Tag Archives: The X Club

Richard Owen: the Real Victorian Dinosaur

Owen: the most distinguished vertebrate zoologist and palaeontologist… but a most deceitful and odious man.”

— Richard Broke Freeman in Charles Darwin: a Companion, 1978
Richard Owen

Richard Owen -the gifted palaeontologist who coined the word ‘Dinosaur’, and best remembered for his opposition to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.

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.

1846_Owen_Moa

Owen with a Moa bone in 1846

The Good:

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's Archetype

Owen’s Archetype

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.”

Richard-owen2

The Bad:

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

logic-quote

 

The Ugly:

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”.

From Wikipedia

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…

 

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Filed under Antagonist, Characterization, Dinosaurs, Historical Personage, History, Richard Owen, Science, Steampunk Genre, The X Club, Victorian Era, writing

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker – a member of the X Club

 [Reproduction of a portrait of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, director of Kew Gardens] [picture]

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker – as well as being a member of the X Club – was one of the greatest British botanists and explorers of the Victorian era. He is considered by historians to be Charles Darwin’s closest friend. He was Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, for twenty years, in succession to his father, William Jackson Hooker. Alas, unlike the other members of the X Club, he was not a supporter of women’s rights, particularly in regard to his beloved Kew Gardens; there were no women employed as gardeners or scientists during his directorship and few women scholars were awarded permission to use the facilities. To be fair, he did employ botanical artist, Matilda Smith, for 43 years from 1878.

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker

Joseph Dalton Hooker as a young man and a bit of a dish.

It is hard to pick just one or two adventures from Hooker’s explorations, but most interesting to me as an Australian was his attendance on an expedition to Antarctica, since he spent time in both Australia and New Zealand. He also explored the Himalayas, India, Morocco, Palestine, and the Americas, and worked extensively in Great Britain as a palaeobotanist. But I find the “Ayrton Controversy” to be of the most interest, particularly as it occurred at the same time as I have set my Steampunk novel, the early 1870s.

One of the rare days Kew Gardens was open to the public in the 1870s.

Quote: [Ayton’s] appointment as First Commissioner of Works by Gladstone in 1869 was greeted in The Times with the prophecy that it would prove “another instance of Mr. Ayrton’s unfortunate tendency to carry out what he thinks right in as unpleasant a manner as possible”.

Acton Smee Ayrton

Acton Smee Ayrton was an unscrupulous British politician with a chip on his shoulder. (And I was thrilled to find Smee was a real name! I can’t help but wonder if J M Barrie was thinking of this case while writing Peter Pan, with the resemblance of the names to that of Captain Hook and his bosun, Smee.) He made a concerted effort to have Kew Gardens taken away from Hooker so that the funding for Kew Gardens could be diverted to other projects. Ayrton approached Hooker’s colleagues and employees behind his back, with the aim of getting Hooker to resign. Ayrton actually took the making of staff appointments out of Hooker’s hands.

Ayrton didn’t value the scientific work taking place in the botanical sciences, and planned to convert Kew Gardens into just another park. He kept up a constant barrage of petty attacks on Hooker and his reputation, and on the reputation of his father, Sir William Jackson Hooker, Regius Professor of Botany, who had also been a Director of Kew Gardens. This pressure was kept up for over two years, driving Hooker to despair.

From Wikipedia: Finally, Hooker asked to be put in communication with Gladstone’s private secretary, Algernon West. A full statement was drawn up over the signatures of Darwin, Lyell, Huxley, Tyndall, Bentham and others. It was laid before Parliament by John Lubbock, and additional papers laid before the House of Lords. Lord Derby called for all the correspondence on the matter. The Treasury supported Hooker and criticised Ayrton’s behaviour.
One extraordinary fact emerged. 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”.
The outcome was not a vote in the Commons, but a kind of truce until, in August 1874, Gladstone transferred Ayrton from the Board of Works to the office of Judge Advocate-General, just before his government fell. Ayrton failed to get re-elected to Parliament. From that moment to this, the value of the Botanic Gardens has never been seriously questioned. 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.

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker.jpg

Wasn’t Ayrton a cockroach! As it was, Hooker overcame this sneak attack on his reputation. He remained friends with Darwin, and was one of the people who supported his theories both publically and privately. He has a small cameo role in my Steampunk narrative, where he comes off as rather too busy to be concerned with my protagonist’s wish for a scholar’s pass to the gardens. And now we all know why…

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Filed under Historical Personage, History, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Steampunk Work-in-Progress, The X Club, Uncategorized

John Tyndall – X Club Member: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective

John Tyndall was a great scientist, describing the Tyndall Effect among other achievements in his field of physics. However, his great genius was in making and keeping friends. I believe that the X Club wouldn’t have come into existence without the good offices of John Tyndall.

We live in the sky, not under it – John Tyndall

(c) The Royal Society; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

John Tyndall; (c) The Royal Society

He was a great friend to Thomas Hirst, Edward Frankland,Michael Faraday, and a supporter of science in general. He was a draftsman, surveyor, physics professor, mathematician, geologist, atmospheric scientist, public lecturer, mountaineer, science teacher, science writer, and as a science popularizer and communicator, Tyndall lectured on the benefits of a clear separation between science and religion. It leaves me kind of breathless when I look at that list!

One of the illustrations from his science tutorial texts.

A quick highlight of his scientific achievements:

  • The Tyndall Effect: he described how light is scattered by particles in a colloid or in a very fine suspension. This effect is why the sky is blue.
  • He studied and described the effects of radiant heat (infra-red radiation) on gases in the atmosphere and on gases and liquids in the laboratory.
  • He proved that the principal properties of visible light can be reproduced for infra-red radiation – namely reflection, refraction, diffraction, polarisation, depolarisation, double refraction, and rotation in a magnetic field.
  • He was the first to observe and report upon the phenomenon of thermophoresis in aerosols; thermophoresis is the movement of particles caused by a heat gradient.
  • He invented a better fireman’s respirator, a hood that filtered smoke and noxious gas from air, as a result of his studies. For that alone, he should be praised.
  • His studies on the atmosphere meant he was able to invent a better foghorn.
  •  He studied and described glaciers, and especially glacier motion.

A quick highlight of his achievements as a scientific philosopher and educator: 

  • He supported the separation of science and religion, for the sake of clarity for both. He wasn’t anti-religious, but he sincerely believed the underlying discourse of logic and rationality for science had no overlap or involvement with the discourse of spirituality for religion.
  • He was among the first scientist to describe the Greenhouse Effect.
  • He wrote many textbooks; his scientific tutorials for those people without a scientific background became so popular that the royalties became a comfortable source of income.
  • He was a popular lecturer, as he often gave demonstrations of physics that were both entertaining and educational.

Although he received five honorary doctorates and was an honorary member of thirty-five scientific societies, Tyndall was never offered national honours. This was probably due to the controversy he often created about his opinions on science. Most famous of these controversies was his Belfast Address to British Association for the Advancement of Science. The speech gave a favourable account of the history of evolutionary theories, mentioned Darwin by name, and concluded by asserting that religious sentiment should not be permitted to “intrude on the region of knowledge, over which it holds no command”.

 

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Filed under Historical Personage, History, Steampunk Feminist, The X Club, Uncategorized