Dinosaurs, Gorillas, & More: Re-remembering Richard Owen

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:

 1. Owen named the Dinosaurs. In 1842, Owen published a paper suggesting a name for the magnificent, extinct creatures he had been studying. He called them the “terrible lizards,” Dinosauria.

“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.”

2. He completed the first major analysis of a gorilla. This was a big deal because, in the mid-nineteenth century, many Brits had never seen or heard of a gorilla. Owen got ahold of one, sent from Africa, and completed a detailed dissection, which he published in a paper containing beautiful sketches. Owen focused on the differences between humans and gorillas (whereas his rival, Huxley, focused on the similarities). Despite his focus on differences, Owen said:


Owen, 1865

“I cannot shut my eyes to the significance of the all-pervading similitude of structure- every tooth, every bone, strictly homologous, — which makes the determination of the difference between Homo and Pithecus the anatomist’s difficulty.”

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, this begins to show that Owen left a legacy worth celebrating. He certainly had his flaws–including a tendency to cite himself excessively–but he was clearly curious and driven. Recent biographies have argued that Owen’s poor legacy has been 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.


Natural History Museum London (image author’s)

3 thoughts on “Dinosaurs, Gorillas, & More: Re-remembering Richard Owen

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 03, Vol. #18 | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Pingback: Fossil Friday Roundup: December 23, 2016 | PLOS Blogs Network

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