Owen: the most distinguished vertebrate zoologist and palaeontologist… but a most deceitful and odious man.”— Richard Broke Freeman in Charles Darwin: a Companion, 1978
In his day, Sir Richard Owen was a controversy magnet, as well as a talented and highly intelligent English biologist, comparative anatomist and palaeontologist. However, he was also inclined to not give credit where academic credit was due, was argumentative and opinionated, and this tended to undermine his real achievements. He was a complex man, and it impacted on his legacy as a scientist.
Personally, I believe Owen’s support for the founding of the Natural History Museum at South Kensington is his outstanding achievement.Work on the building that houses the museum began in 1873 and was completed in 1880. The museum was officially opened in 1881, although the move from the old museum was not fully completed until 1883.The collection has both historic as well as scientific value, as many of the specimens collected were by scientists like Darwin or Banks.
Owen did do a lot of original work. It was Owen who first explored the differences between reptiles and dinosaurs, and went on to name Dinosauria – the terrible lizards. It was Owen’s interest in the Dodo that helped with documenting and preserving the remaining partial specimens. He theorised the existence of Moas from a single femur bone, sent to him by a Doctor John Rule of Sydney, who had received it from his nephew in New Zealand, John Harris. Owen named the new species Dinornis. It was his work on fossils that he is best remembered for in the scientific community. Several of his academic text books are still in use today, like Odontography, or are the basis for further work in the field of anatomy.
Owen was granted right of first refusal on the corpses of any freshly dead animals from the London Zoo, and made significant contributions to the science of taxonomy. This created some amusing situations; Owen’s wife once arrived home to find the carcass of a rhinoceros in her front hallway. However, it was his work on fossils that he is best remembered for. One of Owen’s most notable accomplishments was his description of the vertebrate archetype. There he provided a theoretical framework to interpret anatomical and physiological similarities shared among organisms. Owen saw these mutual features as manifestations of a common blueprint. He defined the archetype this way: “that ideal original or fundamental pattern on which a natural group of animals or system of organs has been constructed, and to modifications of which the various forms of such animals or organs may be referred.”
Darwin and Owen started out as colleagues. But Owen was in two minds when Darwin’s The Origin of Species came out; his own theories along similar lines had been much ridiculed in the press and by the scientific establishment. Much later on, he was inclined to publicly agree in the concept of evolution, but was dead against the theory that natural selection was the underlying cause. This brought him the enmity of Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s greatest supporter and a member of the X Club. (I told you I would get back to the X Club eventually).
“I often saw Owen, whilst living in London, and admired him greatly, but was never able to understand his character and never became intimate with him. After the publication of the Origin of Species he became my bitter enemy, not owing to any quarrel between us, but as far as I could judge out of jealousy at its success. Poor dear Falconer….had a very bad opinion of him, being convinced that he was not only ambitious, very envious and arrogant, but untruthful and dishonest. His power of hatred was certainly unsurpassed. When in former days I used to defend Owen, Falconer often said, “You will find him out some day”, and so it has proved.”
Charles Darwin, 1887
Owen plagiarised the work of others, and used his influence to hinder the publication of other scientists’ work. In 1846, he was awarded the Royal Medal for a paper he had written on belemnites (an extinct Order of cephlapods). What Owen had failed to acknowledge was that the belemnite had been discovered by Chaning Pearce, an amateur biologist, four years earlier. It was then that other scientists noted similar behaviour in regards to the late Gideon Mantell. His antagonism towards Gideon Mantell and sabotage of Mantell’s reputation as the original discoverer of the Iguanodon was uncovered. As a result of the ensuing scandal, he was voted off the councils of the Zoological Society and the Royal Society, and denied the presidency of the Royal Society. He didn’t learn a lesson from these incidents.
As he grew older, he ruined his own reputation with his arrogance and ill tempered attacks on other scientists. Not only had he alienated and offended supporters of Darwin like Huxley and Hugh Falconer, he attacked Joseph Hooker – another member of the X Club – and Kew Gardens, and joined up with the reprehensible Acton Smee Ayrton. Owen thought Hooker and Kew Gardens were threatening the success of the Natural History Museum, and again took to using his influence to ruin the reputation of others. It backfired. In the midst of his troubles, Hooker was elected as President of the Royal Society in 1873. This showed publicly the high regard which Hooker’s fellow scientists had for him, and the great importance they attached to his work.
There had been an official report on Kew which had not previously been seen in public. Ayrton had caused this to be written by Richard Owen. Hooker had not seen it, and so had not been given right of reply. However, the report was amongst the papers laid before Parliament, and it contained the most unscrupulous attack on both the Hookers, and suggested (amongst much else) that they had mismanaged the care of their trees, and that their systematic botany was nothing more than “attaching barbarous binomials to foreign weeds”. The discovery of this report no doubt helped to sway opinion in favour of Hooker and Kew (there was debate in the press as well as Parliament). Hooker replied to the Owen report point by point in a factual manner, and his reply placed with the other papers on the case. When Ayrton was questioned about it in the debate led by Lubbock, he replied that “Hooker was too low an official to raise questions of matter with a Minister of the Crown”.
Owen had worked hard to contribute to the science of biology, and in the end he muddied his own reputation more than anyone else’s. He spent the last half of his career working as the superintendent of the natural history department of the British Museum and then his Natural History Museum, and even managed to taint that legacy. In 2009, his statue in the main hall of his museum was replaced with a statue of Darwin (oh, the irony).
In my Steampunk work-in-progress, Owen is only mentioned in passing. But I considering upping his presence…