Sir Richard Owen is often remembered for his massive row with Charles Darwin and Darwin’s followers over the theory of evolution through natural selection. Scientists like Thomas Huxley painted Owen as a backward creationist who didn’t conduct good science. But Owen was much more complex than that. Though he didn’t fully agree with Darwin’s version of evolution, he was no creationist, and was in fact a brilliant anatomist. Here are a few fun facts about Owen:
“The combination of such characters…altogether peculiar among Reptiles…and all manifested by creatures far surpassing in size the largest of existing reptiles, will,…be deemed sufficient ground for establishing a distinct tribe or sub-order of Saurian Reptiles, for which I would propose the name of Dinosauria.”
3. Owen is responsible for the Natural History Museum London. My favorite place in the world! Before Owen, museums housed a wide variety of collections–ranging from archaeological and Egyptian artifacts, to bones of dinosaurs, giants sloths, and more. As collections grew in the 19th century, Owen championed the idea of moving the natural history collections from the British Museum to a new location in South Kensington. Owen fought hard to make this a reality, he was responsible for the design of the building and much more. His statue was recently replaced in the main hall with that of his rival, Darwin.
Hopefully these small tidbits begin to show that Owen left a legacy worth celebrating. He certainly had his flaws, such as a tendency to cite himself excessively, but he was clearly curious and driven. Recent biographies have shown that Owen’s legacy was a casualty of history being told by the winners. The Darwinians hated Owen, and they painted him in a light that was not pretty. But history is working to revisit the story of this complex character.