Sir Richard Owen

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(b. Lancaster, England, 20 July 1804; d. London, England, 18 December 1892)

comparative anatomy, vertebrate paleontology, evolutionary biology. For the original article on Owen see DSB, vol. 10.

Since the early 1980s, a major repositioning of Owen has taken place, as historians of evolutionary biology began tracing the roots of Darwinism to scientific traditions that previously had been considered inimical to the theory of evolution, such as natural theology and idealist morphology. Owen, who conventionally was marginalized and cast in the role of Charles Darwin’s main creationist opponent, has been reappraised as a major representative of those traditions and, beyond that, as a proponent of evolution theory himself, albeit evolution of a non-Darwinian kind.

Moreover, the emergence within historical scholarship of attempts to understand the growth of science in terms of its institutions and the recognition that museums of natural history were significant sites of scientific practice has led to a more fundamental reevaluation of Owen yet. Rather than being seen in the first instance as a participant in the nineteenth-century debate about the origin of species, he has been appraised as a leader of the Victorian museum movement. Placed in the context of his museum career ambitions and attainments, Owen has received a more differentiated understanding of his contributions to comparative anatomy and vertebrate paleontology.

Museum Curator at Hub of Empire . Owen made his living as a museum curator, being employed during the 1827–1856 period at the Hunterian Museum and during 1856–1883 at the British Museum. From early on in his professional career he pursued the ideal of a separate national museum of natural history, one that would exhibit nature according to his museological rules. He later addressed the issue in a rare treatise of its kind, On the Extent and Aims of a National Museum of Natural History (1862). Initially, he transformed the Royal College of Surgeons’ Hunterian Museum into a major center for the study of comparative anatomy and vertebrate paleontology, in a conscious effort to keep up with Georges Cuvier’s Parisian Muséum d’Anatomie Comparée.

To this end, Owen led the Hunterian Museum away from the narrow purpose of surgical training. When he was blocked in carrying this through to the full, Owen left the employment of the Royal College of Surgeons to accept an appointment at the British Museum (BM), where he became the first superintendent of the natural history collections. However, his marginal position at the BM, especially in relation to its librarian Anthony Panizzi (1797–1879), and the inadequacy of the accommodation for the collections in his care were among further reasons for Owen to seek the establishment of a separate museum of natural history. In this he succeeded by securing the creation of the British Museum (National History), or BM(NH), in South Kensington, which was inaugurated in 1881. It was Owen who created the Natural History Museum as it is known in the early twenty-first century, one of the greatest “cathedrals of science” to be built anywhere and the crowning achievement of his career.

Like Georges Cuvier (1769–1832), Owen was not a field naturalist but a museum man who never undertook a major journey of exploration but who, at the vantage point of his institutional position, orchestrated the collecting of natural history specimens, obtaining many rare and precious ones, early on from London’s Zoological Gardens, but increasingly also from around the British Isles and indeed from around the world. He succeeded in turning the Hunterian Museum and the BM(NH) into centers for the cataloging, exhibiting, and storing of trophy treasures from Britain’s colonial empire. The enormous range as well as the novelty of his numerous research papers reflect Owen’s position at this metropolitan hub of empire.

Functionalist Studies . For the purchase of specimens, the expansion of exhibition and storage space, and his museum plans in general, Owen needed the approval and cooperation of his employers and patrons, and to a significant extent his science took on the qualities of the factions from which he sought support. Among Owen’s early and most effective patrons was the Oxford geologist William Buckland (1784–1856), who gave Owen access to the liberal Tory prime minister Robert Peel (1788–1850). Following Peel’s death by accident, his political mantle fell on William Ewart Gladstone (1809–1898), the founder of the Liberal Party and thrice prime minister. Owen’s museum endeavors were by and large a Peel-ite-Gladstonian enterprise, and much of what Owen attained in terms of institutional and career advancement, including various national honors, such as a civil list pension (1842) and a knighthood (Knight Commander; 1884), came to him from a circle of mainly Oxonian liberal Anglicans.

These men regarded natural history as a form of natural theology, and the Paleyan proclivities of the network of Owen’s museum patrons were ably and, at times sensationally, accommodated by him. From his early monograph on the pearly nautilus to his reconstruction of the leonine marsupial Thylacoleo carnifex, Owen interpreted organic diversity in terms of Cuvierian functionalism, explaining organic form in terms of its function and providing instances of perfect adaptation.

Idealist Morphology and Vertebrate Archetype . A majority of Owen’s metropolitan colleagues were not Oxbridge educated but, like Owen himself, had received their education outside England, in Edinburgh or additionally on the Continent. From there they brought with them a different epistemology than Cuvierian-Paleyan functionalism, namely the idealism of Romantic nature philosophy, which explained physical reality—especially organic diversity—in terms of the transcendental logic of form rather than functional adaptation.

In London, German idealism was articulated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle as well as by Coleridge’s disciple, the surgeon Joseph Henry Green, to whose influence Owen was exposed at the Royal College of Surgeons, where Green delivered Hunterian Lectures on a rotating scheme before Owen himself in 1837 began delivering the lectures as the sole Hunterian professor. Moreover, Owen was intellectually indebted to William Whewell, one of the rare Oxbridge thinkers to communicate idealist thought. In this largely metropolitan subculture, Owen developed a research program of transcendental morphology, bringing the prior accomplishments of Lorenz Oken, Carl Gustav Carus, and other Continental anatomists to an internationally admired level of perfection. It was Owen’s declared ambition to unify the functionalist and transcendentalist approaches, but in this he did not succeed.

Owen began working systematically on problems of transcendental anatomy in 1841, as part of his curatorial task of cataloging the extensive osteological collections of the Hunterian Museum. From this work he extracted the materials for his comprehensive account of transcendental osteology, which he presented to the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) in 1846 in the form of a major report, subsequently published under the title On the Archetype and Homologies of the Vertebrate Skeleton (1849). In this and earlier reports to the BAAS (1839, 1841, 1842, 1843), he made major improvements in classification and terminology, adding several significant taxonomic categories, most famously the Dinosauria(1841), from which Owen, ever since dinosaurs first entered the wider sphere of public interest at the Great Exhibition of 1851, has derived considerable vicarious renown.

To demonstrate the inadequacy of the functionalist method, Owen cited the development of the skull, because it had been the skull with which transcendental morphology in Germany had been most notably associated. Functional adaptation could not explain that in all classes of vertebrates, as a rule, the foetal skull is composed of the same number of uncoalesced pieces, arranged in the same general way. In marsupials or birds, for example, it does not play the role it has in placental mammals of making birth safer. A more comprehensive view had to be taken, which Owen did by adopting the vertebrate theory of the skull, that is, the notion that the skull is to be understood as a series of metamorphosed vertebrae, just as, at the other end of the vertebral column, the sacrum represents several fused vertebrae. The basic building block of the skeleton was the vertebra, and the uncoalesced skull bones in backboned foetuses can be explained as parts of separate cephalic vertebrae.

Thus the skeleton could be seen as a series of ideal vertebrae, most closely represented in real life by the bony framework of fishes. Owen called the fish-like concatenation of virtually undifferentiated vertebrae the vertebrate archetype. It represented the skeleton in its most elementary form, with only a hint of the modifications that are to be found in real vertebrates, and to which all skeletal forms, including those of humans, could be traced back by a careful study of their homological relationships.

Owen gave a precise definition to the concepts—at that time fuzzily defined—of analogy and homology: he defined an analogue as “A part or organ in one animal which has the same function as another part or organ in a different animal”; he defined a homologue, by contrast, as “The same organ in different animals under every variety of form and function” (1848, p. 7).

Origin of Species by Natural Means . With his notion of an archetype—which Owen soon after its initial enunciation in terms of an expression of an immanent force redefined as a Platonic blueprint of design in the mind of the

Creator—he shifted the evidence for the existence of a supreme designer from concrete adaptations to an abstract plan—from special to general teleology. Divine contrivance was to be recognized not so much in the characteristics of individual species but in their common ground-plan. In other words, species could have originated by natural means, not by miraculous creation. To this belief Owen gave cautious, some would say cryptic, expression in a variety of publications, for example in his On the Nature of Limbs (1849). Strong criticism from his Paleyite patrons turned Owen privately into a evolutionist, but he enormously resented it when later he was portrayed by Darwin as a creationist. And indeed, over a period of some four decades, from the mid-1840s to the mid-1880s, he explicitly and repeatedly expressed—in articles, monographs, a textbook, and letters—his belief in a natural origin of species. He belatedly formulated his mature theory of saltatory descent in the concluding chapter of his On the Anatomy of Vertebrates (3 volumes, 1866–1868), separately published as the Derivative Hypothesis of Life and Species (1868).

The question remained, however, what the “natural means” were. With respect to this issue Owen and Darwin parted company. To Owen, natural selection could only explain the extinction of species, not their diverging origins. Moreover, like many of his German colleagues, Owen conflated the questions of the origin of species with that of the origin of life, and natural selection seemed ineffectual at the primordial level of abiogenesis. Owen was a pivotal figure in the emergence of the evolutionary view of life forms as indicated by fossils. He was a strong advocate of the notion that the paleontological record is progressive, arguing in an anonymous Quarterly Review(1851) critique of Charles Lyell’s steady-state view of the geological past that the succession of fossils through time shows a distinct development from lower to higher. For Owen, this progressive change was a process guided by divine purpose. He believed in an orthogenetic-saltational process of organic unfolding, driven by an inherent tendency to change, not by contingent, gradualist, and external forces such as natural selection.

The phenomenon of metagenesis provided Owen with a visualizing aid for his notion of evolution. In the booklet On Parthenogenesis, or the Successive Production of Procreating Individuals from a Single Ovum (1849), he described the phenomenon of alternating generations in the reproductive cycles of, for example, aphids, jellyfish, or flukeworms. Characteristic of such metagenetic cycles is that the individual generations can differ in form from each other as much as different species or even genera, families, and orders do. One could imagine that under particular circumstances the cycle might be broken, and the separate stages go on reproducing. In this way wholly new species might originate.

The Hippocampus Controversy . Owen applied his saltational theory of the origin of species also to humans and, in the Christian antislavery tradition of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach and James Cowles Prichard, stressed the unity of mankind and the gap that exists between humans and the higher apes. Based on a series of comparative studies of the anthropoid apes, he placed humans in a subclass of their own, the Archencephala, pointing to a number of specific cerebral features, in particular the hippocampus minor. This led to a prolonged controversy with Thomas Henry Huxley who, in an effort to prove a Darwinian origin of Homo sapiens, argued that apes also possess a hippocampus minor and that the lowest races of mankind are closer to these apes than to Englishmen. The controversy was fought out highly publicly at successive annual meetings of the BAAS, at Oxford (1860), Manchester (1861), and Cambridge (1862). Huxley outclassed Owen as a controversialist and tactician, and has been regarded as both the victor and the person who got it right. Detailed reexamination has disclosed the complexity of the case, however, and shows that on both sides issues of personality and politics structured the scientific debate.



On the Archetype and Homologies of the Vertebrate Skeleton. London: J. van Voorst, 1848.

On the Nature of Limbs. London: J. van Voorst, 1849.

On Parthenogenesis, or the Successive Production of Procreating Individuals from a Single Ovum. London: J. van Voorst, 1849.

“Lyell: On Life and Successive Development.” Quarterly Review 89 (1851): 412–451.

On the Extent and Aims of a National Museum of Natural History. London: Saunders, Otley, 1862.

On the Anatomy of Vertebrates. 3 vols. London: Longmans, Green, 1866–1868.

Derivative Hypothesis of Life and Species. London: Longmans, Green, 1868.

The Hunterian Lectures in Comparative Anatomy May–June, 1837. Edited by Phillip R. Sloan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.


Amundson, Ron. “Typology Reconsidered: Two Doctrines on the History of Evolutionary Biology.” Biology and Philosophy13 (1998): 153–177.

Branagan, David. “Richard Owen in the Antipodean Context.” Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales125 (1992): 95–102.

Camardi, Giovanni. “Richard Owen, Morphology, and Evolution.” Journal of the History of Biology 34 (2001): 481–515.

Cosans, Christopher. “Anatomy, Metaphysics, and Values: The Ape Brain Debate Reconsidered.” Biology and Philosophy 9 (1994): 129–165.

Desmond, Adrian. Archetypes and Ancestors: Palaeontology in Victorian London, 1850–1875. London: Blond & Briggs, 1982.

_____. The Politics of Evolution: Morphology, Medicine, and Reform in Radical London. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Gross, Charles G. “Hippocampus Minor and Man’s Place in Nature: A Case Study in the Social Construction of Neuroanatomy.” Hippocampus 3 (1993): 403–415.

Gruber, Jacob W. “Owen, Richard.” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

_____, and John C. Thackray. Richard Owen Commemoration: Three Studies. London: Natural History Museum, 1992.

Ospovat, Dov. The Development of Darwin’s Theory: Natural History, Natural Theology, and Natural Selection, 1838–1859. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Padian, Kevin. “A Missing Hunterian Lecture on Vertebrae by Richard Owen, 1837.” Journal of the History of Biology 28 (1995): 333–368.

_____. “The Rehabilitation of Sir Richard Owen.” BioScience 47 (1997): 446–453.

Panchen, Alec L. “Richard Owen and the Concept of Homology.” In Homology: The Hierarchical Basis ofComparative Biology,edited by Brian K. Hall. San Diego: Academic, 1994.

Richards, Evelleen. “A Question of Property Rights: Richard Owen’s Evolutionism Reassessed.” British Journal for the History of Science 20 (1987): 129–171.

_____. “A Political Anatomy of Monsters, Hopeful and Otherwise: Teratogeny, Transcendentalism, and Evolutionary Theorizing.” Isis 85 (1994): 377–411.

Richards, Robert J. The Meaning of Evolution: The Morphological Construction and Ideological Reconstruction of Darwin’s Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Rupke, Nicolaas A. “Richard Owen’s Hunterian Lectures on Comparative Anatomy and Physiology, 1837–55.” Medical History 29 (1985): 237–258.

_____. “Richard Owen’s Vertebrate Archetype.” Isis 84 (1993), 231–251.

_____. Richard Owen: Victorian Naturalist. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994.

Sloan, Phillip R. “Whewell’s Philosophy of Discovery and the Archetype of the Vertebrate Skeleton: The Role of German Philosophy of Science in Richard Owen’s Biology.” Annals of Science 60 (2003): 39–61.

Smith, C. U. M. “Worlds in Collision: Owen and Huxley on the Brain.” Science in Context 10 (1997): 343–365.

Wilson, Leonard G. “The Gorilla and the Question of Human Origins: The Brain Controversy.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 51 (1996): 184–207.

Nicolaas A. Rupke

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(b. Lancaster, England, 20 July 1804; d. Richmond Park, London, England, 18 December 1892), comparative anatomy, vertebrate paleontology, geology.

Owen, the younger son of Richard and Catherine Parrin Owen, lost his father in 1809. When six years old Owen was enrolled at the Lancaster Grammar School, where he was a younger schoolmate of William Whewell. In 1820 Owen was apprenticed to the first of three Lancaster surgeons under whom he studied. As an apprentice he had access to postmortems and dissections at the local jail, which sparked an early interest in anatomy and started him collecting anatomical specimens. Before completing his apprenticeship, Owen matriculated in October 1824 at the University of Edinburgh, where he attended the anatomical lectures of Alexander Munro Tertius. More importantly, Owen was able to attend the extramural lectures on anatomy given by John Barclay, from whom Owen gained considerable knowledge of comparative anatomy. In April 1825 Barclay recommended that Owen go to London to study at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital with John Abernethy, to whom Barclay addressed a letter of introduction on Owen’s behalf. Abernethy immediately appointed Owen to be his prosector. After qualifying as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in August 1826, Owen set up practice in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

Abernethy had recognized Owen’s dissecting ability and knowledge of comparative anatomy. As president of the Royal College of Surgeons, Abernethy had Owen appointed assistant to the conservator, William Clift, of the Hunterian Collection. Owen soon became engaged to Clift’s only daughter, Caroline whom he married in 1835. His primary task was to assist Clift in the preparation of the long-needed catalogue of John Hunter’s wide-ranging collection, which had been purchased for the College of Surgeons and served as the nucleus of the College’s Museum. Since most of Hunter’s notes concerning the specimens had been lost, Owen was obliged to perform many fresh dissections in order to identify the specimens. His general assistance to Clift included serving as Georges Cuvier’s guide around the Museum in 1830. This encounter led to an invitation to visit Cuvier in Paris, which Owen did the following year. He later considered the experiences of that trip and the contact with Cuvier a major influence on his work. In 1836 Owen was appointed Hunterian professor at the Royal College of Surgeons, an appointment that necessitated his presenting annually a course of twenty-four lectures based on some aspect of the Hunterian Collection.

Owen succeeded Clift as conservator of the Museum and continued in that position until his appointment in 1856 as superintendent of the natural history departments of the British Museum. At that time these departments were still housed with all the other departments of the British Museum in Bloomsbury. In 1859 Owen sent a forceful report to the trustees of the Museum detailing his views and plans for a new building in a separate location to house the natural history departments. There was much talk and little action, until Gladstone took an interest in Owen’s scheme and introduced a bill into Parliament. Finally, in 1871 work was begun on the new Natural History Museum in South Kensington, with the galleries laid out after the design Owen had submitted in 1859. Owen continued as superintendent of the Natural History Museum until after it was fully installed in the new building. He retired in 1884 and was then made K.C.B. After leaving the Royal College of Surgeons, Owen was free to accept the Fullerian lectureship in physiology at the Royal Institution. He also lectured at the Royal School of Mines and on many natural history topics in London and throughout Great Britain. During his career he received most major awards in his fields, including both the Royal and Copley medals from the Royal Society; he was also a member of many British and foreign scientific societies. He served on several royal commissions that dealt with aspects of public health and was president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1858. After a lengthy decline in his health, he died on 18 December 1892 at Sheen Lodge (in Richmond Park), the use of which Queen Victoria had granted him in 1851.

Unfortunately Owen is principally remembered as T. H. Huxley’s antagonist at the 1860 meeting of the British Association and in the ensuing debates over Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. This view neglects his authorship of massive quantities of detailed monographs and papers, which made known many new organisms (both recent and fossil), helped to delineate several natural groups, and laid the bases for much later work by many investigators. The attention of the scientific community was first focused on Owen in 1832 when he published Memoir on the Pearly Nautilus (Nautilus Pompilius, Linn.), which was based on a single specimen of this delicate organism that had previously been known only by its shell. In this superb piece of descriptive anatomy he also modified Cuvier’s Cephalopoda and proposed two orders that were considered valid until 1894. He reviewed the Cephalopoda in an 1836 article for Robert Todd’sCyclopaedia of Anatomy and Physiology. Among many other works on invertebrates, Owen in 1835 described the parasite that causes trichinosis.

In 1828 Owen began dissecting the animals that died in the gardens of the Zoological Society of London and soon after helped to organize the evening scientific meetings, the publication of which became Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London. Of all the exotic forms to which he thus had access probably none interested him more than the monotremes and marsupials . Before his work the means of generation and of feeding the young of these groups was very much a matter for discussion. Through specimens from the Zoological Society and the many specimens collected for him in Australia and New Zealand, Owen was able to establish in a series of papers both the mammalian nature and the egg-laying mode of reproduction of the monotremes. Similarly he was able to present details of the reproductive processes of the marsupials. This work was brought together in the articles “Monotremes” and “Marsupials” in Todd’s Cyclopaedia. Later in his career he was sent and described numerous fossil monotremes and marsupials, which further supported his argument that these forms compose two distinct groups within the Mammalia and that they have long been geographically isolated.

Primates in general and anthropoid apes in particular were of early and lasting interest to Owen, especially in their relation to man. He published many accounts of the anatomy of various primates from the aye-aye to the gorilla. In 1839 Owen began a series, “Contributions to the Natural History of the Anthropoid Apes,” which at first was concerned with the osteology of the orangutans but was broadened to include the other apes as specimens became available, often being sent to him by African explorers. Owen separated man from the, anthropoid apes into a separate subclass of Mammalia, the Archencephala, primarily on the basis of several supposed differences in the gross structure of their brains.

Lyell introduced Owen to Charles Darwin in October 1836, and thus began a long friendship. The following year Darwin turned over to Owen, for description, his South American fossils. Up to this time Owen had not published on any fossils but did have a broad knowledge of the anatomy, especially the osteology, of recent vertebrates. He described Darwin’s Toxodon platensis (1837), and his description of Drawing’s fossils from South America was published as the first volume of The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. “Beagle” (1840). The teeth of some of these fossils intrigued Owen and led him into a major study of the structure of teeth. He addressed a report to the British Association in 1838, which served as the nucleus of his Odontography (1840–1845) and his article, “Odontology,” in Encyclopaedia Britannica (1858). This work on teeth contained a great deal of new information and presented a uniform nomenclature for the teeth and their parts that was of considerable service to zoologists.

In addition to the monographs on comparative anatomy Owen, published several general works. Certain of his Hunterian lectures were published as separate volumes: on invertebrates (1843), on fishes (1844, 1846), and again on invertebrates (1855). Between 1866 and 1868 Owen published the massive On the Anatomy and Physiology of Vertebrates, the conclusion of which contains some of Owen’s views on Darwin’s hypothesis. All of these works were based on the prodigious amount of dissection and observation performed by Owen in preparing the five-volume Descriptive and Illustrative Catalogue of the Physiological Series of Comparative Anatomey of the Royal College of Surgeons’ Museum, of his nearly twenty courses of Hunterian lectures, and of his many research papers.

Owen’s paleontological work began in 1837 with Darwin’s South American fossils and especially with the monograph on the Toxodon that Owen recognized as an intermediate type, with anatomical characteristics normally identified with rodents, cetaceans, and pachyderms. His works on Darwin’s other fossils, for example, Glyptodon and Macrauchenia are no less important. Owen also published on the marsupial characteristics of a group of fossils from the Stonesfield Slate (1838) and the first part of his major Report on British Fossil Reptiles to the British Association (1839, part two in 1841). This two-part Report was the framework on which Owen developed his exhaustive four-volume History of British Fossil Reptiles (1849–1884), which is a separate publication of his collected papers issued principally by the Palaeontographical Society. Also in 1839 Owen received a fragment of a femur from New Zealand, which he identified as belonging to a previously unknown giant terrestrial bird. This first paper on the New Zealand moa developed into a major series of publications on Dinornis and similar flightless birds. In addition, Owen paid particular attention to fossils from South Africa and Australia, the latter in relation to his interest in marsupials, and published many new species and new descriptions of these faunae. Also of interest are his 1842 studies of English Triassic labyrinthodonts and his description of the Jurassic bird Archaeopteryx (1863).

Despite the quantity of Owen’s paleontological work before 1856, his career can be divided in two segments, not only by his place of employment but also by the different emphases of his work. While at the College of Surgeons the principal thrust of his work, and also of that museum,’s collections, was comparative-anatomical. After his transfer to the British Museum with its rich collections of fossils, which Owen further enriched, he naturally changed the emphasis of his work to paleontology. One aspect of this changed emphasis was his series of lecture courses on paleontology at the Royal School of Mines beginning in 1857; they were well-received and later compiled in his popular text paleontology (1860).

Owen made a number of contributions to taxonomy, often modifying and clarifying one or another taxon in the course of his anatomical investigations and in describing many previously unknown species and genera. An excellent example of this work is his recognition of the marsupials as a natural, geographically defined group. Owen did undertake a classification of the Mammalia, in his Rede lecture in May 1859, in which he gave primal import to certain characteristics of the cerebral hemispheres. By these criteria he divided the Mammalia into four subclasses of equivalent value: Lyencephala, Lissencephala, Gyrencephala, and Archencephala (in order of increasing complexity). A strength of Owen’s classification was the close association of the monotremes and marsupials in his Lyencephala. The other three subclasses graded imperceptibly into one another. The Archencephala, moreover, contained just one species, man. Owen believed that his cerebral criteria—anterior and posterior extension of the cerebral hemispheres, the posterior horn of the lateral ventricle, and the presence of a hippocampus minor—separated man further from the anthropoid apes than the latter were separated from the most primitive primates.

Owen’s views on the transmutation of species are not entirely clear, partly on account of his writing style. In 1848 he claimed to have no idea of what the secondary causes may have been by which the Creator introduced new species, and he refrained from publishing on the subject. He did think that there were six possible ways in which the Creator might have acted but would not enumerate them. This, of course, was soon after the publication of Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, a much talked-about book. He had no objection to the notion that the Creator may have worked through secondary causes and recognized that, among animals, there had been an ascent and progression. Owen responded very vigorously to Darwin’s Origin in a long, anonymous attack in the Edinburgh Review for April 1860. He was totally unable to accept the possibility that selective action of external circumstances might cause new species to aris. He observed that no effects of any of the hypothetical transmuting influences had been recorded. His objections were not to evolution’s having occurred but rather that Darwin’s mechanism, natural selection, had not been demonstrated as adequate. He thought “an innate tendency to deviate from parental type” the most probable way that secondary causes have produced one species from another (On the Anatomy and Physiology of the Vertebrates, III, p. 807).

The basic ideas Owen put forth in his Rede lecture had been presented previously in London meetings, one of which T. H. Huxley attended. Huxley doubted the validity of Owen’s subclass Archencephala, investigated the matter to his own satisfaction, and incorporated his opposing findings in his teaching without publishing them. When Owen repeated his views in a discussion following another’s paper at the 1860 meeting of the British Association in Oxford, Huxley was prepared to contradict Owen directly and publicly, stating that he would give evidence to support his contradiction in a more appropriate place. This Huxley did, with the assistance of others, particularly Flower, in a series of publications from 1860 to 1863. Owen simply failed to see certain anatomical structures and relationships. He appears to have operated on the assumption that man possessed unique mental capabilities and that any such unique capabilities must be based in some unique anatomical structure or structures; therefore man could be distinguished from the anthropoid apes by just such structures. Not to be ignored is the fact that many considered Owen to be the preeminent anatomist of his time, and he had held two prominent positions in the British scientific community. In contrast, Darwin had not held any similar position and had already retired, seemingly, to the country; and Huxley, who had backed the argumentative Owen into a corner, was a relative youngster in 1860. These personal factors must have played a role in this whole controversy.

Owen’s comparative-anatomical and paleontological work is in the best Cuvierian tradition and perhaps comparable only to that of Cuvier. At the same time Owen was guided by a strong affinity to that school of thought which strongly repelled Cuvier—German Naturphilosophie. This affinity is amply evidenced by Owen’s further development of the idea of a vertebral archetype, promulgated by Goethe and Carus, in his On the Archetype and Homologies of the Vertebrate Skeleton (1848), his Anatomy of Fishes (1846), and On the Nature of Limbs (1849). It was hardly coincidence that Owen was instrumental in having Oken’s Lehrbuch der Naturphilosophie translated and published in London in 1847. Also, Owen wrote the article “Oken” for the eighth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Through his elaboration of his theory of archetypes, Owen provided a major assist to the much-needed standardization of anatomical nomenclature and greatly clarified the distinction between the anatomical concepts of homology and analogy. In addition, from the Naturphilosophen Owen acquired the notion of a specific character resulting from the interaction of two opposing forces working within the developing embryo. His view that one species might develop from another by “an innate tendency to deviate from the parental type” meshes well with the developmental forces he saw operative in each individual


I. Original Works There are more than 600 titles in Owen’s bibliography. The greatest bulk of his papers are in the collections of the British Museum (Natural History). These include correspondence, notebooks, drafts of papers, and interleaved copies of most of his own books. The Royal College of Surgeons has a smaller but important collection of Owen’s papers, mostly dating from the period when he was there. In addition, letters by Owen are to be found in the papers of his many correspondents.

The most important of Owen’s separate publications include Memoir on the Pearly Nautilus (Nautilus Pompilius, Linn.) (London, 1832); Descriptive and Illustrative Catalogue of the Physiological Series of Comparative Anatomy, 5 vols. (London, 1833–1840); Fossil Mammalia, pt.1 of The Zoology of the Voyage of H. M. S. “Beagle” (London, 1840); Odontography; or a Treatise on the Comparative Anatomy of the Teeth; Their Physiological Relations, Mode of Development, and Microscopic Structure in the Vertebrate Animals (London, 1840–1845); On the Archetype and Homologies of the Vertebrate Skeleton (London, 1848); On the Classification and Geographical Distribution of the Mammalia, Being the Lecture on Sir Robert Rede’s Foundation (London, 1859); Palaeontology, or a Systematic Summary of Extinct Animals and Their Geological Relations (Edinburgh, 1860; 2nd ed., Edinburgh, 1861); and On the Anatomy and Physiology of Vertebrates, 3 vols. (London, 1866–1868). The Life of Sir Richard Owen, cited below, contains an exhaustive chronological bibliography of about 650 items; this is the most complete listing of his works.

II. Secondary Literature The most important source for Owen’s life and work is by his grandson, Rev. Richard Owen, The Life of Sir Richard Owen (London, 1894), which contains an essay by Thomas Henry Huxley, “Owen’s Position in the History of Anatomical Science,” II, 273–332, and the bibliography cited above, II, 333–382. See also William Henry Flower, “Richard Owen,” in Dictionary of National Biography, XIV (1894–1895), 1329–1338

Wesley C. Williams

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Sir Richard Owen

The English zoologist Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892) was one of the greatest comparative anatomists of the 19th century.

Richard Owen was born on July 20, 1804, in Lancaster, where he was apprenticed to a local surgeon in 1820. He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh from 1824, completing his medical studies at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, London. His interest in anatomy led to his appointment in 1827 as assistant curator of the Hunterian Collection of the College of Surgeons in London. In 1831 he went to Paris to attend the lectures of Baron Cuvier, regarded as the world's foremost authority on comparative anatomy. Owen's 1832 "Memoir on the Pearly Nautilus" established his reputation as an anatomist and was largely responsible for his election as a fellow of the Royal Society in 1834. Owen remained at the College of Surgeons until 1856, being appointed Hunterian professor of comparative anatomy and physiology in 1836.

Owen cataloged and classified the specimens held in the college museum and dissected specimens of new species sent to the Zoological Society of London from Australasia. His private research included work on the fossils found in Britain and Australasia, about which he wrote four major books: History of British Fossil Mammals and Birds (1846), History of British Fossil Reptiles (1849-1884), Researches on Fossil Remains of Extinct Mammals of Australia (1877-1878), and Memoirs on Extinct Wingless Birds of New Zealand (1879).

By 1840 Owen was recognized as one of the leading statesmen of British science, and with the passing years he took an increasingly active role in the administration of science. He became the first president of the Microscopical Society (1840) and served on royal commissions on public health (1847). He received many honors in recognition of both his scientific work and his services to the public, including the Wollaston Medal (1838), the Royal Medal (1846), the Copley Medal (1851), and the Prix Cuvier (1857), and was made knight commander of the Bath (1884).

From 1856 until his retirement in 1883, Owen was superintendent of the natural-history collections of the British Museum. He was largely responsible for setting up the new museum buildings in South Kensington.

Owen's original contributions to anatomy and paleontology, besides the original description of many newly found species, included his suggested distinction between homologous and analogous parts of the body. He held to the theory that the structure of all vertebrates could be derived from a common archetype. When Charles Darwin's Origin of Species was published, Owen was its leading opponent among biologists. His review of Darwin's work in the Edinburgh Review (April 1860) was for many years a source of scientific argument against evolution theory. Owen's opposition to Darwin's theory caused him to lose influence among younger scientists. On Dec. 18, 1892, he died at Sheen Lodge, a residence Queen Victoria gave him in 1852.

Further Reading

Richard S. Owen, The Life of Richard Owen (2 vols., 1894), is a biography by Owen's grandson. For a discussion of Owen's contributions to anatomy see Edward Stuart Russell, Form and Function (1916).

Additional Sources

Owen, Richard Startin, The life of Richard Owen, New York: AMS Press, 1975.

Rupke, Nicolaas A., Richard Owen: Victorian naturalist, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994. □

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Owen, Sir Richard (1804-1892)

English biologist

Sir Richard Owen was a comparative anatomist, paleontologist, and zoologist who originated the term "dinosaurus." After insisting that a group of fossils he observed belonged to a separate taxonomic order of extinct reptiles unrecognized at the time, Owen named the animal by combining the Greek words "deinos" for terrible and awe-inspiring with "sauros" meaning lizard. Owen noticed that the dinosaur sacral vertebrae were fused, thereby allowing the animal exceptional strength.

Owen was the Hunterian Professor of Comparative Anatomy and Physiology at the Royal College of Surgeons, London, from 1836 to 1856. He then became the superintendent of the Natural History Section of the British Museum in London in 1849, and was superintendent of the entire museum from 1856 to 1883. He is best known as an influential paleontologist during an exciting time in the nineteenth century, when the fossils of extinct dinosaurs were first discovered and their significance in chronicling Earth's biological history began to be understood. In coining the word "dinosaur," Owen and was largely responsible for kindling the dinosaur mania that began in the mid-nineteenth century, and continues today. His first, great popularizing event was the erection of a series of life-sized models of dinosaurs and other extinct creatures at the Crystal Palace in London in 1854, which created an absolute sensation among the Victorian population. Remarkably, a formal dinner partly was held within the body of one of the giant dinosaurs, a model of Iguanodon, as it was nearing completion. Owen sat at the "head" of the table, in the head of the dinosaur.

Along with his extensive work on extinct species of vertebrates, Owen also conducted some important studies of living animals. One of his works involved the confirmation of the earlier observations of James Paget, that the deadly parasite Trichina spiralis was the cause of trichinosis in humans, and was transmitted by eating inadequately cooked pork.

Owen was a strong opponent of the theory of Charles Darwin concerning natural selection as a critical force of evolution . Throughout his life, Owen refused to accept Darwinian evolution, but modified his anti-evolution views by the mid-1840s. Because of his extensive observations in comparative vertebrate anatomy, Owen eventually asserted that all vertebrate animals evolved from the same archetype, or prototype, that was inspired and created by God. Darwin's most outspoken ally, Thomas Henry Huxley, sparked a 20-year debate with Owen on the principles of evolution that exceeded scientific circles, capturing the attention of Victorian writers, artists, philosophers, and the public at large.

See also Evolution, evidence of; Evolutionary mechanisms; Fossil record; Fossils and fossilization

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Owen, Richard

Owen, Richard, American lawyer, judge, and composer; b. N.Y., Dec. 11, 1922. He graduated from Dartmouth Coll. in 1947 and from Harvard Law School in 1950. He subsequently served as a senior trial attorney, and then was appointed to the bench by President Nixon to the U.S. District Court in N.Y. (1974). In between he attended night school at the Mannes School of Music, took courses in harmony and counterpoint with Vittorio Giannini and Robert Starer, and attended the Berkshire Music Center at Tangle wood. He wrote several operas deeply influenced by Puccini and Menotti, including Dismissed with Prejudice (1956), A Moment of War (1958), A Fisherman Called Peter (1965), Mary Dyer (dealing with a woman Quaker who was hanged in Boston on June 1, 1660; N.Y., June 12, 1976, with Owen’s wife singing the title role), The Death of the Virgin (N.Y., March 31,1983), Abigail Adams (N.Y., March 18, 1987), and the children’s opera Tom Sawyer (N.Y., April 2, 1989).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire

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Sir Richard Owen, 1804–92, English zoologist and comparative anatomist. He studied medicine in Edinburgh and in 1827 joined the staff of the Hunterian museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, where he was first Hunterian professor of comparative anatomy and physiology (1836–56) and also conservator. As superintendent (1856–83) of the natural history department of the British Museum, he organized its removal to South Kensington. Owen's contributions to science were many and important. Although he opposed the theory of evolution, he introduced the important concepts of homology and analogy of animal structure, using his extensive findings in paleontology. His monumental work was the Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue of the Physiological Series of Comparative Anatomy (5 vol., 1833–40).

See biography by his grandson R. S. Owen (1894, repr. 1970).

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Owen, Richard (1804–92) An anatomist and palaeontologist, Owen worked on fossil mammals and reptiles, including those brought back from South America by Darwin. He coined the name ‘dinosaur’, and reconstructed fossil reptiles such as Iguanodon. He believed that animals within a major group (e.g. vertebrates) were variations on a single theme, or ‘archetype’. His crowning achievement was the founding of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London, in 1881.

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Owen, SirRichard (1804–92)An English anatomist and palaeontologist, who worked on fossil mammals and reptiles, including those brought back from South America by Darwin. He coined the name ‘dinosaur’, and reconstructed fossil reptiles such as Iguanodon. He believed that animals within a major group (e.g. vertebrates) were variations on a single theme, or ‘archetype’. His crowning achievement was the founding of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London, in 1881.