Owen is probably best remembered today for coining the word Dinosauria (meaning "Terrible Reptile" or "Fearfully Great Reptile") and for his outspoken opposition to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. He was the driving force behind the establishment, in 1881, of the British Museum of Natural History in London. Bill Bryson argues that, "by making the Natural History Museum an institution for everyone, Owen transformed our expectations of what museums are for".
He then contemplated the usual professional career but his bent was evidently in the direction of anatomical research. He was induced by Abernethy to accept the position of assistant to William Clift, conservator of the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. This congenial occupation soon led him to abandon his intention of medical practice and his life henceforth was devoted to purely scientific labours. He prepared an important series of catalogues of the Hunterian collection, in the Royal College of Surgeons and, in the course of this work, he acquired the unrivalled knowledge of comparative anatomy, which enabled him to enrich all departments of the science and especially facilitated his researches on the remains of extinct animals.
In 1836, Owen was appointed Hunterian professor, in the Royal College of Surgeons and, in 1849, he succeeded Clift as conservator. He held the latter office until 1856, when he became superintendent of the natural history department of the British Museum. He then devoted much of his energies to a great 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 of Natural History (now the Natural History Museum). He retained office until the completion of this work, in 1884, when he was made a knight of the Order of the Bath. He lived quietly in retirement at Sheen Lodge, Richmond Park, until his death in 1892.
His career was tainted by accusations that he failed to give credit to the work of others and even tried to appropriate it in his own name. This came to a head in 1846, when he was awarded the Royal Medal for a paper he had written on belemnites. Owen had failed to acknowledge that the belemnite had been discovered by Chaning Pearce, an amateur biologist, four years earlier. As a result of the ensuing scandal, he was voted off the councils of the Zoological Society and the Royal Society.
Most of his work on reptiles related to the skeletons of extinct forms and his chief memoirs, on British specimens, were reprinted in a connected series in his History of British Fossil Reptiles (4 vols., London, 1849-1884). 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 (the mammal-like reptiles, Therapsida). 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, issued by the British Museum, in 1876. Among his writings on birds, his classical memoir on the kiwi (1840-1846), a long series of papers on the extinct dinornithidae of New Zealand, other memoirs on aptornis, the takahe, the dodo and the Great Auk, may be especially mentioned. His monograph on Archaeopteryx (1863), the long-tailed, toothed bird from the Bavarian lithographic stone, is also an epoch-making work.
With Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, Owen helped create the first life-size sculptures depicting dinosaurs as they may have appeared. Some models were initially created for the Great Exhibition of 1851 but 33 were eventually produced, when the Crystal Palace was relocated to Sydenham, in south London. Owen famously hosted a dinner for 21 prominent men of science inside the hollow concrete Iguanodon on New Year's Eve, 1853.
Owen was granted right of first refusal on any freshly dead animal at the London Zoo. His wife once arrive home to find the carcass of a newly deceased rhinoceros in her front hallway. With regard to living mammals, the more striking of Owen's contributions relate to the monotremes, marsupials and the anthropoid apes. He was also the first to recognize and name the two natural groups of typical Ungulate, 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 seems to have been first directed by the remarkable fossils collected by Charles Darwin, in South America. Toxodon, 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 then led to the recognition of the giant armadillo, which he named Glyptodon (1839) and to classic memoirs on the giant ground-sloths, Mylodon (1842) and Megatherium (1860), besides other important contributions.
At the same time, Sir Thomas Mitchell's discovery of fossil bones, in New South Wales, provided material for the first of Owen's long series of papers on the extinct mammals of Australia, which were eventually reprinted in book-form in 1877. He discovered Diprotodon and Thylacoleo, besides extinct kangaroos and wombats, of gigantic size. While occupied with so much material from abroad, Owen was also busily collecting facts for an exhaustive work on similar fossils from the British Isles 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 (Palaeont. Soc., 1871). One of his latest 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 (London, 1884).
Following the voyage of the Beagle, Darwin had at his disposal a considerable collection of specimens and, on 29 October 1836, he was introduced by Charles Lyell to Owen, who agreed to work on fossil bones collected in South America. Owen's subsequent revelations, that the extinct giant creatures were rodents and sloths, showed that they were related to current species in the same locality, rather than being relatives of similarly sized creatures in Africa, as Darwin had originally thought. This was one of the many influences which led Darwin to later formulate his own ideas on the concept of natural selection.
At this time, Owen talked of his theories, influenced by Johannes Peter Müller, that living matter had an "organising energy", a life-force that directed the growth of tissues and also determined the lifespan of the individual and of the species. Darwin was reticent about his own thoughts, understandably, when, on 19 December 1838, as secretary of the Geological Society of London, he saw Owen and his allies ridicule the Lamarckian 'heresy' of Darwin's old tutor, Robert Edmund Grant. In 1841, when the recently married Darwin was ill, Owen was one of the few scientific friends to visit; however, Owen's opposition to any hint of transmutation made Darwin keep quiet about his hypothesis.
During the development of Darwin's theory, his investigation of barnacles showed, in 1849, how their segmentation related to other crustaceans, showing how they had diverged from their relatives. To Owen such "homologies" in comparative anatomy showed "archetypes" in the Divine mind but to Darwin this was evidence of descent. Owen demonstrated fossil evidence of an evolutionary sequence of horses, as supporting his idea of development from archetypes in "ordained continuous becoming" and, in 1854, gave a British Association talk on the impossibility of bestial apes, such as the recently discovered gorilla, standing erect and being transmuted into men. Working class militants were trumpeting man's monkey origins. To crush these ideas, Owen, as President-elect of the Royal Association, announced his authoritative anatomical studies of primate brains, claiming that the human brain had structures that apes brains did not, and that therefore humans were a separate sub-class. Darwin wrote that "I cannot swallow Man [being that] distinct from a Chimpanzee". The combative Thomas Henry Huxley used his March 1858 Royal Institution lecture to deny Owen's claim and affirmed that structurally, gorillas are as close to humans as they are to baboons. He believed that the "mental & moral faculties are essentially... the same kind in animals & ourselves". This was a clear denial of Owen's claim for human uniqueness, given at the same venue.
On the publication of Darwin's theory, in On The Origin of Species, he sent a complimentary copy to Owen, saying "it will seem 'an abomination'". Owen was the first to respond, courteously claiming that he had long believed that "existing influences" were responsible for the "ordained" birth of species. Darwin now had long talks with him and Owen said that the book offered the best explanation "ever published of the manner of formation of species", although he still had the gravest doubts that transmutation would bestialize man. It appears that Darwin had assured Owen that he was looking at everything as resulting from designed laws, which Owen interpreted as showing a shared belief in "Creative Power".
As head of the Natural History Collections at the British Museum, Owen received numerous inquiries and complaints about the Origin. His own views remained unknown: when emphasising to a Parliamentary committee the need for a new Natural History museum, he pointed out that "The whole intellectual world this year has been excited by a book on the origin of species; and what is the consequence? Visitors come to the British Museum, and they say, "Let us see all these varieties of pigeons: where is the tumbler, where is the pouter?" and I am obliged with shame to say, I can show you none of them".... As to showing you the varieties of those species, or of any of those phenomena that would aid one in getting at that mystery of mysteries, the origin of species, our space does not permit; but surely there ought to be a space somewhere, and, if not in the British Museum, where is it to be obtained?"
However, Huxley's attacks were making their mark. In April 1860 the Edinburgh Review included Owen's anonymous review of the Origin. In it Owen showed his anger at what he saw as Darwin's caricature of the creationist position, and his ignoring Owen's "axiom of the continuous operation of the ordained becoming of living things". As well as attacking Darwin's "disciples", Hooker and Huxley, for their "short-sighted adherence", he thought that the book symbolised the sort of "abuse of science... to which a neighbouring nation, some seventy years since, owed its temporary degradation" in a reference to the French Revolution. Darwin thought it "Spiteful, extremely malignant, clever, and... damaging" and later commented that "The Londoners say he is mad with envy because my book is so talked about. It is painful to be hated in the intense degree with which Owen hates me."
During the reaction to Darwin's theory, Huxley's arguments with Owen continued. Owen tried to smear Huxley, by portraying him as an "advocate of man's origins from a transmuted ape" and one of his contributions to the Athenaeum was titled "Ape-Origin of Man as Tested by the Brain". In 1862 (and on other occasions) Huxley took the opportunity to arrange demonstrations of ape brain anatomy (e.g. at the BA meeting, where William Flower performed the dissection). Visual evidence of the supposedly missing structures (posterior cornu and hippocampus) was used, in effect, to indict Owen for perjury. The campaign ran over two years and was devastatingly successful, with each "slaying" being followed by a recruiting drive for the Darwinian cause. The spite lingered. When Huxley joined the Zoological Society Council, in 1861, Owen left and, in the following year, Huxley moved to stop Owen from being elected to the Royal Society Council, accusing him "of wilful & deliberate falsehood". (See also Wiki Thomas Henry Huxley page)
In January 1863, Owen bought the Archaeopteryx fossil for the British Museum. It fulfilled Darwin's prediction, that a proto-bird with unfused wing fingers would be found, although Owen described it unequivocally as a bird.
The feuding between Owen and Darwin's supporters continued. In 1871, Owen was found to be involved in a threat to end government funding of Joseph Dalton Hooker's botanical collection, at Kew, possibly trying to bring it under his British Museum. Darwin commented that "I used to be ashamed of hating him so much, but now I will carefully cherish my hatred & contempt to the last days of my life".
To the discussion of the deeper problems of biological philosophy, he made scarcely any direct and definite contributions. His generalities rarely extended beyond strict comparative anatomy, the phenomena of adaptation to function and the facts of geographical or geological distribution. His lecture on virgin reproduction or parthenogenesis, however, published in 1849, contained the essence of the germ plasm theory, elaborated later by August Weismann and he made several vague statements concerning 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 successive forerunners of the crocodiles (1884) and horses (1868) but it has never become clear how much of the modern doctrines of organic evolution he admitted. He contented himself with the bare 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."
"No one fact tells so strongly against Owen... as that he has never reared one pupil or follower." Charles Darwin to Asa Gray, 1860. (More Letters of C.D p153)
Owen has been described by some as a malicious, dishonest and hateful individual. He has been described in one biography as being a "social experimenter with a penchant for sadism. Addicted to controversy and driven by arrogance and jealousy." Deborah Cadbury stated that Owen possessed an "almost fanatical egoism with a callous delight in savaging his critics." Indeed, an Oxford University professor once described Owen as "a damned liar. He lied for God and for malice." Gideon Mantell claimed it was "a pity a man so talented should be so dastardly and envious."
Owen famously credited himself and Georges Cuvier with the discovery of the Iguanodon, completely excluding any credit for the original discoverer of the dinosaur, Gideon Mantell. This was not the first or last time Owen would deliberately claim a discovery as his own, when in fact it was not. It has also been suggested by some authors, including Bill Bryson in A Short History of Nearly Everything, that Owen even used his influence in the Royal Society to ensure that many of Mantell’s research papers were never published. Owen was finally dismissed from the Royal Society's Zoological Council for plagiarism.
When Mantell suffered an accident that left him permanently crippled, Owen exploited the opportunity by renaming several dinosaurs which had already been named by Mantell, even having the audacity to claim credit for their discovery himself. When Mantell finally died in 1852, an obituary carrying no byline derided Mantell as little more than a mediocre scientist, who brought forth few notable contributions. The obituary’s authorship was universally attributed to Owen by every geologist. The president of the Geological society claimed that it "Bespeaks of the lamentable coldness of the heart of the writer." Owen was subsequently denied the presidency of the society for his repeated and pointed antagonism towards Gideon Mantell.
Even more extraordinary was the way Owen ignored the genuine scientific content of Mantell's work. For example, despite the paucity of finds Mantell had worked out that some dinosaurs were bipedal, including Iguanodon. This remarkable insight was totally ignored by Owen, whose instructions for the Crystal Palace models by Waterhouse Hawkins portrayed Iguanodon as grossly overweight and quadrupedal, with its misidentified thumb on its nose. Mantell did not live to witness the discovery in 1878 of articulated skeletons in a Belgium coal-mine that showed Iguanodon was mostly bipedal (and in that stance could use its thumb for defence). Owen made no comment or retraction; he never did on any errors he made. Moreover, since the earliest known dinosaurs were bipedal, Mantell's idea was indeed perspicacious.
Despite originally starting out on good terms with Darwin, he turned on him savagely at the first opportunity, despite knowing enough anatomy to understand the explanatory power of Darwin’s theory. The reason for this, some historians claim, was that Owen felt upstaged by Darwin and supporters such as Huxley, and his judgment was clouded by jealousy. That’s what Darwin himself believed: Owen in his opinion was "Spiteful, extremely malignant, clever; The Londoners say he is mad with envy because my book is so talked about." "It is painful to be hated in the intense degree with which Owen hates me." Owen also resorted to the same subterfuge he used against Mantell, writing another anonymous article in the Edinburgh Review in April 1860. In the article, Owen savaged Darwin, and heaped praise (in the third person) upon himself, while being careful not to associate any particular comment with his own name.
He was also the mastermind behind the threat to end government funding of the Kew Gardens botanical collection (Director: Joseph Dalton Hooker), motivated by a mixture of self-aggrandizement and jealousy of Hooker.
It has been suggested by some authors that the portrayal of Owen as a vindictive and treacherous man was fostered and encouraged by his rivals (particularly Darwin, Hooker and Huxley) and may be somewhat undeserved. In the first part of his career he was regarded rightly as one of the great scientific figures of the age. In the second part of his career his reputation slipped. This was not solely due to his underhand dealings with colleagues; it was also due to the serious errors of scientific judgement which were discovered and publicized. A fine example was his decision to classify man in a separate sub-class of the Mammalia (see Huxley's views on humanity's place in nature). In this Owen had no supporters at all. Also, his unwillingness to come off the fence concerning evolution became increasingly damaging to his reputation as time went on. Owen continued working after his official retirement at the age of 79, but he never recovered the good opinions he had garnered in his younger days.
In comparison to Owen's twisted and unfortunate relationship with Darwin, Huxley, and Hooker, as well as his underhanded treatment of Mantell on the priority of claim about finding and naming dinosaurs, it is pleasant to point out that he could be convivial and friendly to non-rival types. He was a friend of the painter Joseph Mallord William Turner, probably due to the latter's interest in natural history as pertaining to sea life. Both men exchanged visits in the middle 1830s.
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