Originally from Lancaster, Richard Owen came from a modest background. After a mediocre performance at his local school, he fell into studying medicine. During this time, he discovered his passion for anatomy, becoming especially skilled at dissection. He was fascinated by comparative anatomy – the study of organisms by comparing their anatomy with that of other species.
Owen’s modest background meant that he had to find a job to support himself. After a brief spell as a professional prosector (someone who prepares dissected material for use by students of anatomy), Owen was offered a job as assistant curator of the anatomy collection, both human and animal, at the Hunterian Museum.
He studied many intriguing specimens here, such as the pearl nautilus and the duck-billed platypus (originally believed by many scientists to be a hoax). His study of the ‘huge lizards’ which were being uncovered for the first time in the UK, resulted in him naming these creatures ‘dinosaurs’, meaning terrible lizard in Greek.
Owen and his peers were not immune to dinosaur-mania; he even held a dinner party inside the first life size sculpture of one of these beasts. He also suggested a tiny fossilised fragment of bone from New Zealand belonged to a giant bird, a theory later proven correct by more complete fossils of the largest bird ever to have lived – the giant moa. His reputation also gained him many exotic extant – the opposite of extinct – specimens to study from around the world, and he had the opportunity to dissect some of these to further his anatomical knowledge.
Although popular among the social elite of his time (so much so he taught science to the children of Queen Victoria), he was less popular with his scientific peers. His reputation was damaged by accusations of stealing the work of others, as well as directly opposing popular theories, including Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, on the basis of his staunch religious beliefs.
by making the Natural History Museum an institution for everyone, Owen transformed our expectations of what museums are for.
Having established himself as a top-class (if controversial) comparative anatomist, he was appointed the first ever Superintendent of the Natural History collections of the British Museum. He immediately used his impressive social connections to campaign for a separate site for the collection to serve as “a cathedral to nature”. He succeeded, and the result was the Natural History Museum, still continuing to inspire today, more than 130 years later.
This page was written by a Biology: Changing the World volunteer.