Sir Richard Owen

The English zoologist Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892) was one of the greatest comparative anatomists of the 19th century.

Richard Owen was born on July 20, 1804, in Lancaster, where he was apprenticed to a local surgeon in 1820. He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh from 1824, completing his medical studies at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, London. His interest in anatomy led to his appointment in 1827 as assistant curator of the Hunterian Collection of the College of Surgeons in London. In 1831 he went to Paris to attend the lectures of Baron Cuvier, regarded as the world's foremost authority on comparative anatomy. Owen's 1832 "Memoir on the Pearly Nautilus" established his reputation as an anatomist and was largely responsible for his election as a fellow of the Royal Society in 1834. Owen remained at the College of Surgeons until 1856, being appointed Hunterian professor of comparative anatomy and physiology in 1836.

Owen cataloged and classified the specimens held in the college museum and dissected specimens of new species sent to the Zoological Society of London from Australasia. His private research included work on the fossils found in Britain and Australasia, about which he wrote four major books: History of British Fossil Mammals and Birds (1846), History of British Fossil Reptiles (1849-1884), Researches on Fossil Remains of Extinct Mammals of Australia (1877-1878), and Memoirs on Extinct Wingless Birds of New Zealand (1879).

By 1840 Owen was recognized as one of the leading statesmen of British science, and with the passing years he took an increasingly active role in the administration of science. He became the first president of the Microscopical Society (1840) and served on royal commissions on public health (1847). He received many honors in recognition of both his scientific work and his services to the public, including the Wollaston Medal (1838), the Royal Medal (1846), the Copley Medal (1851), and the Prix Cuvier (1857), and was made knight commander of the Bath (1884).

From 1856 until his retirement in 1883, Owen was superintendent of the natural-history collections of the British Museum. He was largely responsible for setting up the new museum buildings in South Kensington.

Owen's original contributions to anatomy and paleontology, besides the original description of many newly found species, included his suggested distinction between homologous and analogous parts of the body. He held to the theory that the structure of all vertebrates could be derived from a common archetype. When Charles Darwin's Origin of Species was published, Owen was its leading opponent among biologists. His review of Darwin's work in the Edinburgh Review (April 1860) was for many years a source of scientific argument against evolution theory. Owen's opposition to Darwin's theory caused him to lose influence among younger scientists. On Dec. 18, 1892, he died at Sheen Lodge, a residence Queen Victoria gave him in 1852.


Further Reading on Sir Richard Owen

Richard S. Owen, The Life of Richard Owen (2 vols., 1894), is a biography by Owen's grandson. For a discussion of Owen's contributions to anatomy see Edward Stuart Russell, Form and Function (1916).

Additional Biography Sources

Owen, Richard Startin, The life of Richard Owen, New York: AMS Press, 1975.

Rupke, Nicolaas A., Richard Owen: Victorian naturalist, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994.