Early life and career
Owen was born in Lancaster and 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.
He then contemplated the usual professional career but his bent was evidently in the direction of anatomical research. He was induced by Abernethy to accept the position of assistant to William Clift, conservator of the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. This congenial occupation soon led him to abandon his intention of medical practice and his life henceforth was devoted to purely scientific labours. He prepared an important series of catalogues of the Hunterian collection, in the Royal College of Surgeons and, in the course of this work, he acquired the unrivalled knowledge of comparative anatomy, which enabled him to enrich all departments of the science and especially facilitated his researches on the remains of extinct animals. In 1836, he 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). He retained office until the completion of this work, in 1884, when he received the distinction of K.C.B. and thenceforward lived quietly in retirement at Sheen Lodge, Richmond Park, until his death.
His later career was tainted by numerous accusations of failing to give credit to the work of others and even trying to appropriate it in his own name. This came to a head in 1844, when he claimed sole credit for material in his paper on belemnites, which had clearly already been presented to the Geological Society by Chaning Pearce, a few years earlier. He was as a consequence 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. His somewhat fawning elitism attracted elite conservative patrons. The royal family presented him with the cottage in Richmond Park and Robert Peel put him on the Civil List.
Work on invertebrates
While occupied with the cataloguing of the Hunterian collection, Owen did not confine his attention to the preparations before him but also seized every opportunity to dissect fresh subjects. He was especially favoured with the privilege of investigating the animals which died in the Zoological Society's gardens and, when that society began to publish scientific proceedings, in 1831, he was the most voluminous contributor of anatomical papers. His first notable publication, however, was his Memoir on the Pearly Nautilus (London, 1832), which was soon recognized as a classic. Henceforth, he continued to make important contributions to every department of comparative anatomy and zoology, for a period of over fifty years. In the sponges, Owen was the first to describe the now well-known Venus's flower basket or Euplectella (1841, 1857). Among Entozoa, his most noteworthy discovery was that of Trichina spiralis (1835), the parasite infesting the muscles of man in the disease now termed trichinosis (see also, however, Sir James Paget). Of Brachiopoda he made very special studies, which much advanced knowledge and settled the classification, which has long been adopted. Among Mollusca, he not only described the pearly nautilus, but also Spirula (1850) and other Cephalopoda, both living and extinct and it was he who proposed the universally-accepted subdivision of this class into the two orders of Dibranchiata and Tetrabranchiata (1832). The problematical Arthropod Limulus was also the subject of a special memoir by him, in 1873.
Work on fish, reptiles and birds
Owen's technical descriptions of the Vertebrata were still more numerous and extensive than those of the invertebrate animals. His Comparative Anatomy and Physiology of Vertebrates (3 vols., London, 1866-1868) was indeed the result of more personal research than any similar work since Georges Cuvier's Leçons d'anatomie comparée. He not only studied existing forms but also devoted great attention to the remains of extinct groups and immediately followed Cuvier, as a pioneer in vertebrate paleontology. Early in his career, he made exhaustive studies of teeth, both of existing and extinct animals and published his profusely illustrated work on Odontography (1840-1845). He discovered and described the remarkably complex structure of the teeth of the extinct animals which he named Labyrinthodonts. Among his writings on fishes, his memoir on the African lungfish, which he named Protopterus, laid the foundations for the recognition of the Dipnoi by Johannes Muller. He also later pointed out the serial connection between the teleostean and ganoid fishes, grouping them in one sub-class, the Teleostomi.
Most of his work on reptiles related to the skeletons of extinct forms and his chief memoirs, on British specimens, were reprinted in a connected series in his History of British Fossil Reptiles (4 vols., London, 1849-1884). He published the first important general account of the great group of Mesozoic land-reptiles, to which he gave the now familiar name of Dinosauria. He also first recognized the curious early Mesozoic land-reptiles, with affinities both to amphibians and mammals, which he termed Anomodontia. Most of these were obtained from South Africa, beginning in 1845 (Dicynodon) and eventually furnished materials for his Catalogue of the Fossil Reptilia of South Africa, issued by the British Museum, in 1876. Among his writings on birds, his classical memoir on the kiwi (1840-1846), a long series of papers on the extinct dinornithidae of New Zealand, other memoirs on aptornis, the takahe, the dodo and the Great Auk, may be especially mentioned. His monograph on Archaeopteryx (1863), the long-tailed, toothed bird from the Bavarian lithographic stone, is also an epoch-making work.
With Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, Owen helped create the first life-size sculptures depicting dinosaurs as they may have appeared. Some models were initially created for the Great Exhibition of 1851 but 33 were eventually produced, when the Crystal Palace was relocated to Sydenham, in south London. Owen famously hosted a dinner for 21 prominent men of science inside the hollow concrete Iguanodon on New Year's Eve, 1853.
Work on mammals
With regard to living mammals, the more striking of Owen's contributions relate to the monotremes, marsupials and the anthropoid apes. He was also the first to recognize and name the two natural groups of typical Ungulate, the odd-toed (Perissodactyla) and the even-toed (Artiodactyla), while describing some fossil remains, in 1848. Most of his writings on mammals, however, deal with extinct forms, to which his attention seems to have been first directed by the remarkable fossils collected by Charles Darwin, in South America. Toxodon, from the pampas, was then described and gave the earliest clear evidence of an extinct generalized hoof animal, a pachyderm with affinities to the Rodentia, Edentata and herbivorous Cetacea. Owen's interest in South American extinct mammals then led to the recognition of the giant armadillo, which he named Glyptodon (1839) and to classic memoirs on the giant ground-sloths, Mylodon (1842) and Megatherium (1860), besides other important contributions.
At the same time, Sir Thomas Mitchell's discovery of fossil bones, in New South Wales, provided material for the first of Owen's long series of papers on the extinct mammals of Australia, which were eventually reprinted in book-form in 1877. He discovered Diprotodon and Thylacoleo, besides extinct kangaroos and wombats, of gigantic size. While occupied with so much material from abroad, Owen was also busily collecting facts for an exhaustive work on similar fossils from the British Isles and, in 1844-1846, he published his History of British Fossil Mammals and Birds, which was followed by many later memoirs, notably his Monograph of the Fossil Mammalia of the Mesozoic Formations (Palaeont. Soc., 1871). One of his latest publications was a little work entitled Antiquity of Man as deduced from the Discovery of a Human Skeleton during Excavations of the Docks at Tilbury (London, 1884).
Owen and Darwin's theory of evolution
Following the Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin had at his disposal a considerable collection of specimens and, on 29 October, 1836, he was introduced by Charles Lyell to Owen, who agreed to work on fossil bones collected in South America. Owen's subsequent revelations, that extinct giant creatures were rodents and sloths, showed that they were related to current species in the same locality, rather than being relatives of similarly sized creatures in Africa, as Darwin had originally thought. This was a spur to the inception of Darwin's theory of natural selection.
At this time, Owen talked of his theories, influenced by Johannes Peter Müller, that living matter had an "organising energy", a life-force that directed the growth of tissues and also determined the lifespan of the individual and of the species. Darwin was reticent about his own thoughts, understandably, when, on 19 December, 1838, as secretary of the Geological Society of London, he saw Owen and his allies ridicule the Lamarckian 'heresy' of Darwin's old tutor, Robert Edmund Grant. In 1841, when the recently married Darwin was ill, Owen was one of the few scientific friends to visit but Owen's opposition to any hint of Transmutation made Darwin keep quiet about his theories.
During the development of Darwin's theory, his investigation of barnacles showed, in 1849, how their segmentation related to other crustaceans, showing how they had diverged from their relatives. To Owen such "homologies" in comparative anatomy showed "archetypes" in the Divine mind but to Darwin this was evidence of Descent. Owen demonstrated fossil evidence of an evolutionary sequence of horses, as supporting his idea of development from archetypes in "ordained continuous becoming" and, in 1854, gave a British Association talk on the impossibility of bestial apes, such as the recently discovered gorilla, standing erect and being transmuted into men. Working class militants were trumpeting man's monkey origins. To crush these ideas, Owen, as President-elect of the Royal Association, announced his authoritative anatomical studies of primate brains, showing that humans were not just a separate species but a separate sub-class. Darwin wrote that "I cannot swallow Man [being that] distinct from a Chimpanzee". The combative Thomas Huxley used his March 1858 Royal Institution lecture to claim that, structurally, gorillas are as close to humans as they are to baboons and added that he believed that the "mental & moral faculties are essentially... the same kind in animals & ourselves". This was a clear challenge to Owen's lecture, claiming human uniqueness, given at the same venue.
On the publication of Darwin's theory, in The Origin of Species, he sent a complimentary copy to Owen, saying "it will seem 'an abomination'". Owen was the first to respond, courteously claiming that he had long believed that "existing influences" were responsible for the "ordained" birth of species. Darwin now had long talks with him and Owen said that the book offered the best explanation "ever published of the manner of formation of species", although he still had the gravest doubts that transmutation would bestialize man. It appears that Darwin had assured Owen that he was looking at everything as resulting from designed laws, which Owen interpreted as showing a shared belief in "Creative Power".
In his lofty position at the head of Science, Owen received numerous complaints about the book. His own position remained unknown: when emphasising to a Parliamentary committee the need for a new Natural History museum, he pointed out that "The whole intellectual world this year has been excited by a book on the origin of species; and what is the consequence? Visitors come to the British Museum, and they say, "Let us see all these varieties of pigeons: where is the tumbler, where is the pouter?" and I am obliged with shame to say, I can show you none of them".... As to showing you the varieties of those species, or of any of those phenomena that would aid one in getting at that mystery of mysteries, the origin of species, our space does not permit; but surely there ought to be a space somewhere, and, if not in the British Museum, where is it to be obtained?"
However, Huxley's attacks were making their mark. When Owen's Edinburgh review of the Origin appeared, in April 1860, he showed his anger at what he saw as Darwin's caricature of the creationist position and his ignoring Owen's "axiom of the continuous operation of the ordained becoming of living things". To him, new species appeared at birth, not through natural selection. As well as attacking Darwin's "disciples", Hooker and Huxley, for their "short-sighted adherence", he thought that the book symbolised the sort of "abuse of science... to which a neighbouring nation, some seventy years since, owed its temporary degradation" in a reference to the French Revolution. Darwin thought it "Spiteful, extremely malignant, clever, and... damaging" and later commented that "The Londoners say he is mad with envy because my book is so talked about. It is painful to be hated in the intense degree with which Owen hates me."
During the reaction to Darwin's theory, Huxley's arguments with Owen continued. Owen tried to smear Huxley, by portraying him as an "advocate of man's origins from a transmuted ape" and one of his contributions to the Athenaeum was titled "Ape-Origin of Man as Tested by the Brain". This backfired, as Huxley had already delighted Darwin by speculating on "pithecoid man" – ape-like man. He took the opportunity to publicly turn the anatomy of brain structure into a question of human ancestry and was determined to indict Owen for perjury. The campaign ran over two years and was devastatingly successful, with each "slaying" being followed by a recruiting drive for the Darwinian cause. The spite lingered. When Huxley joined the Zoological Society Council, in 1861, Owen left and, in the following year, Huxley moved to stop Owen from being elected to the Royal Society Council, accusing him "of wilful & deliberate falsehood".
In January 1863, Owen bought the archaeopteryx fossil for the British Museum. It fulfilled Darwin's prediction, that a proto-bird with unfused wing fingers would be found, although Owen described it unequivocally as a bird.
The feuding between Owen and Darwin's supporters continued. In 1871, Owen was found to be involved in a threat to end government funding of Joseph Dalton Hooker's botanical collection, at Kew, possibly trying to bring it under his British Museum. Darwin commented that "I used to be ashamed of hating him so much, but now I will carefully cherish my hatred & contempt to the last days of my life".
Owen's detailed memoirs and descriptions require laborious attention in reading, on account of their nomenclature and ambiguous modes of expression and the circumstance, that very little of his terminology has found universal favour, causes them to be more generally neglected than they otherwise would be. At the same time, it must be remembered that he was a pioneer in concise anatomical nomenclature and, so far at least as the vertebrate skeleton is concerned, his terms were based on a carefully-reasoned philosophical scheme, which first clearly distinguished between the now-familiar phenomena of analogy and homology. Owen's theory of the Archetype and Homologies of the Vertebrate Skeleton (1848), subsequently illustrated also by his little work On the Nature of Limbs (1849), regarded the vertebrate frame as consisting of a series of fundamentally identical segments, each modified according to its position and functions. Much of it was fanciful and failed when tested by the facts of embryology, which Owen systematically ignored, throughout his work. However, though an imperfect and distorted view of certain great truths, it possessed a distinct value at the time of its conception.
To the discussion of the deeper problems of biological philosophy, he made scarcely any direct and definite contributions. His generalities rarely extended beyond strict comparative anatomy, the phenomena of adaptation to function and the facts of geographical or geological distribution. His lecture on virgin reproduction or parthenogenesis, however, published in 1849, contained the essence of the germ plasm theory, elaborated later by August Weismann and he made several vague statements concerning the geological succession of genera and species of animals and their possible derivation one from another. He referred, especially, to the changes exhibited by the successive forerunners of the crocodiles (1884) and horses (1868) but it has never become clear how much of the modern doctrines of organic evolution he admitted. He contented himself with the bare remark that "the inductive demonstration of the nature and mode of operation of the laws governing life would henceforth be the great aim of the philosophical naturalist."
Owen has been described by some as a malicious, dishonest and hateful individual. He has been described in one biography as being a "social experementer with a penchant for sadism. Addicted to controverys and driven by arrogance and jealousy." Deborah Cabury stated that Owen possessed an "almost fanatical egoism with a callous delight in savaging his critics." Indeed, an Oxford University professor once described Owen as "a damned liar. He lied for God and for malice." . Gideon Mantell claimed it was "a pity a man so talented should be so dastardly and envious."
Owen famously credited himself and Georges Cuvier with the discovery of the Iguanodon, completely excluding any credit for the original discoverer of the dinosaur, Gideon Mantell. This was not the first or last time Owen would deliberately claim a discovery as his own, when in fact it was not.
Despite originally starting out on good terms with Darwin, he turned on him savagely at the first opportunity, despite knowing enough anatomy to understand the explanatory power of Darwin’s theory. The reason for this, some historians claim, was that Owen felt upstaged by Darwin and supporters such as Huxley, and his judgment was clouded by jealousy. That’s what Darwin himself believed: Owen in his opinion was "Spiteful, extremely malignant, clever." ; "The Londoners say he is mad with envy because my book is so talked about."  (Darwin 1887, p.149); "It is painful to be hated in the intense degree with which Owen hates me." (Darwin & Seward 1903, p.300).
He was also involved in a threat to end government funding of Joseph Dalton Hooker's botanical collection, at Kew, out of what appears to be a mixture of wanting it under his control at the British Museum and pure spite.
When Mantell suffered an accident that left him permanently crippled, Owen exploited the opportunity by renaming several dinosaurs which had already been named by Mantell, even having the audacity to claim credit for their discovery himself. When Mantell finally died in 1852, an obituary carrying no byline derided Mantell as little more than a mediocre scientist, who brought forth few notable contributions. The obituary’s authorship was universally attributed to Owen, by every local geologist. The president of the Geological society claimed that it "Bespeaks of the lamentable coldness of the heart of the writer." He was subsiquently denied the presidency of the society for his repeated and pointed antagonism towards Gideon Mantell.
Owen was finally kicked out of the Royal Society's Zoological Council, for plagiarism.
- The Life of Richard Owen, by his grandson, Rev. Richard Owen (2 vols., London, 1894). (A. S. Wo.)
- Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin (London: Michael Joseph, the Penguin Group, 1991). ISBN 0-7181-3430-3
- Francis Darwin, editor, The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin: Including an Autobiographical Chapter (3 vols., London: John Murray, 1887) (7th Edition).
- Francis Darwin & A. C. Seward, editors, More letters of Charles Darwin: A record of his work in a series of hitherto unpublished letters (2 vols., London: John Murray, 1903).