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Biographical entry Owen, Sir Richard (1804 - 1892)

KCB 1884; MRCS Aug 18th 1826; FRCS Dec 11th 1843 one of the original 300 Fellows; FRS 1834.

Born
20 July 1804
Died
18 December 1892
Richmond
Occupation
Anatomist and Curator

Details

Born on July 20th, 1804, the younger son of Richard Owen, a West India merchant, by his wife, Catherine, a daughter of Robert Parrin, organist of the Parish Church of Lancaster.

He was educated at the Lancaster Grammar School, where he made a lasting friendship with William Whewell, who became Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. He was apprenticed in 1820 to Mr Dickson, surgeon and apothecary, at Lancaster; his master died in 1822 and he was turned over to Joseph Seed, and in 1823 to James Stockdale Harrison, as Seed had become a Naval Surgeon. Harrison was Surgeon to the County Gaol, and Owen became interested in anatomy through the post-mortem examinations on the prisoners. He matriculated at Edinburgh in 1824, and attended the extramural lectures of Dr John Barclay which dealt with comparative as well as human anatomy. He did not graduate in the University, but travelled to London in the spring of 1825 with a letter of introduction to John Abernethy, who at once appointed him prosector for his surgical lectures at St Bartholomew's Hospital.

As soon as he had obtained the diploma of the College of Surgeons, Owen set up in private practice at 11 Cook's Court, Carey Street, Chancery Lane; but the results do not seem to have fulfilled his expectations, for in 1829 he became Lecturer on Comparative Anatomy at a nominal salary in the Medical School attached to St Bartholomew's Hospital, and in 1830 he made some efforts to obtain the office of House Surgeon at the Birmingham General Hospital, but did not persist in his candidature as he was already becoming engrossed in comparative anatomy. By the influence of Abernethy, in March, 1827, he had been appointed an Assistant in the Hunterian Museum at the College of Surgeons at a salary of £30 a quarter. The Conservator was William Clift, and from him Owen learnt the unbounded respect which he always showed for the works and memory of John Hunter. Clift's son, the Assistant Conservator, was killed in a cab accident and Owen was appointed to fill his place in 1832. In 1836 Owen appears as Conservator jointly with Clift, and in 1842 he came into residence at the College when Clift was allowed to live outside. Clift died in 1849, and Owen then continued as Conservator until 1856, J T Quekett being associated with him in the post from 1852.

In 1830 he made the acquaintance of Cuvier, at whose invitation he paid a visit to Paris, attended the lectures of Cuvier and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, and worked in the dissecting-rooms and public galleries of the Jardin des Plantes. In 1832 he published his Memoir on the Pearly Nautilus, which placed him at once in the front rank of comparative anatomists and led to his election as FRS in 1834. He started the Zoological Magazine in January, 1833, but sold it and resigned the editorship in the following July.

For seven years he had been engaged to Caroline Amelia Clift, the only daughter of William Clift, and he married her on July 20th, 1835.

In April, 1836, he was appointed Hunterian Professor of Comparative Anatomy at the College of Surgeons, and annually until 1855 he delivered the twenty-four lectures illustrating the Hunterian Collection. These lectures were given under Clause 2 of the Terms and Conditions on which the Hunterian Collection was delivered to the Company of Surgeons, which provided "that one Course of Lectures, not less than twenty-four in number, on Comparative Anatomy and other subjects illustrated by the preparations, shall be given every year by some Member of the Company." The lectures were of a high character and formed the nucleus of the volumes on the Anatomy and Physiology of the Vertebrates which he published afterwards. By them and by his writings he became widely known, even to the public, as one of the leading scientific men of the day.

In 1842 Sir Robert Peel obtained a Civil List Pension for him of £200 a year, but Owen shortly afterwards declined the offer of knighthood. In 1852 Queen Victoria gave him the cottage called Sheen Lodge in Richmond Park, and here he lived until his death, the grant being continued to his daughter-in-law. He had lived from 1842 in the uncomfortable rooms allotted to the Conservator which had direct access to the College premises. He revisited Paris in 1853 and 1855, and on the second occasion was decorated a Knight of the Legion of Honour by Napoleon III.

Advancing years and perhaps a somewhat overpowering sense of his own importance made him difficult. Having failed to persuade the Council of the College of Surgeons to convert their Collection into a National Museum, he resigned the office of Conservator in 1856 and undertook to act as Keeper of the Natural History Collection at the British Museum. Here he was under the control of the principal Librarian, and the second period of his life began.

Hitherto he had been in charge of a localized, well arranged, and, largely owing to his own exertions, well catalogued museum; he now became the head of a vast national collection under the care of Chiefs who considered themselves responsible to the Trustees alone, whilst the treasures were poorly housed, badly described, and insufficiently displayed. His first business was to overhaul the specimens, with the result that he published a series of masterly papers dealing more especially with osteology and paleontology. The outcome of his work appeared in the three great volumes on The Anatomy and Physiology of the Vertebrates, which were published between 1866 and 1868. As early as 1859 he urged on the Government the necessity for forming a National Museum of Natural History independent of the British Museum, but it was not until 1873 that the building of such a museum was actually begun at South Kensington, nor until 1881 that it was opened to the public. The provision of such a building was greatly helped by Mr W E Gladstone, who no doubt was influenced by his friend Sir Henry Acland, the protagonist in the fight for the New Museums at Oxford. Owen resigned his post two years later - in 1883 - having overcome some of the difficulties and having supervised the transfer of the specimens from Bloomsbury to South Kensington. He was gazetted KCB on Jan 5th, 1884, and his Civil List Pension was increased to £300 a year.

He died peacefully of old age at Sheen Lodge, Richmond, on Dec 18th, 1892, and was buried in the churchyard at Ham Common, Surrey. His wife died on May 7th, 1873, and his only son in 1886, leaving a widow and seven children who lived with Owen at Sheen Lodge during his latter years. One of these children, the Rev Richard Owen, published a life of his grandfather.

Richard Owen was facile princeps the chief British comparative anatomist of his age and is comparable with his great contemporary Baron Cuvier. By his careful dissections and unwearied labours in early life he did much to elucidate the work of John Hunter. In middle life he built up a system of transcendental anatomy based on the philosophy of Lorenz Oken (1779-1851) which was founded upon an unproved hypothesis of a vertebrate archetype. In later life he was unable to accept Darwin's generalizations, proved himself somewhat of an obstructionist, and drew upon himself the wrath of Huxley and the younger biologists. He was an indefatigable worker and his literary output was enormous. In spite of this, he found time for several hobbies. He was a great reader of poetry and romance, and in extreme old age could recite whole pages of his favourite authors. He was enthusiastic in his love of music, and it is said that he was present thirty nights in succession when Weber's "Oberon" was first produced in London. He was himself a vocalist and no mean performer on the flute and the violoncello; he was also an expert player of chess.

In person he was tall and in figure ungainly, with a massive head, lofty forehead, curiously round, prominent, and expressive eyes, high cheek-bones, large mouth, and projecting chin, long, lank dark hair, a very florld complexion, and throughout the greater part of his life he was clean-shaven.

The acrimony with which Owen pursued quarrels and a certain inaptitude for ordinary business matters prevented him from filling the many high official positions to which his scientific pre-eminence might otherwise have entitled him. Nevertheless he obtained innumerable rewards. He received the Royal and the Copley Medals of the Royal Society; the Prix Cuvier of the French Academy; the Prussian order 'Pour le Mérite'; the cross of the French Legion of Honour the Order of St Maurice and St Lazarus of Italy; the Order of Leopold of Belgium; and the Order of the Rose of Brazil. He was one of the eight foreign associates of the Institut de France, and was enrolled as an honorary member of nearly all the scientific societies in Europe. The Royal College of Physicians of London conferred upon him the Baly Medal for physiology, and the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1883 made him one of the few recipients of its honorary Gold Medal. HRH the Prince Consort became interested in his work; in April, 1860, he was called upon to lecture to the Royal children at Buckingham Palace, and in March and April, 1864, he lectured to them at Windsor in the presence of Queen Victoria and Leopold, King of the Belgians.

The number of portraits, photographs, and engravings of Sir Richard Owen is very large. Chief amongst them is the bronze bust on a large scale by Alfred Gilbert, MVO, RA, which is of extraordinary excellence. It is unsigned and is in the Osteological Room (iv) in the Museum, and was executed to the order of the council in 1895 in recognition of his outstanding merit as well as of his services to the College. There is also a plaster cast of an unsigned bust, which appears to have been made from the marble bust by E H Bailey, RA. The marble bust is dated 1845 and is in the Hall of the College. It was left by Mrs Owen, the daughter-in-law, in 1920.

The College possesses a large collection of other portraits of Owen, among which may be mentioned: (i) A proof engraving by W Walker after the portrait by Henry William Pickersgill. This engraving is dated London, Jan 1st, 1852 ; it is signed 'Richard Owen'. (ii) A miniature portrait in water-colour by W Etty, RA, which hangs in the Conservators' room, shows Owen at the age of 48. (iii) A fine portrait which appeared in Nature, engraved by Jeens from a photograph (the date is 1880). (iv) A portrait by J H Maguire, 1850, printed by Hanhart and engraved by D J Pund after a portrait by Watkins.

There are also engravings (1) showing Owen bearded and apparently lecturing in extreme old age; (2) a small engraving in which Owen is holding an enormous femur. He wears the old gown of the Hunterian Professors. The gown, when falling into holes, was sent by the Rev Richard Owen to the College, with the wish that it might be preserved in a glass case.

The Linnean Society, of which Owen was elected a Fellow in 1836, possesses a lithograph by J H Maguire (Ipswich Series); a photo-engraving from a photograph by Elliott and Fry, and an engraving from the painting by H I Thaddeus.

Among caricatures of Owen may be cited 'Old Bones', possibly by 'Ape' or 'Spy', which appeared in Vanity Fair, March 1st, 1873, and one by H I Thaddeus showing Owen in extreme old age (bearded), signing proof engravings of his portrait. (Both of these are in the College Collections.) There are two remarkable photographs of Owen in the Council Album, and another by Miss Acland, daughter of Sir Henry Acland, after a drawing by Richmond. A caricature of Owen presiding over a dinner-party of wild animals and palaeontological monsters at the 1847 meeting of the Palaeontographical Society was presented by Sir John Bland-Sutton. It is an admirable drawing and portrait; the artist is unknown. A portrait painted by Holman Hunt was exhibited in the Grosvenor Gallery in 1881, and in the same year Hamo Thornycroft, RA, showed a bust at the Royal Academy. A posthumous full-length bronze statue by Charles Brock, RA, was executed for the hall of the Natural History Museum at South Kensington.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Life of Richard Owen by his grandson, the Rev Richard Owen, with an essay on "Owen's Position in Anatomical Science", by T H Huxley, FRS, 8vo, 2 vols, 1894, with portrait. Dict Nat Biog, sub nomine et auct ibi cit. Sir Arthur Keith's Vicary Lecture, Brit Med Jour, 1924, ii, 890. Additional information kindly given by Sir Frederic G Hallett].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England