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Richard Owen was the first Director of the Natural History Museum

Posted in Biology, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, London, Medicine, Oddities on Thursday, 19 December 2013

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This edited article about Richard Owen first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 498 published on 31 July 1971.

Richard Owen, picture, image, illustration

Professor Richard Owen

A threatening figure rises ferociously from among the trees. In the dusky half-light the monster rears up, but does not move. A few moments pass – but still it does not move. It never will, for it is a life-size model of an Iguanodon and it stands, huge and silent, with models of its fellow prehistoric dinosaurs in the grounds of a south London park.

The stone monsters of Crystal Palace, some of which still exist beside a miniature lake at Sydenham Hill, were the fanciful creations of the scientist Richard Owen. Owen was a leading anatomist in Victorian times and specialised in the reconstruction of animals from prehistory.

People are amused by the models today, and scientists may scoff at them, for they are largely inaccurate, and few remember the name of the man who caused them to be built in 1855. Their somewhat comic appearance is in direct contrast to Owen’s own personality, for he was a solemn, humourless man. But at the time, they were serious enough attempts to recreate the true appearance of the dinosaurs.

The funniest thing of all about these model monsters is the little known fact that before their erection at Crystal Palace, a dinner in honour of Richard Owen and other scientists was held inside the half completed structure of the supposed Iguanodon, the biggest of the models. It says something of the scale of this animal when one reads that 21 scientists sat down to a meal inside it! It must have seemed a curious occasion to Owen. His reputation in his own lifetime was never as high as he would have liked or, indeed, as he was entitled to by his achievements. Dinner in a dinosaur was an honour he probably found difficult to accept as a proper expression of esteem.

Owen was born at Lancaster in 1804. As a young man he accepted a temporary post as assistant to William Clift, the curator of the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. So involved did he become with the museum and its collections of anatomical specimens, then the finest in the world, that he stayed there until 1856, having succeeded Clift as curator in 1849.

The Hunterian Collection had been bought by the government in 1799 for £15,000. At that time it consisted of over 14,000 specimens, collected over a lifetime by the great Scottish surgeon, John Hunter. These included some 5,000 skulls, complete skeletons, among which were those of a Sicilian dwarf and an Irish giant, enough bones “to reconstruct the entire animal kingdom” and a vast number of human organs preserved in spirits.

Forty years later, when Owen took over the collection, it lay useless and uncatalogued. His greatest work possibly was to arrange and catalogue the entire collection, making it available for proper scientific study.

Owen married William Clift’s daughter and set up home in rooms given to him at the Royal College of Surgeons. He lived for his work and every moment of the day was devoted to bringing order to the museum’s collection of treasures.

He also pursued his great interest in the study of anatomy, and to further this he had an arrangement with the Zoological Gardens in Regent’s Park to bring animals which had died to him for examination. Mrs. Owen must have been a long-suffering wife, for meals were sometimes interrupted by the sudden arrival at the Owen household of a dead crocodile, or a baboon, or a lion, which needed examination.

Although he was proud and opinionated, Owen was also a modest man and he lacked the “push” to promote his own welfare. When it was decided to set up a separate department of the British Museum, devoted to geology, zoology, botany and mineralogy, it was left to others to suggest that Owen be made its superintendent.

Lord Macaulay, the historian, wrote to the authorities: “. . . his fame is spread over Europe. He is an honour to our country, and it is painful to me that a man of his merit should be approaching old age amid anxieties and distresses. He told me that £800 a year, without a house in the museum, would be opulence to him.”

Owen got the appointment and became the first director of the Natural History Museum in 1856. He transferred his affections and energies from the Hunterian collection to the new museum and devoted the rest of his working life to organising and building up the valuable natural history collections of the British Museum. He supervised the building of the new museum premises in South Kensington, which were opened to the public in 1881.

One of the greatest revolutions in the history of scientific thought took place during Owen’s lifetime. This was the publication of Charles Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species in 1859, which expounded the doctrine of natural selection and traced man’s lineage to early mammals. In the bitter debates which followed, Owen was firmly on the side of the Church and the traditionalists, who maintained that man was a creature apart from all other creation.

But in a remarkably short space of time, scientific opinion lined up behind Darwin, and those who had reviled him were among the first to honour him when he died in 1882. Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey, the final tribute which England reserves for her great men. But Owen persisted in his opposition and scientists no longer took him seriously. His services to science were forgotten, his opinions considered of little value and he was ignored. In 1884, he was knighted and given a house in Richmond Park, where he lived quietly in retirement until his death in 1892.

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