Richard Owen

Richard Owen
Born(1804-07-20)20 July 1804
Lancaster, England
Died18 December 1892(1892-12-18) (aged 88)
Richmond Park, London, England
NationalityUnited Kingdom
Alma materUniversity of Edinburgh
St Bartholomew's Hospital
Known forCoining the term dinosaur, presenting them as a distinct taxonomic group.
British Museum of Natural History
AwardsWollaston Medal (1838)
Royal Medal (1846)
Copley Medal (1851)
Baly Medal (1869)
Clarke Medal (1878)
Linnean Medal (1888)
Scientific career
FieldsComparative anatomy

Sir Richard Owen KCB FRMS FRS (20 July 1804 – 18 December 1892) was an English biologist, comparative anatomist and paleontologist. Despite being a controversial figure, Owen is generally considered to have been an outstanding naturalist with a remarkable gift for interpreting fossils.

Owen produced a vast array of scientific work, but is probably best remembered today for coining the word Dinosauria (meaning "Terrible Reptile" or "Fearfully Great Reptile").[2][3] An outspoken critic of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, Owen agreed with Darwin that evolution occurred, but thought it was more complex than outlined in Darwin's On the Origin of Species.[4] Owen's approach to evolution can be seen as having anticipated the issues that have gained greater attention with the recent emergence of evolutionary developmental biology.[5]

Owen was the first president of the Microscopical Society of London in 1839 and edited many issues of its journal – then known as The Microscopic Journal.[6]

Owen also campaigned for the natural specimens in the British Museum to be given a new home. This resulted in the establishment, in 1881, of the now world-famous Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London.[7] Bill Bryson argues that, "by making the Natural History Museum an institution for everyone, Owen transformed our expectations of what museums are for".[8]

His contributions to science and public learning notwithstanding, Owen's driving ambition, occasionally vicious temperament, and determination to succeed meant that he was not always popular with his fellow scientists. Owen was feared and even hated by some contemporaries such as Thomas Henry Huxley. His later career was tainted by controversies, many of which involved accusations that he took credit for other people's work.


Owen was born in Lancaster in 1804, one of six children of a West Indian Merchant named Richard Owen (1754–1809). His mother, Catherine Longworth (nee Parrin), was descended from Huguenots and he was educated at Lancaster Royal Grammar School. In 1820, he was apprenticed to a local surgeon and apothecary and, in 1824, he proceeded as a medical student to the University of Edinburgh. He left the university in the following year and completed his medical course in St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, where he came under the influence of the eminent surgeon John Abernethy.

The young Richard Owen

In July 1835 Owen married Caroline Amelia Clift in St Pancras by whom he had one son, William Owen. He outlived both wife and son. After his death, in 1892, he was survived by his three grandchildren and daughter-in-law Emily Owen, to whom he left much of his £33,000 fortune.

Upon completing his education, he contemplated the usual professional career, but his bent was evidently in the direction of anatomical research. He was induced by Abernethy to accept the position of assistant to William Clift, conservator of the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. This congenial occupation soon led him to abandon his intention of medical practice and his life thenceforth was devoted to purely scientific labours. He prepared an important series of catalogues of the Hunterian Collection, in the Royal College of Surgeons and, in the course of this work, he acquired the unrivalled knowledge of comparative anatomy that enabled him to enrich all departments of the science and especially facilitated his researches on the remains of extinct animals.

Owen was the driving force behind the establishment, in 1881, of the British Museum (Natural History) in London.

In 1836, Owen was appointed Hunterian professor, in the Royal College of Surgeons and, in 1849, he succeeded Clift as conservator. He held the latter office until 1856, when he became superintendent of the natural history department of the British Museum. He then devoted much of his energies to a great scheme for a National Museum of Natural History, which eventually resulted in the removal of the natural history collections of the British Museum to a new building at South Kensington: the British Museum (Natural History) (now the Natural History Museum). He retained office until the completion of this work, in December, 1883, when he was made a knight of the Order of the Bath.[9] He lived quietly in retirement at Sheen Lodge, Richmond Park, until his death in 1892.

His career was tainted by accusations that he failed to give credit to the work of others and even tried to appropriate it in his own name. This came to a head in 1846, when he was awarded the Royal Medal for a paper he had written on belemnites. Owen had failed to acknowledge that the belemnite had been discovered by Chaning Pearce, an amateur biologist, four years earlier. As a result of the ensuing scandal, he was voted off the councils of the Zoological Society and the Royal Society.

Owen always tended to support orthodox men of science and the status quo. The royal family presented him with the cottage in Richmond Park and Robert Peel put him on the Civil List. In 1843, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

He died at home on 15 December 1892 and is buried in the churchyard at Ham near Richmond, Surrey.[10]

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