20 July 1804|
18 December 1892 (aged 88)|
Richmond Park, London
University of Edinburgh|
St Bartholomew's Hospital
|Known for||Natural History Museum|
Owen's technical descriptions of vertebrates were important. His Comparative Anatomy and Physiology of Vertebrates (3 vols. London 1866–1868) was a standard reference work for many years.
His career was tainted by accusations that he failed to give credit to the work of others and even tried to appropriate it under his own name.
Controversies with his peers[change | change source]
- "Owen: the most distinguished vertebrate zoologist and palaeontologist... but a most deceitful and odious man." Richard Broke Freeman (Charles Darwin: a Companion. Dawson 1978)
Owen credited himself and Georges Cuvier with the discovery of the Iguanodon, completely excluding any credit for the original discoverer of the dinosaur, Gideon Mantell. This was not the first or last time Owen would deliberately claim a discovery as his own, when in fact it was not. Owen was finally dismissed from the Royal Society's Zoological Council for plagiarism.
Owen was highly critical of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, in part because Darwin did not refer much to the previous scientific theories of evolution. Instead, Darwin compared the theory of evolution by natural selection with the unscientific theory in the Bible.
Owen, in Darwin's opinion, was "Spiteful, extremely malignant, clever; the Londoners say he is mad with envy because my book is so talked about". "It is painful to be hated in the intense degree with which Owen hates me".
- "At the root was Owen’s feeling that Kew should be subordinate to the British Museum (and to Owen) and should not be allowed to develop as an independent scientific institution with the advantage of a great botanic garden." 
In the first part of his career Owen was regarded rightly as one of the great scientific figures of the age. In the second part of his career his reputation slipped. This was not solely due to his underhanded dealings with colleagues; it was also due to the serious errors of scientific judgement which were discovered and publicized. A fine example was his decision to classify man in a separate sub-class of the Mammalia (see Thomas Henry Huxley). In this Owen had no supporters at all. Also, his unwillingness to come off the fence concerning evolution became increasingly damaging to his reputation as time went on.
References[change | change source]
- Rupke, Nicolaas 1994. Richard Owen: Victorian naturalist. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- Darwin 1887, p.149
- Darwin & Seward 1903, p.300
- Turrill W.B. 1963. Joseph Dalton Hooker. Nelson, London. p90.
- Desmond A. 1982. Archetypes and ancestors: paleontology in Victorian London 1850-1875. Muller, London.
- Sir Richard Owen: the archetypal villain