Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Owen, Sir Richardfree

(1804–1892)
  • Jacob W. Gruber

Sir Richard Owen (1804–1892)

by William Holman Hunt, 1881

© The Natural History Museum, London

Owen, Sir Richard (1804–1892), comparative anatomist and palaeontologist, was born on 20 July 1804 in Lancaster, the sixth and youngest child and second son of Richard Owen (1754–1809) and Catherine Longworth, née Parrin (d. 1838), the daughter of Robert Parrin, a church organist in Lancaster. Owen's father, a merchant in the West Indies trade, was something of a self-made man who had been raised in Fulmer Place, Buckinghamshire, by his maternal grandfather, Richard Eskrigge (his own mother having died in childbirth). Owen's mother was a descendant of French Huguenot immigrants. Like her father a knowledgeable musician, she was a woman of intelligence and social sophistication with close friends as well as more distant relatives in the middle class of the town and county.

At the time of Owen's birth the family was financially well off, living in a large house in the fashionable part of the city. When his father died five years later, however, the effects of the Napoleonic war and the defalcations of a business associate had forced a financial crisis which led to a move to the less fashionable Castle Hill area. There Catherine Owen established a girls' boarding-school that her three unmarried daughters continued to run after her death in 1838.

Education: Lancaster, Edinburgh, and London

In 1810 Owen entered the old-fashioned, half collegiate Lancaster grammar school as a day student. He was said to be somewhat troublesome, a small boy who grew rapidly in his adolescence, neither particularly good at, nor very much interested in, his lessons. Although prone to high jinks and practical jokes, he nevertheless learned Latin (and probably a smattering of French), the arithmetic that passed for mathematics, a bit of theologically orientated philosophy, and some history. Strangely, natural history did not feature in his school education; during the Lancaster years he seemed to have had no interest in the subject. When he was sixteen, unable to proceed to university and intending to become a surgeon-apothecary, he began an apprenticeship with a succession of three masters for the next four years. Not only did he learn the rudiments of medical practice and develop a skill in dissection with a knowledge of human anatomy, but he also discovered his vocation. Now, with the exception of free access to the local library of the Amicable Society, which provided him with scientific literature, provincial Lancaster had little to offer Owen: he left his apprenticeship and went off to the University of Edinburgh to complete his medical qualification.

Owen arrived in Edinburgh in October 1824 but remained for only two terms, during which he completed the classes designed to prepare students for formal admission to medical practice. Except for John Barclay's proprietary course in anatomy he seems not to have been impressed with what he learned at the university, nor to have established close personal associations with either his fellow students or his professors. Barclay's last course, which Owen attended, was in the still novel comparative anatomy that, supported by a large anatomical collection, placed human anatomy in the wider context of the whole of the animal kingdom. Barclay introduced Owen to a generally anti-materialist holistic philosophical approach to what was essentially a purely analytically descriptive field. It was from Barclay's 'earnest teaching', Owen later wrote, that he had first received his 'strong predilection for Zootomical pursuits'. Of more immediate value was Barclay's recommendation that Owen leave Edinburgh and go to London to complete the requirements for membership in the Royal College of Surgeons—thus qualifying to pursue a private medical practice or, as he seemed to desire, to become a naval surgeon. More valuable still was Barclay's letter strongly recommending his student to John Abernethy, then an influential member of the London medical establishment as professor of St Bartholomew's Hospital's ad hoc medical programme and president of the Royal College of Surgeons.

Persuaded by Barclay's advice and with his letter in hand, Owen moved to London soon after the completion of his second term at Edinburgh. On his arrival he still had courses to complete and was too young to qualify for membership in the college but, impressed by Barclay's recommendation, Abernethy dissuaded Owen from his plans for a naval career and took him on as the prosector for his surgical lectures. The appointment, though unpaid, was fortunate in that it relieved Owen of the financial burden entailed by the need to complete the course requirements while at the same time providing him with valuable experience as a practising anatomist. At least as useful in a social system in which ‘interest’ or influence was an important factor in professional success was the sponsorship of so influential a member of the medical establishment. Within a year, immediately after reaching the minimum age requirement of twenty-two, Owen passed the examination for membership of the college. Although he had already given up the idea of becoming a naval surgeon he was still determined to become a medical practitioner and to that end he began his practice close by the college, at 11 Cook's Court on Carey Street, just off Chancery Lane, hoping to draw his patients from the young lawyers in the nearby chambers of the inns of court. With so many young men with similar hopes, the prospect for success was not a particularly happy one. Abernethy's patronage continued, however, the result of which was to change both the career and the life of his protégé.

In the mid-1820s the Royal College of Surgeons was in a difficult position. It found itself one of the targets of the aggressive attacks on the medical establishment by Thomas Wakley in his recently founded medical journal The Lancet. Specifically it was charged with failing to produce a useful catalogue of the collection of John Hunter, which had been purchased by the government in 1800 and entrusted to its care. Without such a catalogue the collection was virtually useless as either an instructional tool or the visual representation of the ideas of the important anatomist and surgeon upon whose reputation the existence of the college rested. William Clift, Hunter's last student-assistant, employed by the college as conservator of the collection, had been unable to produce the long-promised catalogue. With Clift's latest assistant about to leave, Abernethy engineered Owen's appointment as his successor.

Owen's entry into the Hunterian Museum on 7 March 1827 at a salary of £30 per quarter was the beginning of his long and productive career as a natural scientist. The salary, soon increased to £150 per annum, was only just sufficient to satisfy the lifestyle his position required, yet for one his age—without family background or funds—it was a fortunate appointment. The experience with the Hunterian collection, his friendship with its long-time conservator, and the acquaintance of the influential members of the medical establishment at the college exceeded anything that a young man in his early twenties could have hoped for in the way of a training in comparative anatomy and in the making of a professional career.

Hunterian Museum, 1827–1832

Owen fitted in well at the Hunterian. Clift was an easy-going master, an engaging friend, and the professional colleague of many of those who were converting natural history into natural science. His son and presumed successor, William Home Clift, was Owen's age and, with similar interests in music, the theatre, and the bachelor life of pre-Victorian London, the two workmates became friends. In addition, Clift's daughter Caroline Amelia (1801–1873), three years older, soon became Owen's fiancée.

The work of redescribing Hunter's specimens as well as those which were being continually acquired was congenial, even exciting, for one who was entering a new world of activity far removed from the practicalities of the medical profession. To pursue science alone, still primarily the avocation of gentlemen collectors of means, Owen could hardly expect to find an income sufficient to allow him to marry and to establish himself as both a gentleman and a professional. He kept his options open. He maintained a middling medical practice that hardly covered his expenses while attending to the requirements of his position and doing the odd job from which he might earn a bit beyond his museum stipend. From 1828 he gave optional lectures in comparative anatomy at St Bartholomew's while attending to an occasional patient or assisting senior members of the college, particularly in anatomy.

At the beginning of 1830 there was the possibility of change when, having rapidly passed the tests of the Society of Apothecaries, Owen rushed to Birmingham to compete for an open position of hospital surgeon-apothecary. Although it seemed certain that he would receive the appointment, the contrast between the excitement and possibilities in London and the drabness and provincialism of industrial Birmingham led him to return to the college, his friends, and especially Caroline Clift. He resolved to stay and to make his future there as comparative anatomist, a physiologist, or, in its later redefinition, a biologist.

Owen's first task at the Hunterian had been to catalogue the natural history specimens, to be followed by the soft-tissue preparations in spirit, many of which had lost their identifying labels and virtually all of which required dissection and comparison with recently acquired materials. The anonymity of the subsequent publications of the catalogues rankled and was a source of his lifelong concern that he be given appropriate credit for his work. (Indeed, there is still debate whether a number of works were by William Home Clift or by Owen.) The position, however, was much more than that of a technician; the loose definition of his role allowed him opportunities to explore the new territory of comparative anatomy and zoology whose boundaries were being expanded primarily by French savants and their continental colleagues. Occasionally Owen would substitute for William Clift in the obligatory guided tour of the collection for distinguished visitors and, because he knew French, acted as guide to Cuvier for his visit in 1830; reciprocating, Cuvier invited Owen to visit him in his own establishment at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris.

Also in 1830 Owen became the youngest and most active member of a small group, within the recently organized Zoological Society of London, whose interests in zoological research led them to establish, as the de facto research arm of the society, a committee on science and correspondence, to meet fortnightly at the society's museum on Bruton Street 'for the purpose of suggesting and discussing questions and experiments in animal physiology'. At its first meeting late in 1830 Owen described, in what was to be his first publication under his own name, his dissection of a rare orang-utan that had recently died soon after its arrival in the society's gardens. This paper initiated a long series of precisely described anatomical works that, his successor at both the Hunterian and British museums wrote, 'extending over a period of more than fifty years … has done so much to advance the knowledge of comparative anatomy and to give an illustrious place to their author in the annals of science' (W. H. Flower, Essays on Museums and other Subjects Connected with Natural History, 1898, 177). The availability of the specimens from the zoological gardens led Owen to focus on the vertebrates, the class on which most of his subsequent work would depend. The committee operated independently until two years later, when its functions were absorbed into the main Zoological Society, and in that time Owen, although still working on the Hunterian catalogues, contributed twenty-eight papers to its meetings, the largest number of any of its members.

The Royal College of Surgeons provided Owen with a view of what comparative anatomy could be—beyond the descriptions provided by the skilful use of the scalpel in the dissecting room. Since arriving there he had attended, and had been impressed by, J. H. Green's lectures on comparative anatomy in which he introduced his audiences to the transcendental and holistic views of German natural philosophy. Owen recalled thirty years later that:

For the first time in England the Comparative Anatomy of the whole Animal Kingdom was described, and illustrated by such a series of enlarged and coloured diagrams as had never before been seen. The vast array of facts was linked by reference to the underlying Unity [of Nature].

J. Simon, Memoir on the Life of Joseph Henry Green, 1865, 1.xiv

For Owen, coming to comparative anatomy with hardly more philosophy than the easy-going vitalism of Barclay and Abernethy, Green's Anglicized German Romanticism provided a vision of what an integrative natural science could become.

At a more limited and workable level, a sense that comparative anatomy was something more than a succession of individual dissections was reinforced by Owen's visit to Cuvier's establishment in Paris. Seizing the first opportunity available to him Owen spent a month in Paris during his vacation in the summer of 1831. He met Cuvier informally and visited his working establishment and the osteological collection which served as a reference for both his comparative anatomy and the ‘fossil zoology’ which he had virtually invented. Cuvier's teleological functionalism, stressing the designed unity of the organism to play a particular survival role, was different from both Hunter's systemic particularism and Green's universalism. Owen also encountered the implied transformationism of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and the outright materialism of Lamarck's Philosophical Zoology, a copy of which he bought, read, and annotated. None of these different views as to the nature of 'Nature' was totally unknown to him, but to hear them argued out, in private and at public meetings of the Institut de France, was a novel experience.

Back in London, the zoological gardens were proving to be not the only source of Owen's anatomical subjects; the Hunterian Museum received specimens from travellers and members of the College of Surgeons serving in colonial outposts around the world. It was from one of them, George Bennett (subsequently a lifelong friend of Owen), that it received a rare specimen of the pearly nautilus whose shell, outwardly similar to the fossil ammonites commonly found in the Mesozoic marine deposits, was an important desideratum for every shell collector but whose living form had not previously been described. Another singular specimen was the popularly named duck-billed platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus), rare specimens of which the college had received since its first sighting in 1799. First described by Everard Home, it generated a continuing dispute as to its classificatory status in the face of reports that, despite mammalian characteristics, it laid eggs. Owen's ingenious observations on the museum's specimens supported observations of both Blainville and Meckel that, whether egg-laying or not, this strange animal possessed lactating mammae and thus was assuredly mammalian. The publication of the nautilus memoir early in 1832 and Green's presentation to the Royal Society of Owen's paper describing the mammary glands of the platypus shortly thereafter (PTRS, 1832, 517–38) mark the end of a strenuous five-year training period from which he emerged a professional comparative anatomist and a promising member of the scientific community.

Despite the critical success of these accomplishments, Owen's future seemed as bleak as ever. Posts for a comparative anatomist were extremely rare, and never more than a minor adjunct to a more lucrative medical practice. With the tentativeness of his position and the precariousness of financial support, it was impossible for Owen and Caroline Clift to marry, nor did there seem any hope for anything in the future. A year after the excitement of the Paris visit, he was under great stress: Cuvier was dead; the nautilus monograph was not yet in print; he was very busy with his non-curatorial activities beyond the requirements of his appointment; some members of the council were openly critical of his increasing involvement with the Zoological Society; and there was an increasing feeling of frustration at the financial obstacles to his marriage. 'The strongest mind', he wrote to Caroline after a quarrel as to their future, 'after being on the stretch for hours, loses its tone, and is readily rendered irritable and unable to turn and avert the leading steps to misunderstanding' (Owen to Clift, 11 May 1832, Hirtzell Collection, fo1. 16). None of his subsequent successes could or would cancel the difficulties and anxieties of this period when it seemed both his career and his domestic life hung in the balance.

The 'English Cuvier'

Although in 1832 Owen's career remained uncertain, the five years as junior curatorial assistant at the Hunterian provided the foundation for his future career. The particular investigations he initiated and pursued during that period each opened an expanding area of research for which he was not loath to claim proprietary rights. Although primarily a vertebrate specialist, his opportunistic anatomy of the nautilus led him to the invertebrate Cephalopoda, in the description and classification of which he became the recognized expert. Similarly, his initial papers on monotreme and marsupial generation were the beginning of a lifetime's work on the physiology and palaeontology of those primarily Australian orders. The first of his memoirs for the Zoological Society on the orang-utan was the start of a series on the higher apes that demonstrated ever more particularly their close physical affinities with the human species.

Apart from the grounding in both the process and substance of a broadly defined physiology that his experience provided, Owen learned to be a professional. An incessant reader with an unusually retentive memory, he drew on the well-stocked college library for the published tradition; if his citations are to be believed, he was also familiar with a greater part of the extant literature. Moreover, the Hunterian Museum was internationally renowned for its collections; no naturalist would come to London without paying a visit to the museum, whose collections and conservator were more available and helpful than those at the British Museum. From these professionals, as from the active colleagues with whom he worked at the Zoological Society's museum, he acquired the trappings of professionalism; from Clift, who had grown up with the collection, who knew everyone, and who could gossip about them all, he learned something of the institution of science and the politics of its professional practitioners. In short, during the five years Owen was immersed in and became an active member of a still small community whose members were engaged in the construction of a discipline still in the process of definition.

For Owen the most important member of that community was William Buckland who, with Cuvier dead, would become his guide and his patron. When Owen first knew him, probably in 1832, Buckland was at the peak of his career with both a scientific and political influence far beyond that of his Oxford professorship. Buckland was a geologist and not an anatomist but he followed Cuvier's functionalist model in reshaping the fossil fragments into the living forms of the past worlds for which each had been designed. No one could better bring to life the inhabitants of past creations. As the closing event of the highly successful meeting of the newly established British Association for the Advancement of Science in Oxford in 1832 Buckland gave an animated, lengthy public lecture in which, through metaphors that even the least scientific of his large and mixed audience could understand, he breathed life into the giant Megatherium from South America which even in Cuvier's hands had been little more than a marvellous pile of bones. Owen was in the audience and he returned to London excited by the possibilities of the Cuvierian creation of a 'fossil zoology' through the use of comparative anatomy. He immediately sent Buckland proofs of the yet unpublished nautilus memoir for comment. The subsequent correspondence established a close professional and personal friendship from which Owen received counsel, support, and political patronage. Although often referred to as the English Cuvier, Owen was more properly a Buckland disciple who would continue to operate within a Bucklandian ideological framework long after Buckland's descent into the dark world of madness in 1850 and his death six years later.

Professional advancement, 1832–1855

Just when Owen's career prospects seemed bleakest, his future was assured by the death, in September 1832, of William Home Clift in a street accident. Although he was to stay on for another decade as conservator, William Clift never recovered fully from the loss of his son, both at the personal and institutional level. Thus Owen became de facto co-conservator of the Hunterian Museum just at the time that the college was making plans for its major restructuring and expansion. It was a project in which Owen inevitably became involved and from which emerged his interests in the establishment of a national museum of natural history.

During the next decade through his own continuing stream of publications at a time during which an avocational natural history was becoming professionalized in Britain as natural science, Owen transformed himself (under Buckland's patronage) from temporary assistant at the Hunterian to the foremost natural scientist of his generation. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1834. His career successes were reflected in the resolution of the most pressing of his domestic problems: on his thirty-first birthday in 1835, after a long and frustrating wait for both of them, he and Caroline Clift were married.

Owen was wedded as well to his work. What he produced during this initial decade of his professional career constitutes an amazing corpus of a wide range of anatomical and palaeontological publications, most of which were first presented before the Zoological Society, the Royal Society, the Geological Society, the Linnean Society, and the British Association for the Advancement of Science—in all of which he played an increasingly important role. Chief among his anatomical works in addition to the continuing production of the Hunterian catalogues were: those on the marsupials and monotremes of Australia, culminating in his survey of both for Todd's Cyclopedia of Anatomy in 1847; his formal description and classification of the Trichina, first noticed by James Paget when a student at Bart's; a survey of the Cephalopoda in 1836 begun with the nautilus monograph; his grand analysis and comparative survey of dentition, the initial parts of which were published in 1840; and his continuing work on the comparative anatomy of the Primates, which demonstrated the validity on anatomical grounds of the inclusion of the human species within the order and, specially, the close affinity between that species and the higher apes. In all, the more than 150 separate publications in this decade—abstracts, memoirs, monographs, articles, books, and reports—reflect an immense amount of investigative work concurrent with fulfilling regular curatorial duties.

In 1836 Owen was appointed Hunterian professor of comparative anatomy and physiology at the Royal College of Surgeons. One of his first tasks after the inauguration of the renovated and expanded museum in 1837 was to deliver the first of what was to be an annual series of twenty-four lectures. At the same time, he became an active member of the specialist societies on whose councils he served as well as the president of the newly established Microscopical Society, which he helped to found. However, the climax of this decade of intensive activity was his two-part report on the British fossil Reptilia requested and funded by the British Association and presented in 1839 and 1841. It was the kind of work at which he was adept. As a by-product of the rapid development of the work of structural geologists and amateur collectors, a wide variety of fossil remains of large and primarily extinct reptiles were scattered unclassified among the various public and private natural history collections in Britain. It was Owen's task, brilliantly accomplished, to examine as many collections as were available, describe the fossils, and arrange them in some anatomically based classification. The result served as the basic reference for the rest of the century. In the second part of the report he defined a coherent category of large terrestrial reptiles to which he gave the ordinal name Dinosauria, and it is on this that much of his popular reputation rests. At this time too, in good Cuvierian fashion and on the basis of a single fragment of a fossilized bone, he predicted the presence of an extinct but varied terrestrial avian fauna in New Zealand, a prediction that was fully realized by subsequent discoveries. Early in 1842, only a decade after his first major publication, Owen succeeded Clift as resident conservator of the Hunterian. In the same year, through Buckland's influence, he also received a civil-list pension of £200 per annum. Thirty-eight years old, he had become Professor Owen, a major figure in the London scientific establishment. With his election three years later to membership in The Club, an exclusive literary society, he extended his relationships to the wider intellectual community. He had become a member of the intellectual élite, an active member of a new aristocracy of merit.

Later, at the height of his career, in response to a request for biographical information, Owen merely listed his major works, his professional affiliations and his honours, and concluded disingenuously:

The peaceful career of this indefatigable cultivator of Natural Knowledge has been a continued series of labours for the promotion of scientific truth and its practical application to the well-being of mankind; & the titles of his Publications form the best illustrations of his life.

No period of his career better illustrates the evasiveness of this autobiographical fragment than his varied activities of the mid-1840s to mid-1850s, during which he extended his territory from the zoo-anatomical analyses of the living to fragmented evidences of those from a bygone past; from the position of laboratory scientist to that of theorist; and from the position of scientist to that of government consultant and spokesman for natural science to the public at large.

Although still the comparative anatomist, the focus of Owen's science was shifting from zoology to palaeontology. As with his earlier encounter with Cuvier, his discovery of the fossil past, first with Buckland and then through the analysis of Darwin's South American collections, was something of an epiphany that opened a whole new area of creative effort. More and more he was asked to report on the increasing flow of fossils from Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa—sent to the Hunterian for his description and explication. He had become a palaeontologist whose seemingly magical success in recreating the long-extinct vertebrates depended upon collaborative data from both the anatomy of the living and the fragmentary fossil evidences of the past. His publications during the 1840s comprise an almost bewildering collection of important contributions to both palaeontology and comparative anatomy, from that of the Mylodon (and the subsequent classification of the whole of the extinct and living Edentata) to a review of British fossil mammals and birds to match that of the reptiles; descriptions of the anatomy of the living monotremes and marsupials of Australia and their extinct forebears; and dissections of chimpanzee, orang-utan, and, finally, the recently available gorilla. Averaging some ten descriptive articles a year, he wandered through the extended research territory which he had cleared and not infrequently claimed as his own. In addition there were lengthier monographs and the annual lecture series for the college which, under his revision of the charter of the lectureship, became an open-ended textbook on the changing state of contemporary natural science.

Owen's most important works of the period were the longer essays On the Archetype and Homologies of the Vertebrate Skeleton (1848) and On the Nature of Limbs (1849). Coming after almost twenty years of an intense familiarity with both the extreme diversity of the organic world as well as what seemed the patterns which underlay it, he realized the need, as others had before him, to understand and to describe the forces that not only held the system together but also directed its changes through time. The rapidly increasing fund of detailed information from geology, palaeontology, biography, and anatomy was shifting the focus from detailed studies of the Cuvierian sort to the processual questions of diversity and to that 'mystery of mysteries', the origin of species. Other than the occasional biblicist on the periphery, all geologists accepted a long period of strata building in the history of the earth; and virtually all natural scientists rejected the ideas of a continuous particularized creative process to explain the novelties that palaeontology was constantly producing. By the mid-1840s most were willing to consider the possibility that, except for the origin of the human species—considered to be the special concern of a creating deity—the whole of the natural universe owed its structure to a creative plan rather than a continuing process of ad hoc creative intrusions. In response, there was a re-emergence of Geoffroyan holism, of German Romanticism, and Lamarckian transformationism. As the foremost palaeontologist and comparative anatomist of his generation, Owen felt the need to enter the field. As with much of his work, his response, the concept of the archetype, was an eclectic one to which he added his own positive mark.

Owen's development of archetypes

Owen's invention of the admittedly idealist archetype was based empirically on his valuable clarification of the commonly used but vaguely defined term, analogy, to describe cross-species comparisons. Analogy, important in Cuvierian teleology, was to be restricted to similarities of use or function, such as the wings of a fly and those of a bird; Owen's verbal invention, 'homology', was to note similarities of structure or form, such as the wings of a bird and the forelimbs of a horse. Analogical similarities reflected ad hoc adaptations to changing conditions and needs, functional in the Cuvierian sense; homological similarities, on the other hand, had their origins in an idealized simple form which gave rise to more particularized 'descendent' forms through a variety of 'secondary laws' or processes according to changing functional demands, but always in a progressive direction described graphically by a natural classificatory system with the human species at its apex. Owen's explication of the archetype, its origins, and its generative power was never very clear. It was, however, a fail-safe position, as yet inexplicable and perhaps unknowable, but both the idealization and heuristic reification of a ‘primary cause’ (and the presumably divinely inspired creative design that activated it). Owen, and some of his advocates, thought he had solved the problem of both diversity and progress; his critics knew, however, that he had only verbalized it. There were those who, like Owen himself, saw in the controlled process of change from an inchoate beginning through continuing progress by means of a variety of secondary causes (of which adaptive selection was one) an anticipation of Darwin's theory of the origin of species through natural selection. Superficially the two touch each other here and there, but the essential idealism of the archetype model, theological in spirit and in fact, mark it as distinct from and in opposition to the materialism of Darwin's more restricted view. Owen's attempt to resolve the problem of diversity, change, and progress through the construction of the ideal archetype as universal ancestor with some invested 'power' demonstrates, both in its eclecticism and in its philosophical confusion, his limitations as a philosopher or grand theorist.

The utility of the homology–analogy distinction and the divinely inspired progressionism of his archetype confirmed for an admiring constituency Owen's professional eminence. That, however, did not sit well with his employers at the college, who were concerned that the servant was becoming the master—something of a possibility when Owen sought, though unsuccessfully, to become a member of its council. From the beginning of his appointment as curator in 1842, a continuing series of frustrating controls was imposed on his activities by the council, not least of which was its refusal to sanction a broadening role and increased independence for the museum. Increasingly Owen found his position becoming too restrictive. He wanted out. He was virtually certain in 1851 that he would be appointed head of the important mineral and geology department at the British Museum, but he was passed over; he toyed with the idea of succeeding to the chair of natural history at the University of Edinburgh but the conditions were too restrictive; and he talked of accepting an invitation to the United States with its enthusiastic and welcoming audiences for visiting British lecturers. He was, however, too deeply rooted in London to move and, despite difficulties with his employers, the museum served as an important base for the continuation of his research. As a sign of royal favour for his accomplishments, in 1852 he was awarded lifetime occupation of Sheen Lodge in Richmond Park where he lived as something of a country gentleman, enjoying the garden he cultivated. Finally, in 1856, at the urging of influential friends, Owen was appointed superintendent of the natural history departments of the British Museum, a position newly created for him (but with duties poorly defined).

During the years leading up to this appointment—those of his greatest reputation—Owen's difficulties were not only institutional. Increasingly both he and his science were coming under attack from a younger group of professional natural scientists, building their careers upon different conceptual foundations. They drew their inspiration from German developmental anatomy and the new morphology that was replacing the increasingly outmoded French tradition, so important a part of Owen's practice. T. H. Huxley, who was to become Owen's most vocal opponent and the leader of this new generation, was quick to pick up on the personal and ideological conflicts on his return in 1851 from his own exploratory voyage to the south Pacific. 'Owen is both feared and hated', he wrote in an unusually perceptive comment:

It is astonishing with what an intense feeling of hatred [he] is regarded by the majority of his contemporaries … The truth is, he is the superior of most, and does not conceal that he knows it, and it must be confessed that he does some very ill-natured tricks now and then … Owen is an able man, but to my mind not so great as he thinks himself.

L. Huxley, Life and Letters of Thomas Huxley, 1900, 1.93–4

There were bitter conflicts over matters of fact and priority and Owen damaged his own reputation by what were considered ill-natured attacks on Gideon Mantell and the perceived unfairness of his anonymous review of Lyell's anti-progressionism. Huxley's open criticisms of Owen's science and his barely veiled attacks on his professional character in a series of trenchant papers opened a rift between the two men which was to last for the rest of their lives.

British Museum and opposition to Darwin, 1856–1881

Owen's career as a natural scientist reached its climax at the end of the 1850s. His move to the British Museum provided him with a recognized position of eminence within the scientific community and a platform for the diffusion of his views both to a lay and professional audience. Relieved from the frustrations of the college's control of his outside activities, as well as curatorial responsibilities for which he was not temperamentally fitted, he was free to construct his own programme. He accepted a long-postponed three-year appointment as Fullerian professor of physiology at the Royal Institution and, at the same time, initiated a palaeontological lecture series at the School of Mines. For the next decade he was also a popular lecturer to provincial audiences eager to learn the latest truths from the foremost expert in natural science. With his diagrams and his drawings hung on the wall behind him, he was equally eager to satisfy their demands, to earn the fees they offered, and to educate the public in the particular value of science in the search for the ultimate truth which underlay and would explain the whole of organized nature.

In 1858 both Owen's scientific merits and the political role he had come to play in the scientific institution were recognized by his election to the presidency of the British Association. The following year he was invited to give the first of the renewed Reade lectures at Cambridge. Taking advantage of the opportunity, he laid out his new classification of the mammals, the first since that of Cuvier, in which he used neural distinctions in conjunction with the traditional classificatory criteria to provide a more natural classification of the class. Through such a classification he sought to demonstrate that the presumed distinction of human mind possessed a physical correlate in the brain that justified a distinct subclass of which the human species would be the only occupant. In general his new classification was respectfully received even by his opponents, although the elevation of human singularity provided the springboard for the violent attacks against his anatomy a year later.

Owen had become a statesman of science, one whose demonstrated excellence recommended him as a consultant to government as it became increasingly obvious that the complexity of problems within the control of government required the knowledge and competence that specialist scientists alone could provide. It was a relationship which he was willing to exploit in his effort to seek a greater—and separate—role for the natural history department of the British Museum.

These years of Owen's success were a period of significant changes in both concept and method for the analysis and understanding of the increasingly complex problems raised by the rapidly accumulating data from the natural world. A process of continuing change was replacing the stasis of designed creation as an essential assumption in the construction of a natural philosophy. The new physiology from Germany was redirecting, if not indeed replacing, the functional comparative anatomy of the French. The vast expansion of knowledge of the living world as well as that of the repopulation of eons past by palaeontology raised questions that traditional views seemed unable to answer. Ideas of the essential unity of organic nature and, in one form or another, transformationism threatened the accepted view of what was at its basis the fixity of the Cuvierian world. Owen was caught in the middle. Not unsympathetic to the new physiology and having himself created a limited transformationist model in his vertebrate archetype, he considered himself still a Cuvierian for whom the species itself was an unchanging reality. His inability, during the critical decade of the 1850s, to accommodate fully to the changes that were occurring and the controversies to which they led dislodged him from the position of leadership and prestige which he had finally attained.

The most serious confrontation arising from Owen's position—and that which unfairly later defined his place in history—was that initiated with the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species. The hastily arranged reading in mid-1858 of the brief reports of Darwin and A. R. Wallace on the importance of natural selection as the means by which new species arise alerted Owen to the serious threat posed to his ideological position. As shocking as the doctrine itself was the fact that so important a solution to what was essentially a zoological problem was the product of neither a professional anatomist nor a zoologist but of two naturalists with limited training or experience as either. His irritation is clear in his intemperate review, in the Edinburgh Review (111, 1860, 487–532), of the more detailed Origin a few months after its publication, in which unfairly—almost insultingly—he questioned Darwin's professional competence to discuss the species question. Darwin might have been the field naturalist extraordinaire, but for Owen both the definition of the problem of organic diversity and the search for its solution lay in the laboratory, his laboratory in particular. There precise anatomical dissections could (and could alone) provide the lines of division between species, the only real units of classification. A career in the laboratory, 'going from bone to bone', had not prepared him for the shift to the living population as the unit of species definition and change upon which Darwin had based his theory. In preparing his review Owen was blinded by Darwin's humility in the discussion of species through which he concluded that like the other increasingly inclusive classificatory units the species too was the product of the classifier rather than of nature.

Ignoring most of the remainder of Darwin's carefully arranged argument, Owen attacked the heresy of species indeterminance with a bitterness that many thought was the result of personal pique at being upstaged. The use of his own works in the same review as the basis for his attack merely supported such a view. Beyond the personal, however, was Owen's inability to abandon the concept of fixed species; to do so would have meant the crumbling of the whole essentially static system of organic creation to the demonstration of which he had devoted so much of his scientific activity and thought. 'That classification is the task of science, but species the work of nature', with which he concluded his long review, is a statement of his scientific faith that was impossible for him to abandon.

As important and disagreeable as the materialism of the theory itself were its implications for the equally important ‘man question’, the nature of the species and the place it occupied in a nature from whose workings divine concern had been excluded. Owen was caught between two positions: attempting to find a middle way between the proofs, many of which he had himself provided, of the physical affinities between the human species and the rest of the primates on the one hand, and its divinely inspired nature on the other, he was attacked by both the biblicists for the one and the scientists for the other. Huxley publicly attacked Owen's attempted anatomical demonstration of the physical locus for uniqueness of the human brain. Owen's subsequent maintenance of that position in the face of repeated proofs of his error merely emphasized his fallibility as an anatomist. Huxley's attacks on Owen's science and ideology (as well as Owen's own behaviour in continuing to defend the indefensible) alienated a new generation with whom he had little in common socially or scientifically. Not all were so open in their dislike as one distinguished scholar who even a decade after Owen's death was still sufficiently bitter to write that 'Owen was a [damned] liar. He lied for God and for malice. A bad case' (E. Clodd, Memories, 1926). Nevertheless, many other young scientists felt much the same. Moreover, Owen's friends, colleagues, and sympathizers of his own generation were dying, their work, like his, challenged and superseded by their successors.

Owen recognized his estrangement from the new biology and its leaders. For the rest of his life, with only an occasional return to anatomy, he restricted his scientific work to the continuing description and classification of the accumulated and accumulating fossil material from England and the colonies. He had become irrelevant to the new biology. In these later years, he was honoured more by the medical establishment than by the scientific.

With the publication of his Palaeontology in 1860 and his three-volume Anatomy of the Vertebrates (1866–8), however, Owen began to bring his separate works together to serve as visible and useful monuments of his career. Anatomy was followed by compilations of his long-continued series of works on the extinct mammals of Australia (1877–8), on the extinct avian fauna of New Zealand (1879), and on British fossil reptiles (1884). He saw these not only nor so much as monuments to his own industry but also as sometimes faltering steps in the progress of science from which his successors might learn.

The Natural History Museum

Owen's retreat into palaeontology was made easier by his continuing efforts, initially against the almost unanimous opposition of his scientific colleagues, to establish a separate and independent natural history museum. Although he had long considered the need for such an institution it was only in 1859, after he had become familiar with the unsatisfied needs of natural science within the structure of the British Museum, that he formally proposed a plan for a new museum to be erected in South Kensington. Although initially blocked by partisan political rivalries, his plan was approved and work begun in the early 1870s. The museum's official opening in 1881 was Owen's last, and most important, contribution to natural science. It was the realization of a vision that he had pursued for almost the whole of his career. Brock's welcoming statue, now, after some controversy, standing on the landing of the great staircase facing the entrance of Waterhouse's impressive neo-Gothic structure, is symbolic of the public role he sought for professional science.

With all the collections finally transferred from the cramped Bloomsbury quarters to their new galleries in South Kensington, and with a knighthood conferred on 5 January 1884, Owen retired to Sheen Lodge but still continued his work of a lifetime in the new museum. Embittered by the incomprehensible suicide of his only son in 1886, he grew old among his grandchildren, none of whom was to understand or appreciate his accomplishments. He died on 18 December 1892 at Sheen Lodge. On 23 December his body, followed by a small but distinguished delegation representing both science and the public, was carried to the cemetery in Ham churchyard where he was buried alongside Caroline, who had died in 1873.

Lasting impressions

History has served Owen poorly. Although his death was recorded in the popular press it caused little excitement. It was Darwinian theory which framed natural science, and he had been its most serious opponent. 'Owen must have been a wonderful manipulator & anatomist as well as acute observer; but I think', commented a contemporary at his death, 'his life shows that it is brain which tells in the long run. It is not the no. or weight of a man's papers but the point in them by which he is ultimately estimated' (J. W. Gregory to C. D. Sherborn, 3 March 1893, BL, Add. MS 42580, fols. 69–70). Further, the manner of his opposition—the most public of the controversies which punctuated his career—has obscured his role as the most important and most influential natural scientist of his generation. Even in a period when controversy was an acceptable part of intellectual discourse he handled it poorly. Too often he considered a personal attack and invested too much of his ego in the demonstration of error. Whether in a letter to the public press, an anonymous review, or personal encounter, his response went too often beyond the limits of gentlemanly behaviour and was considered to be hurtful rather than helpful.

Owen's accomplishments, however, were many and important, his role only recently being reassessed in a fuller understanding of the history of natural science. It was indeed by standing on his shoulders that his successors were able to see further. As significant as any of his more particular contributions which the extensive record of publications describes was his ability to bring order out of the accumulating chaos of the collectors' cabinets and the conflicting methodologies used to account for them. His annual series of Hunterian lectures at the College of Surgeons, his review of the whole of comparative anatomy, his compilations of his works in palaeontology and, in particular, the initial ordering of the fossil reptiles and mammals of Britain, the virtual creation of a comparative vertebrate osteology and odontology, and his design for the Natural History Museum—all laid the groundwork for others who, as intended in the assumption of a progressing science, would alter their shape and challenge their substance.

An essential aspect of Owen's personality was the sense of himself as a performer and as such he was never unaware of his audience, whether on the lecture platform, amid controversy, or in the many carefully composed and written letters he sent to family, friends, and colleagues. From his early years he had a deep and continuing interest in music and the theatre: he had an acceptable baritone voice and enjoyed harmony singing; he played well both the flute and the cello, either or both of which he would carry along with him when visiting friends whom he could join in an informal concert; and when in London he attended concerts and plays and was in awe of the talents exhibited by professionals in both, some of whom became friends. Except for music, however, his tastes in the theatre and in popular literature, which he read almost compulsively, were commonplace. Nevertheless, he was also a great teller of stories, recalling and sometimes embellishing anecdotes of his own history in which he would take on the characters of the participants.

Physically Owen was an imposing figure. Six feet tall, his thinness made him seem taller. Handsome in his younger years, he seemed to grow more gaunt as he aged, but until his last years he never lost the romantic flair of his public presence. William Flower, who knew him well, noted specially his 'massive head, lofty forehead, curiously round, prominent and expressive eyes, high cheek bones, large mouth and projecting chin, long, lank, dark hair, and during the greater part of his life, smooth-shaven face and very florid complexion' (Plarr). His eyes were particularly remarkable in their intensity, a character which Holman Hunt caught in his portrait of 1881.

Late in life, after the appearance of the characteristic Vanity Fair caricature, Owen scribbled a brief note on a scrap of paper:

Vanity Fair says that I am a ‘bit of a dandy;’ Mr. W. K. Parker calls me a ‘parlour anatomist’ and ‘Lotus Eater’. … How difficult it is to know oneself & how much one ought to be obliged to those who are so kind as to help us to that hardest of all knowledge.

private information

It is just such a difficulty in defining who he was that makes it difficult to understand some of the contradictions in his own behaviour. He kept his own counsel and, as he wrote to his fiancée early in his courtship, 'I have from early life been thrown among strangers and have had greater control over my actions than is usual' (Owen to Caroline Clift, 3 May 1832, Temple University, Hirtzell Collection, fol. 15). In his work he was essentially a ‘loner’, acrimoniously protective of his interests and the proprietary rights to the research territory he laid out for himself but genial in the company of others where there could be no threat to that which he possessed.

Late in life Owen doubted even what he had earlier gratefully accepted as his single-minded divinely granted dedication as a 'cultivator of Natural Knowledge [through] a continued series of labours for the promotion of scientific truth and its practical application to the welfare of mankind'. Having only recently retired from the museum, and with his own research winding down, he wrote to an old student and faithful friend who had become a very successful ophthalmologist, wondering which of them had chosen the better career path:

We can both look back, now to much life-work in our respective walks; but yours must have left many grateful memories of direct reliefs, of gifts, indeed, of the most precious of our bodily senses. My labours, when successful, bear but remotely on the needs of our fellow mortals.

Owen to W. W. Cooper, 12 Dec 1884, London, Wellcome L., Owen MS 64

Notwithstanding doubts he may have had about his own choice of career, Owen welcomed the many honours he attracted throughout his life, from the Geological Society's Wollaston medal in 1838 for his work on Darwin's fossils to the first of the Linnean medals, jointly with Joseph Hooker, of the Linnean Society in 1888 for the corpus of his work through his career of more than half a century. Among the most satisfying were both the royal and Copley medals of the Royal Society in 1846 and 1851; membership in the Légion d'honneur in 1855 and the Prix Cuvier of the Institut de France in 1856; the Baly medal of the Royal College of Physicians in 1869, and the new honorary medal of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1883; honorary degrees from the universities of Edinburgh (1847), Oxford (1852), and Cambridge (1859); and from Queen Victoria, creation as commander of the Bath in 1873 and knight commander of the Bath in 1884.

Sources

  • N. A. Rupke, Richard Owen: Victorian naturalist (1994) [incl. full bibliography]
  • R. Owen, The life of Richard Owen, 2 vols. (1894) [incl. full bibliography of Owen's pubns]
  • J. W. Gruber and J. C. Thackray, Owen Centenary (1992)
  • R. Owen, The Hunterian lectures in comparative anatomy, May–June, 1837, ed. P. R. Sloan (1992)
  • A. Desmond, The politics of evolution: morphology, medicine and reform in radical London (1989)
  • Temple University, Philadelphia, Hirtzell Collection, fols. 15, 16
  • L. Wilson, ‘The gorilla and the question of human origins: the brain controversy’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 51 (1996), 184–207
  • V. G. Plarr, Plarr's Lives of the fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, rev. D'A. Power, 2 vols. (1930)
  • private information (2004)

Archives

  • American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, corresp. and papers
  • BL, Add. MSS 33348, 34406–34407, 39954–39955, 42579–42582, 49978
  • CUL, corresp.
  • GS Lond., corresp. and papers
  • Linn. Soc., corresp. and papers
  • NHM, corresp. and papers
  • NL Scot., corresp.
  • RCS Eng., corresp. and papers
  • RCS Eng., family corresp.
  • Shrewsbury School, annotated copy of Origin of species
  • Temple University, Philadelphia, corresp. and papers
  • U. St Andr. L., corresp.
  • Wellcome L., letters
  • BL, corresp. with Benjamin Dockray, Add. MS 33348
  • BL, corresp. with W. E. Gladstone, Add. MSS 44397–44501, passim
  • BL, corresp. with Sir Robert Peel, Add. MSS 40518–40600, passim
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Sir Henry Acland
  • CUL, letters to Sir George Stokes
  • GS Lond., letters to Roderick Murchison
  • Maison d'Auguste Comte, Paris, letters to Henri Ducrotay de Blainville
  • NA Scot., corresp. with Sir Charles Murray
  • NHM, letters to Albert Gunther and R. W. T. Gunther
  • NL NZ, letters to Gideon Algernon Mantell
  • NL Scot., corresp. with Blackwoods
  • NL Wales, letters to Sir Henry De la Beche
  • NL Wales, letters to Sir George Cornewall Lewis
  • NRA, priv. coll., letters to Sir Norman Moore
  • Oxf. U. Mus. NH, letters to John Phillips [copies]
  • RBG Kew, letters to Sir William Hooker
  • RS, letters to William Buckland
  • RS, corresp. with Sir John Herschel
  • Trinity Cam., letters to William Whewell
  • UCL, corresp. with Sir Edwin Chadwick
  • Wellcome L., letters to Henry Lee

Likenesses

  • H. W. Pickersgill, oils, 1845, NPG
  • W. Brockedon, black and red chalk drawing, 1847, NPG
  • W. Brockedon, chalk drawing, 1847, NPG
  • H. W. Pickersgill, oils, 1852, St Bartholomew's Hospital, London
  • W. Walker, mezzotint, 1852 (after H. W. Pickersgill), BM, NPG
  • Maull & Polyblank, photograph, 1855, NPG
  • C. Hopley, pastel drawing, exh. RA 1869, RCS Eng.
  • E. Griset, caricature, pen and watercolour drawing, 1873 (with Mr. Bryce-Wright), V&A
  • W. H. Thornycroft, plaster bust, 1880, RCS Eng.
  • W. H. Hunt, oils, 1881, NHM [see illus.]
  • R. Lehmann, drawing, 1890, BM
  • T. Brock, bronze statue, 1895, BM
  • A. Gilbert, bronze bust, 1895, RCS Eng.
  • Barraud, photograph, NPG; repro. in Men and Women of the Day (1888)
  • E. Edwards, carte-de-visite, NPG
  • E. Edwards, photograph, NPG; repro. in L. Reeve, ed., Portraits of men of eminence, 1 (1863)
  • Elliott & Fry, carte-de-visite, NPG
  • attrib. W. Etty, watercolour drawing (after Pickersgill), RCS Eng.
  • W. H. Gilbert, oils (as an old man), Lancaster Museum and Art Gallery
  • Lock & Whitfield, woodburytype photograph, NPG; repro. in T. Cooper, Men of mark: a gallery of contemporary portraits (1878)
  • T. H. Maguire, lithograph, BM; repro. in T. H. Maguire, Portraits of honorary members of the Ipswich Museum (1852)
  • Mason & Co., carte-de-visite, NPG
  • H. J. Thaddeus, mezzotint (aged eighty-five), BM, NPG
  • H. J. Thaddeus, oils (as an old man), Lancaster Town Hall
  • J. & C. Watkins, carte-de-visite, NPG
  • chromolithograph caricature, NPG; repro. in VF (1 March 1873)
  • engravings (after photographs), BM, NPG
  • oils, Lancaster Museum and Art Gallery
  • stone bust, Lancaster Museum and Art Gallery

Wealth at Death

£33,201 9s. 4d.: probate, 26 Jan 1893, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)