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