at scientific gatherings— will not easily be forgotten, and Punch, Vanity Fair, and other contemporary papers, have fortunately embalmed them for history. The original plaster-model (from which Hamo Thornycroft executed a marble bust for one of Owen’s friends) is preserved at the east end of the Geological Gallery of the Natural History Museum, where it stands amidst the evidences of the Professor’s greatest palaeontological triumphs—the Dimornis, the Megatherium, and the Diprotodon.
Many circumstances contributed to bring about the success which crowned Professor Owen’s lifelong labours. He graduated in medicine, and in early life practised as an ordinary member of his profession. This his brother-practitioners never forgot, and on all occasions they rallied round him and gave Owen their support.
His palaeontological work was carried on at a time when public interest was first aroused in the study of geology by the writings of Lyell and the lectures of Buckland and Sedgwick, whilst Mantell, Agassiz, Egerton, and Enniskillen were his contemporaries. At that time Owen stood almost alone as the exponent of vertebrate palaeontology, and in his anatomical researches in zoology also. Through the medical profession he entered the Royal College of Surgeons Museum and became Hunterian Professor. By the Queen’s favour he was made Superintendent of the Natural History Departments of the British Museum.
He was a great student, an earnest worker, a keen disputant on scientific matters, but a feeble administrator, leaving official matters to be carried through entirely by his subordinates, and in all public matters trusting to his friends in power, who certainly helped him most generously. For many years he enjoyed a Civil List pension from the Queen, as well as the residence he occupied at Sheen, Richmond Park. Of honours he had no lack. From the Royal Society he received the Royal and Copley Medals; from the Geological, the Wollaston Medal; from the Linnaean Society, a special medal. He was a Member of the Institute of France; honorary member of nearly every scientific society at home and abroad; and held honorary degrees from the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Edinburgh. The late Emperor of the French conferred upon him the Legion of Honour; the Emperor of Germany, the Order of Merit; the King of Italy, the Order of St. Maurice and Lazare; the late Emperor of Brazil, the Order of the Rose. He was also decorated by the King of the Belgians.
Much has been said of the mistakes which Owen made; but it may fairly be asserted that so colossal a life-work will outlive all detractions, and his name will be handed down to posterity with that of our greatest scientific men of the Victorian epoch.
- Science Quotes by Sir Richard Owen.
- 20 Jul - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Owen's birth.
- Biography of Richard Owen - from A.B. Griffiths, Biographies of Scientific Men (1912)
- Richard Owen: Biology without Darwin, by Nicolaas A. Rupke. - book suggestion.
- Booklist for Richard Owen.