Sir Richard Owen brilliance and darkness

Richard Owen (Figure B14.2.1) was the dean of natural historians in Victorian times, that iconic age of natural history. In his day, he was among the most powerful and influential scientists in England. His personality was at once brilliant, irascible, politically astute, ruthless, and condescending, and it would not be going too far to call him a liar. He was, to say the least, a man of contradictions.

Owen looked the part. He was tall and gaunt with high cheekbones and, as he grew older, strangely bulging eyes. Cloaked, hands resting gently upon a skull, he looked like he came directly from Central Casting for the part of a Victorian serial killer.

Owen was born in 1804, trained to be a physician, and early on demonstrated a penchant for anatomy. Bill Bryson inimitably describes a memorable event from the life of the young Owen as he copped corpses for dissection:

Once while carrying the head of a black African sailor [that Owen had severed from the corpse for study], . . . Owen slipped on a wet cobble and watched in horror as the head bounced away from him down the lane and through the open doorway of a cottage, where it came to rest in the front parlor. What the occupants had to say upon finding an unattached head rolling to a halt at their feet can only be imagined.

By the age of 21, Owen was hired by the Royal College of Surgeons in London to assist in the curation ofthe Hunterian Collection, a collection of biological oddities and medical curiosities amassed by John Hunter, a famous London surgeon. Hunter's notes had been destroyed in a fire, and so the daunt-

Figure B14.2.1. Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892), eventually of the British Museum of Natural History, the brilliant nineteeth-century English anatomist and the father of the term "Dinosauria."

ing job was to organize, identify, and catalog disorganized drawers of biological detritus. Owen proved to be particularly now-discredited idea that Mesozoic air was somehow thinner than modern air: right idea, wrong reasons! It seems that Owen balked at the idea, which had currency in certain circles at that time, that organic evolution (as it was understood before Darwin) was a kind of linear process that ran from quite simple to more complex. Owen thought that by demonstrating that an ancient group of organisms had modern levels of complexity, he would successfully undermine the notion of evolution as it was then understood.

Victorians immortalized their conception of dinosaurs with a variety of images and sculptures. The dinosaurs were reconstructed as large, heavy-set quadrupeds, the most famous of which were created life-sized in plaster and tile by an English sculptor, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1889), on the occasion of the opening of the Crystal Palace in adept, using clever inferences and his growing knowledge of comparative anatomy to identify and catalog specimens for which there was no recorded information. As his reputation grew, the medical career receded quietly into the distance.

Instead, he became a lecturer in comparative anatomy, and began to publish scholarly tomes on organisms ranging from the living chambered cephalopod Nautilus to the first description of the newly discovered Archaeopteryx. It was Owen who first described the exotic South American fossils that Charles Darwin brought back with him from his voyage on the Beagle, and, naturally enough, it was Owen who made the connection between the still-fragmental and isolated bits of fossil material that at the time constituted all ofDinosauria.

Owen was undaunted by any anatomy. A single bone fragment from New Zealand led him to the then-outrageous conclusion that flightless, ostrich-like giant birds lived there at one time. He later named the animal Diornis, a name that still applies to the large flightless ostrich-relatives that populated New Zealand during pre-Columbian times. He described a new genus of ape, first discovered in 1847: Gorilla. At the height of his powers, the breadth of his knowledge of comparative anatomy was likely unequalled.

Comparative anatomy, which might have led him to an appeciation of the ideas of his contemporary Charles Darwin, never led him to embrace evolution by natural selection. Instead, he identified forms as divinely created "archetypes," from which came a variety of predetermined variations. But with Darwinian evolution still controversial, thanks in part to Owen's objections, his political star ascended along with his academic star. He gave regular, popular lectures (some attended by members ofthe royal family) at the Royal College of Surgeons.

But along with the rise of Owen's powers and reputation came a rise in some unfortunate personality quirks. He was, not to put too fine a point upon it, unpleasant. He was arrogant and condescending to presumed inferiors; a remarkably inclusive category. Charles Darwin, famously tolerant, disliked him enough to remark upon the fact in his autobiography. Owen dissembled, claiming for himself honors and positions that he didn't actually hold. He barred talented contemporaries from access to specimens that would have allowed them to carry out their science. Ever jealous of his place in history, he reserved some of his most finely honed vituperation for Gideon Mantell, who had made the mistake of discovering and describing the first dinosaurs, and then actually attempting to claim credit for his own accomplishments! Owen even went so far as to write an anonymous, scathing obituary of Mantell when the man finally had the good grace to die. The occasion of Owen's receiving the Royal Medal - the Royal Society's highest honor - was marred by the discovery that Owen claimed credit for someone else's discovery. Owen's very real, legitimate accomplishments juxtaposed against his personal meanness appear almost pathological.

Eventually, people began to catch on to Owen's meaner side, and his star fell into eclipse. Owen was discredited at both the Zoological Society ofLondon and the Royal Society, and eventually took a job as superintendent of the natural history collections in the British Museum. He had a stunning vision for the collections - that they would be available to any and all who cared to look, and advocated their separation from the rest ofthe British Museum. He died in 1892. The Natural History Museum, today a public museum much as Owen had envisioned it, finally separated from the British Museum in 1963.

1854. The Crystal Palace was the brainchild of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's Royal Consort, and was a kind of permanent monument to England's scientific and technological prowess. Waterhouse Hawkins posed his bestiary frolicking in a park in the Crystal Palace grounds (Figure 14.5), where, remarkably, they can be seen to this day.3 It rarely gets more surreal than it did on New Year's Eve, 1853, when Owen and Waterhouse Hawkins hosted a dinner for England's best and brightest inside the unfinished sculpture of Iguanodon (Figure 14.6).

3. Not so Waterhouse Hawkins' efforts in Central Park, New York. There, the sculptor - or rather, the cost of his project - ran afoul of Tammany Hall, the "Boss" Tweed-led political machine that dominated New York City politics for much of the latter half of the nineteenth century. One spring day in 1871, Waterhouse Hawkins showed up at his studio to find his near-finished sculptures smashed beyond repair. The bits were buried in Central Park, where they are thought to remain to this day.

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  • ali
    Did sir richard owen study dinosaurs?
    9 years ago

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