Owen, Richard (1804-1892) (DNB00)
|←Owen, Richard (1606-1683)||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 42
Owen, Richard (1804-1892)
|Owen, Robert (1771-1858)→|
OWEN, Sir RICHARD (1804–1892), naturalist, born at Lancaster in a house at the corner of Brock and Thurnham Streets on 20 July 1804, was younger son of Richard Owen (1754–1809), a West India merchant, formerly of Fulmer Place, Buckinghamshire. His grandfather, William Owen, had married Elizabeth, daughter of Richard Eskrigge, owner of Fulmer Place, and high sheriff of Buckinghamshire in 1741. Owen's mother, Catherine (1760–1838), was the widow of James Longworth of Ormskirk, Lancashire, and was a daughter of Robert Parrin (1720–1757), organist of the parish church of Lancaster. The Parrins were of Huguenot origin. By Richard Owen, her second husband (whom she married on 8 Nov. 1792), she had six children, of whom the eldest, James Hawkins, born in 1798, died in Demerara in 1827.
At the age of six Richard, the future naturalist, was sent to the grammar school at Lancaster, where one of his schoolfellows was William Whewell, a native of the town, afterwards master of Trinity. Owen and Whewell remained close friends through life. At school he showed few signs of promise, and heraldry was his only hobby. In August 1820 he was apprenticed to a surgeon and apothecary of Lancaster named Dickson, on whose death in 1822 he was transferred to Joseph Seed, and from Seed, who became a naval surgeon, he was transferred in 1823 to James Stockdale Harrison. Harrison's pupils had access to the county gaol, and conducted post-mortem examinations there. Owen was soon deeply interested in the study of anatomy.
In October 1824, before the full term of his apprenticeship expired, he matriculated at the university of Edinburgh, and had the good fortune to attend the anatomical course of Dr. John Barclay (1758–1826) [q. v.], then approaching the close of a successful career as an extra-academical lecturer. Barclay's teaching was of a very superior order to that of the third Alexander Monro [q. v.], who, by virtue of hereditary influences, was the university professor of anatomy. In his work ‘On the Nature of Limbs,’ Owen refers to ‘the extensive knowledge of comparative anatomy possessed by my revered preceptor in anatomy, Dr. Barclay,’ and always spoke of him with affectionate regard. At the same time he attended the academical courses of James Home in the practice of medicine, of John Mackintosh on midwifery, of Andrew Duncan on materia medica, besides the lectures of Robert Jameson and W. R. Alison. With Gavin Milroy [q. v.] he founded a students' society, which he christened, with prophetic import, the ‘Hunterian Society.’
Owen did not remain in Edinburgh to take his degree, but, at Barclay's suggestion, removed, in the spring of 1825, to St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London. He carried with him a letter of introduction from Barclay to John Abernethy [q. v.], who at once appointed him prosector for his surgical lectures. Owen passed the examination for the membership of the Royal College of Surgeons on 18 Aug. 1826. Thereupon he set up in private practice at 11 Cook's Court, Carey Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields.
In 1829 he became lecturer on comparative anatomy at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, but his emoluments were small, and he made some efforts to obtain the post of house surgeon at the Birmingham Hospital in 1830. He did not persist in his candidature, and his interest in comparative anatomy rapidly grew all-absorbing. His first published scientific work was, however, in the direction of surgical pathology—‘An Account of the Dissection of the parts concerned in the Aneurism for the Cure of which Dr. Stevens tied the internal Iliac Artery at Santa Cruz in 1812.’ This appeared in 1830 in the ‘Transactions of the Medico-Chirurgical Society’ (xvi. 219–35). But thenceforward his writings mainly dealt with the results of his anatomical researches.
In 1827 Owen had obtained through the influence of Abernethy the post of assistant conservator to the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. The conservator of the Museum was William Clift [q. v.], John Hunter's last and most devoted pupil and assistant, under whose guardianship Hunter's collections had been carefully preserved during the long interval between the death of their founder and their transference to the custody of the College of Surgeons. From Clift Owen imbibed an enthusiastic reverence for his great master, John Hunter, which was continually augmented by closer study of his works. In 1830 Owen made Cuvier's acquaintance at the Hunterian Museum, and in the following year, in response to the great naturalist's invitation, he visited Paris, where he attended the lectures of Cuvier and Geoffroy St. Hilaire, and worked in the dissecting rooms and public galleries of the Jardin des Plantes. In 1832 his ‘Memoir on the Pearly Nautilus’ attracted a good deal of attention, and, in Professor Huxley's words, ‘placed its author at a bound in the front rank of anatomical monographers.’ In January 1833 Owen started the ‘Zoological Magazine,’ which, however, he ceased to edit and sold in July. On 13 Dec. 1834 he was elected F.R.S. On 20 July 1835 his prospects admitted of his marrying, after an engagement of over seven years, Caroline Clift, the only daughter of his chief, and in 1842 he was associated with Clift as joint conservator of the museum. On Clift's retirement soon after, he became sole conservator, with J. T. Quekett as assistant.
Meanwhile, in April 1836, he had been made first Hunterian professor of comparative anatomy and physiology at the Royal College of Surgeons, with the obligation to deliver twenty-four annual lectures illustrative of the Hunterian collections; and this duty he fulfilled regularly down to his retirement from the college in 1856. He was always more widely known by the title of ‘Professor Owen’ than by the knightly addition of his later years.
Owen's scientific reputation grew rapidly. In 1838 he was awarded the Wollaston gold medal by the Geological Society, and in 1839 he was elected corresponding member of the Institute of France. In this year also he helped to found the Royal Microscopical Society, of which he was the first president (1840–1). In 1842 he accepted a civil list pension of 200l. offered him by Sir Robert Peel. Shortly afterwards he refused the offer of knighthood.
The importance and interest attaching to Owen's anatomical work, as disclosed in his lectures and writings, secured for him an influential position in society. The prince consort was attracted by his books. In 1836 he first met Charles Darwin, on the latter's return from South America. Carlyle asked to be introduced to him in 1842; and he soon reckoned among his acquaintances Turner, Mulready, Dickens, and Tennyson, and almost all contemporaries who won distinction in literature or art. He visited Sir Robert Peel at Drayton Manor, and discussed questions of museum organisation with him, propounding a plan for uniting the collection of fossil bones in the British Museum with the specimens of recent comparative anatomy in the College of Surgeons (1846). Among men of kindred pursuits, Buckland, Sedgwick, Broderip, Murchison, Sir Philip Egerton, and Lord Enniskillen were at this time his most intimate associates. In 1845 he was elected into the select body of representative men called ‘The Club,’ founded by Dr. Johnson and limited to forty members. His scientific attainments and energy also brought him into close relations with public affairs. In 1847 he was appointed a member of a government commission for inquiring into the health of the metropolis; and subsequently (in 1849) of one on Smithfield and the other meat markets. He strongly advo- cated the entire suppression of intramural slaughter-houses, and of the concomitant evil of the passage of droves of sheep and cattle through the streets of London. For the Great exhibition of 1851 he was appointed a member of the preliminary committee of organisation, and he acted as chairman of the jury on raw materials, alimentary substances, &c., and published an elaborate report on their awards. He also delivered at the same time to the Society of Arts a lecture on ‘Raw Animal Products, and their Uses in Manufacture.’
Until 1852 he occupied small apartments within the building of the College of Surgeons; these, however inconvenient they might be in some respects, furnished him with unusual facilities for pursuing his work by night as well as by day in the museum, dissecting rooms, and library of that institution. But in 1852 the queen gave him the charming cottage called Sheen Lodge in Richmond Park, where he resided until the end of his life. In 1853 he went to Paris with his wife, and lectured in French at the ‘Institut.’ Two years later he revisited Paris in the capacity of juror of the Universal exhibition, being appointed chairman of the jury on ‘Prepared and Preserved Alimentary Substances.’ For his services Napoleon III created him a knight of the Legion of Honour. In 1855 he attended the opening ceremony at the Crystal Palace, Sydenham, in the grounds of which he had suggested and devised the exhibition of models of extinct animals. To these he wrote a guide-book (London, 1854, 12mo), entitled ‘Geology and Inhabitants of the Ancient World.’
In 1856, when Owen had reached the zenith of his fame, and was recognised throughout Europe as the first anatomist of his day, a change came over his career. Difficulties with the governing body of the College of Surgeons, arising from his impatience at being required to perform what he considered the lower administrative duties of his office, caused him readily to take advantage of an offer from the trustees of the British Museum to undertake a newly created post, that of superintendent of the natural history departments of the museum.
The years 1827–56, which Owen spent in the service of the Royal College of Surgeons, form the first of the two periods into which his career may be divided; and in the course of these years he mainly made his reputation as an anatomist. His earliest work in connection with the museum was the preparation of the monumental ‘Descriptive and Illustrative Catalogue of the Physiological Series of Comparative Anatomy,’ which was published in five quarto volumes between 1833 and 1840. This work, which has been taken as a model for many other subsequently published catalogues, contains a minute description of nearly four thousand preparations, including, besides those of Hunter, many added by Owen himself. The labour involved in producing it was greatly increased by the circumstance that the origin of a large number of Hunter's specimens had not been preserved, and even the species of the animals from which they were derived had to be discovered by tedious researches among old documents, or by comparison with fresh dissections. It was mainly to aid him in this work that he engaged upon the long series of dissections of animals which died from time to time in the gardens of the Zoological Society, the descriptions of which, as published in the ‘Proceedings and Transactions’ of the society, form a precious fund of information upon the comparative anatomy of the higher vertebrates. The series commences with an account of the anatomy of an orang utan, which was communicated to the first scientific meeting of the society, held on the evening of Tuesday, 9 Nov. 1830, and was continued with descriptions of dissections of the beaver, suricate, acouchy, Thibet bear, gannet, crocodile, armadillo, seal, kangaroo, tapir, toucan, flamingo, hyrax, hornbill, cheetah, capybara, pelican, kinkajou, wombat, giraffe, dugong, apteryx, wart-hog, walrus, great ant-eater, and many others.
Among the many obscure subjects in anatomy and physiology on which he threw much light by his researches at this period were several connected with the generation, development, and structure of the Marsupialia and Monotrema, groups which always had great interest for him. It is a curious coincidence that his first paper communicated to the Royal Society (in 1832), ‘On the Mammary Glands of the Ornithorhynchus paradoxus,’ was one of a series which only terminated in almost the last which he offered to the same society (in 1887), being a description of a newly excluded young of the same animal, published in the ‘Proceedings’ (xlii. 391).
On the completion of the ‘Catalogue of the Physiological Series,’ his curatorial duties led him to undertake the catalogues of the osteological collections of recent and extinct forms. This task necessitated minute studies of the modifications of the skeleton in all vertebrated animals, and researches into their dentition, the latter being finally embodied in his great work on ‘Odontography’ (1840–5), in which he brought a vast amount of light out of what was previously chaotic in our knowledge of the subject, and cleared the way for all future work upon it. Although recent advances of knowledge have shown that there are difficulties in accepting the whole of Owen's system of homologies and notation of the teeth of mammals, it was an immense improvement upon anything of the kind which existed before, and a considerable part of it seems likely to remain a permanent addition to our means of describing these organs. The close study of the bones and teeth of existing animals was of extreme importance to him in his long continued and laborious researches into fossil forms; and, following in the footsteps of Cuvier, he fully appreciated and deeply profited by the study of the living in elucidating the dead, and vice versa. Perhaps the best example of this is to be seen in his elaborate memoir on the Mylodon, published in 1842, entitled ‘Description of the Skeleton of an Extinct Gigantic Sloth (Mylodon robustus, Owen), with Observations on the Osteology, Natural Affinities, and Probable Habits of the Megatheroid Quadrupeds in General,’ a masterpiece both of anatomical description and of reasoning and inference. A comparatively popular outcome of some of his work in this direction was the volume on ‘British Fossil Mammals and Birds,’ published in 1844–6 as a companion to the works of Yarrell, Bell, and others on the recent fauna of our island. He also wrote, assisted by Dr. S. P. Woodward, the article ‘Palæontology’ for the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica,’ which, when afterwards published in a separate form, reached a second edition in 1861.
To this period of his life belong the courses of Hunterian lectures, given annually at the College of Surgeons, each year on a fresh subject, and each year the means of bringing before the world new and original discoveries which attracted, even fascinated, large audiences, and did much to foster an interest in the science among cultivated people of various classes and professions. They also added greatly to the scientific renown of the college in which they were given. In this period also, being deeply influenced by the philosophy of Oken, he began the development and popularisation of those transcendental views of anatomy—the conception of creation according to types, and the construction of the vertebrate archetype. Such views, though now obsolete, had great attractions and even uses in their day, and were accepted by many, at all events as working hypotheses; around the hypotheses facts could be marshalled, and out of them grew a methodical system of anatomical terminology, much of which has survived to the present time. The recognition of homology, and its distinction from analogy, which was so strongly insisted on by Owen, marked a distinct advance in philosophical anatomy. These generalisations, first announced in lectures at the College of Surgeons, were afterwards embodied in two works: ‘The Archetype and Homologies of the Vertebrate Skeleton,’ 1848, and ‘The Nature of Limbs,’ 1849.
Among the contributions which Owen made to our knowledge of the structure of invertebrate animals, one of the most important was the exhaustive memoir on the pearly nautilus (1833), founded on the dissection of a specimen of this, at that time exceedingly rare, animal, sent to him in spirit by his friend Dr. George Bennett of Sydney. This was illustrated by carefully executed drawings by his own hand. The Cephalopoda continued to engage his attention, and the merits of a memoir on fossil belemnites from the Oxford clay, published in the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ in 1844, was the cause assigned for the award to him of the royal medal in 1846. He contributed the article ‘Cephalopoda’ to the ‘Cyclopædia of Anatomy and Physiology’ (1836), catalogued the extinct cephalopoda in the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons (1856), and wrote original papers on ‘Clavagella’ (1834), ‘Trichina spiralis’ (1835), ‘Linguatula’ (1835), ‘Distoma’ (1835), ‘Spondylus’ (1838), ‘Euplectella’ (1841), ‘Terebratula’ (in the introduction to Davidson's classical ‘Monograph of the British Fossil Brachiopods,’ 1853), and many other subjects, including the well-known essay on ‘Parthenogenesis, or the Successive Production of Procreating Individuals from a Single Ovum,’ 1849.
In 1843 his ‘Lectures on the Comparative Anatomy and Physiology of the Invertebrate Animals,’ in the form of notes taken by his pupil, Mr. W. White Cooper, appeared as a separate work. Of this, a second expanded and revised edition was published in 1855. By this time, as the Royal Society's ‘Catalogue of Scientific Papers’ shows, he had been the author of as many as 250 separate scientific memoirs.
In 1856 Owen began the second period of his career on his migration from the College of Surgeons to the British Museum, where the natural history departments had been placed under his charge, with a salary of 800l. a year. Previously these departments had been under the direct control of a ‘principal librarian’ who had been invariably chosen from the literary side of the establishment. They consequently had not obtained their due share of attention in the general and financial administration. It was believed that if they were grouped together and placed under a strong administrator, who should be able to exercise influence in advocating their claims to consideration, and who should be responsible for their internal working, their position in the establishment would be improved. Owen, however, encountered the difficulties which are nearly always experienced by an outsider suddenly imported into the midst of an existing establishment without any well-defined functions. The principal librarian, Sir Anthony Panizzi [q. v.], was little disposed to share any of his authority with another. The heads of the departments, especially Dr. J. E. Gray, keeper of zoology, preferred to maintain the independence to which they were accustomed within their own sphere of action, and to have no intermediary between themselves and the trustees, except the principal librarian, who, if on the one hand exhibiting little sympathy, had also, from lack of special knowledge, little power of interference in detail. Hence Owen found himself in a situation the duties of which were little more than nominal. Nothing could have served his purpose better. His indomitable industry was given full play in the directions for which his talents were best fitted, and with the magnificent material in the collections of the museum at his command, he set to work with great vigour upon a renewed series of researches, the results of which for many years taxed the resources of most of the scientific societies of London to publish. It followed from the nature of the materials that came most readily to his hand, and the smaller facilities for dissection available, that his original work was henceforth mainly confined to osteology, and chiefly to that of extinct animals. The rich treasures of the palæontological department were explored, named, and described, as were also the valuable additions which poured in from various parts of the world, attracted in many cases by Owen's great reputation. The long series of papers on the gigantic extinct birds of New Zealand, begun in the year 1838 at the College of Surgeons with the receipt of the fragment of a femur, upon which the first evidence of their existence was based, was now continued at intervals as fresh materials arrived. The marsupials of Australia, the edentates of South America, the triassic reptiles from South Africa, the Archæopteryx from Solenhofen, the mesozoic mammals from the Purbeck, the aborigines of the Andaman islands, the cave remains, human and otherwise, of the South of France, the cetacea of the Suffolk crag, the gorilla and other anthropoid apes, the dodo, great auk, and Chiromys, and many other remarkable forms of animal life were all subjects of elaborate memoirs from his untiring pen. These were adorned in every case with a profusion of admirable illustrations, drawn as often as possible of the full size of nature. His contributions to the publications of the Palæontographical Society, mainly upon the extinct reptiles of the British Isles, fill more than a thousand pages, and are illustrated by nearly three hundred plates.
He now also found leisure to perform the pious duty of vindicating the scientific reputation of his great predecessor, John Hunter, by arranging and revising for publication a large collection of precious manuscripts containing records of dissections of animals, and observations and reflections upon numerous subjects connected with anatomy, physiology, and natural history in general. These were published in 1861, in two closely printed octavo volumes, entitled ‘Essays and Observations in Natural History, Anatomy, Physiology, Psychology, and Geology, by John Hunter, being his Posthumous Papers on those Subjects.’ The original manuscripts had been destroyed by Sir Everard Home [q. v.] in 1823, but fortunately not before William Clift had taken copies of the greater part of them, and it was from these copies that the work was compiled.
In 1866 were published the first and second volumes, and in 1868 the third volume, of Owen's great book on the ‘Anatomy and Physiology of the Vertebrates.’ This is the most encyclopædic work on the subject accomplished by any one man since Cuvier's ‘Leçons d'Anatomie Comparée,’ and contains an immense mass of information, mainly based upon original observations and dissections. It is in fact a collection of nearly all his previous memoirs, arranged in systematic order, generally in the very words in which they were originally written, and, unfortunately, sometimes without the revision which advances made in the subject by the labours of others would have rendered desirable. Very little of the classification adopted in this work, either the primary division of the vertebrates into hæmatocrya and hæmatotherma, or the divisions into classes and sub-classes, has been accepted by other zoologists. The division of the mammalia into four sub-classes of equivalent value, upheld by Owen not only in this work, but in various other publications issued about the same time (‘Rede Lecture’ 1859), founded upon cerebral characteristics, was especially open to criticism. Though the separation of the monotremes and marsupials from all the others as a distinct group (Lyencephala) is capable of vindication, the three other sub-classes, Lissencephala, Gyrencephala, and Archencephala, grade so imperceptibly into each other that their distinction as sub-classes cannot be maintained. The proposed definition of the distinguishing characters of the brain of man (Archencephala) from that of other mammals gave rise to a somewhat acute controversy, the echoes of which reached beyond the realms of purely scientific literature. On the other hand, the radical distinction between the two groups of Ungulates, the odd-toed and the even-toed, first indicated by Cuvier, when treating of the fossil forms, was thoroughly worked out by Owen through every portion of their organisation, and remains as a solid contribution to a rational system of classification.
The chapter called ‘General Conclusions’ at the end of the third volume is devoted to a summary of his views on the principal controverted biological questions of the day, especially in relation to the teaching of Darwin, just then coming into great prominence. Although from the peculiarly involved style of Owen's writing, especially upon these subjects, it is sometimes difficult to define his real opinions, it appears that before the publication of the ‘Origin of Species’ he had ‘been led to recognise species as exemplifying the continuous operation of natural law, or secondary cause, and that not only successively but progressively.’ Darwin's special doctrine of ‘natural selection,’ however, he never appreciated. He attacked it with acerbity in an anonymous article on Darwin's ‘Origin of Species’ in the ‘Edinburgh Review’ for April 1860; and he was believed by Darwin to have inspired the Bishop of Oxford's hostile notice of that book in the ‘Quarterly Review’ of the same date. Owen's strong opposition to Darwin's doctrine caused him, though quite erroneously, to be looked upon by those outside the world of science as a supporter of the old-fashioned and then more ‘orthodox’ view of special creation. His most distinct utterance upon this subject is contained in the following paragraph:—‘So, being unable to accept the volitional hypothesis, or that of impulse from within, or the selective force exerted by outward circumstances, I deem an innate tendency to deviate from parental type, operating through periods of adequate duration, to be the most probable nature, or way of operation, of the secondary law, whereby species have been derived one from the other’ (op. cit. iii. 807). Owen's ambiguous attitude to the whole topic excited in Darwin as much resentment as was possible in a man of his magnanimous temper (see historical sketch prefixed to the sixth edition of Darwin's Origin of Species, 1872, and The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 1887, vol. ii., in reference to the controversy at the British Association at Oxford in 1860).
Owen's career as a lecturer did not entirely cease with his connection with the College of Surgeons, as, by permission of the authorities of the Museum of Practical Geology in Jermyn Street, he gave several courses on the fossil remains of animals, open to the public, in the theatre of that institution; and he held in the years 1859, 1860, and 1861, in conjunction with his office at the British Museum, the Fullerian professorship of physiology in the Royal Institution. In 1858 he acted as president of the British Association which met at Leeds. His address largely dealt with the need of constructing on adequate lines a national museum of natural history and the desirability of a popular exposition of the secrets of science. On the revival of the annual lecture on Sir Robert Rede's foundation in the university of Cambridge, in 1859, he was appointed to give the first, and took for his subject the classification of the mammalia. He also occasionally lectured at the Royal Institution on Friday evenings, his last appearance there being on 26 April 1861, when he delivered the discourse ‘On the Scope and Appliances of a National Museum of Natural History.’ In April 1862 he gave four lectures on birds at the London Institution, and at later dates lectured at Bradford, Newcastle, and other provincial towns. As late as May 1879 he gave a discourse at the Royal Colonial Institute upon ‘the Extinct Animals of the British Colonies.’
Although Owen took scarcely any part in the details of the administration of the British Museum, one subject relating to that establishment long engaged his attention from his first connection with it. That the accommodation afforded by the rooms devoted to natural history in the museum at Bloomsbury was painfully inadequate was evident. Space must be obtained somewhere, even for the proper conservation and display of the existing collections, to say nothing of the vast additions that must be expected if the subject were to be represented in anything like the way in which it deserved to be in his eyes, and Owen in this respect had very large views. As early as February 1859 he submitted a strong report to the trustees, setting forth his views respecting a national museum of natural history, accompanied with a plan, which was forwarded to the treasury, and subsequently printed by order of the House of Commons (Parl. Papers, 121, i. fol. 1859). At the outset his scheme was rejected by the government, who held that a supplementary exhibition gallery to the British Museum was all that was reasonably required. The scientific public, the officers of the museum, and the trustees were much divided as to whether it would be better to endeavour to obtain ground for an extension in the neighbourhood of the existing museum, or to remove a portion of the collection to another locality. After some apparent hesitation, Owen threw himself strongly on the side of those who took the latter view, and he urged upon the government, and upon the public generally, in annual museum returns, lectures, and pamphlets, the desirability of the scheme. By 1863 opinion had sufficiently advanced for the purchase of land at South Kensington to be voted in parliament, but it was not until ten years later that the building was actually commenced. It was opened to the public in 1881. In his address as president of the Biological Section of the British Association at the York meeting in 1881, Owen gave a history of the part he took in promoting the building of the new museum, including his success in enlisting the sympathy of Mr. Gladstone, by whose powerful aid the difficulties and opposition with which the plan was met in parliament were mainly overcome. His earlier views upon the subject are fully explained in a small work entitled ‘On the Extent and Aims of a National Museum of Natural History,’ published in 1862, being an expansion of the lecture he gave at the Royal Institution in the previous year. Much controversy arose as to the best principle of museum organisation. Owen adhered to the old view of a public exhibition on a very extensive scale, while the greater number of naturalists of the time preferred the system of dividing the collections into a comparatively limited public exhibition, the bulk of the specimens being kept in a manner accessible only to the researches of advanced students. The Royal Commission on the Advancement of Science, of which the Duke of Devonshire was chairman, investigated the subject fully, and reported (in 1874) in favour of the latter view; but in the new building at South Kensington there was, unfortunately, little provision made for carrying it out in a satisfactory manner.
In 1859, in his report to the trustees, Owen recommended that the new museum building, ‘besides giving the requisite accommodation to the several classes of natural history objects, as they had been by authority exhibited and arranged for public instruction and gratification, should also include a hall or exhibition space for a distinct department, adapted to convey an elementary knowledge of the subjects of all the divisions of natural history to the large proportion of public visitors not specially conversant with any of those subjects.’ And subsequently he advocated, with greater distinctness, ‘an apartment devoted to the specimens selected to show type characters of the principal groups of organised and crystallised forms. This would constitute an epitome of natural history, and should convey to the eye, in the easiest way, an elementary knowledge of the sciences.’ In every modification which the plans of the new building underwent, a hall for the purpose indicated in the above passages formed a prominent feature, being in the later stages of the development of the building, called, for want of a better name, the ‘Index Museum.’ Though Owen gave the suggestion and designed the general plan of the hall, the arrangement of its contents was left to his successor to carry out.
In another part of his original scheme he was less successful. The lecture theatre which he had throughout urged with great pertinacity as a necessary accompaniment to a natural history museum, was, as he says in the address referred to above, ‘erased from my plan, and the elementary courses of lectures remain for future fulfilment.’
On several other important questions of museum arrangement Owen allowed his views, even when essentially philosophical as well as practical, to be overruled. As long ago as December 1841 he submitted to the museum committee of the Royal College of Surgeons the question of incorporating in one catalogue and system of arrangement the fossil bones of extinct animals with the specimens of recent osteology; and shortly afterwards laid before the committee a report pointing out the advantages of such a plan. Strangely enough, though receiving the formal approval of the council, no steps were taken to carry it out as long as he was at the college. He returned to the question in reference to the arrangement of the new National Museum, and, although no longer advocating so complete an incorporation of the two series, apparently in consideration of the interests of the division into ‘departments’ which he found in existence there, he says: ‘The department of zoology in such a museum should be so located as to afford the easiest transit from the specimens of existing to those of extinct animals. The geologist specially devoted to the study of the evidence of extinct vegetation ought, in like manner, to have means of comparing his fossils with the collections of recent plants.’ Provision for such an arrangement is clearly indicated in all the early plans for the building in which the space for the different subjects is allocated, but not a trace of it remained in the final disposition of the contents of the museum as Owen left it in 1883.
Another essential feature of Owen's original plan, without which, he says, ‘no collection of zoology can be regarded as complete,’ was a gallery of physical ethnology, the size of which he estimated (in 1862) at 150 ft. in length by 50 ft. in width. It was to contain casts of the entire body, coloured after life, of characteristic parts, as the head and face, skeletons of every variety arranged side by side for facility of comparison, the brain preserved in spirits, showing its characteristic size and distinctive structures, &c. ‘The series of zoology,’ he says, ‘would lack its most important feature were the illustrations of the physical characters of the human race to be omitted.’
An adequate exhibition of the cetacea, both by means of stuffed specimens and skeletons, also always formed a prominent element in his demand for space. ‘Birds, shells, minerals,’ he wrote, ‘are to be seen in any museum; but the largest, strangest, rarest specimens of the highest class of animals can only be studied in the galleries of a national one.’ And again: ‘If a national museum does not afford the naturalist the means of comparing the cetacea, we never shall know anything about these most singular and anomalous animals.’
When, however, the contents of the museum were finally arranged, nominally under his direction, physical anthropology was only represented by a few skeletons and skulls placed in a corner of the great gallery devoted to the osteology of the mammalia, and the fine series of cetacean skeletons could only be accommodated in a most unsuitable place for exhibition in a part of the basement not originally destined for any such purpose. The truth is that the division of the museum establishment into four distinct departments, each with its own head, left the ‘superintendent’ practically powerless, and Owen's genius did not lie in the direction of such a reorganisation as might have been effected during the critical period of the removal of the collections from Bloomsbury and their installation in the new building. Advancing age also probably indisposed him to encounter the difficulties which inevitably arise from interference with time-honoured traditions. At length, at the close of the year 1883, being in his eightieth year, he asked to be relieved from the responsibilities of an office the duties of which he had practically ceased to perform.
Apart from his duties at the museum, Owen had since 1856 maintained close relations with the royal family and with many prominent contemporaries. In April 1860 he lectured to the royal children by the prince consort's request at Buckingham Palace. In March and April 1864 he lectured before the queen, the king of the Belgians, and the royal family at Windsor, and in 1889 he was much gratified by the queen's expression of her wish that his family should reside at Sheen Lodge after his death. Among other influential friends were Lord John Russell, whom he frequently visited at Pembroke Lodge, Prince Charles Lucien Bonaparte, Charles Dickens, Jenny Lind, George Eliot, G. H. Lewes, Sir Henry Acland, Sir Edwin Chadwick, Sir James Paget, Mr. Ruskin, and Lord Tennyson. In 1857 he saw much of Livingstone, and helped him with his ‘Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa,’ writing in his private diary ‘Poor Livingstone, he little thought what it was to write a book till he began.’ In this year moreover he was awarded a distinction that he had greatly coveted, the ‘Prix Cuvier’ of the French Academy. In August 1860, being then 56 years of age, he visited Switzerland, and made the ascent of the Cime de Jazi. In 1869 his health gave symptoms of decline, and as the guest of Sir John Fowler, he made a first visit to Egypt, in the party of the Prince and Princess of Wales, and under the guidance of Sir Samuel Baker. He repeated the visit in 1871, in 1872, when he met Emerson at Cairo, and in 1874, when he had some intercourse with ‘Chinese Gordon.’ He had refused the presidency of the Geological Society in 1871, and was created a C.B. at the instance of Mr. Gladstone in 1873.
The nine remaining years of Owen's life, subsequent to his retirement from the museum (1883–1892), were spent in peaceful retirement at Sheen Lodge, an ideal residence for one who had such a keen enjoyment of the charms of nature in every form, for, though so large a portion of his active life had been passed among dry bones, anatomical specimens, microscopes, and books, he retained a genuine love for outdoor natural history, and the sight of the deer and other animals in the park, the birds and insects in the garden, the trees, flowers, and varying aspects of the sky filled him with enthusiastic admiration. One of his favourite occupations there resulted in the publication in 1883 of ‘Notes on Birds in my Garden.’ He also had his library around him, and the habit of strenuous work never deserted him till failing memory and bodily infirmity made it no longer possible to continue that flow of contributions to scientific literature which had never ceased during a period of sixty-two years, his first and last papers being dated respectively 1826 and 1888. On 5 Jan. 1884 he was gazetted K.C.B., and on Mr. Gladstone's initiative his pension was supplemented by 100l. annually. His wife had died 7 May 1873, and his only son in 1886, but the son (who had held an appointment in the Foreign Office) left a widow and seven children, who, coming to reside with him at Sheen, completely relieved his latter days of the solitude in which they would otherwise have been passed. During the summer of 1892 his strength gradually failed, and he died on the 18th of December, literally of old age. In accordance with his own expressed desire, he was buried in the churchyard of Ham, near Richmond, in the same grave with his wife.
Despite the prodigious amount of work that Owen did in his special subjects, he found time for many other occupations or relaxations. He was a great reader of poetry and romance, and, being gifted with a wonderful memory, could repeat by heart, even in his old age, page after page of Milton and other favourite authors. For music he had a positive passion; in the busiest period of his life he might constantly be seen at public concerts, listening with rapt attention, and in his earlier days was himself no mean vocalist, and acquired considerable proficiency in playing the violoncello and flute. Nothing afforded him more relaxation during his hard work than a visit to the theatre, and it is stated in his ‘Life’ that when Weber's ‘Oberon’ was first produced in London, he went to see it thirty nights in succession! In addition to his other accomplishments he was an expert chess player, and had for opponents at one time or another Sir Edwin Landseer, Lonsdale, and Staunton. He was also a neat and careful draughtsman; the large number of anatomical sketches he left behind him testify to his industry in this direction. His handwriting was unusually clear and finished, considering the vast quantity of manuscript that flowed from his pen, for he rarely resorted to dictation or any labour-saving process. Only those who have had to clear out rooms, official or private, which have been long occupied by him, can have any idea of the quantity of memoranda and extracts which he made with his own hand, and most of the books he was in the habit of using were filled with notes and comments.
Owen's was a very remarkable personality, both physically and mentally. He was tall and ungainly in figure, with massive head, lofty forehead, curiously round, prominent and expressive eyes, high cheek bones, large mouth and projecting chin, long, lank, dark hair, and during the greater part of his life, smooth-shaven face, and very florid complexion. Though in his general intercourse with others usually possessed of much of the ceremonial courtesy of the old school, and when in congenial society a delightful companion, owing to his unfailing flow of anecdote, considerable sense of humour, and strongly developed faculty of imagination, he was not only an extremely adroit controversialist, but no man could say harder things of an adversary or rival. Unfortunately, he grew so addicted to acrimonious controversy that many who followed kindred pursuits held somewhat aloof from him, and in later life his position among scientific men was one of comparative isolation. To this cause, combined with a certain inaptitude for ordinary business affairs, may be attributed the fact that he was not invited to occupy several of the distinguished official positions in science to which his immense labours and brilliant talents would otherwise have entitled him.
In addition to the honours already detailed and many others of minor significance (of which a full list is given in the ‘Life’ by his grandson), he received the Prussian Order ‘Pour le Mérite’ in 1851, the Cross of the French Legion of Honour in 1855, and was also decorated by the king of Italy with the Order of St. Maurice and St. Lazarus (1862), by the emperor of Brazil with the Order of the Rose (1867), and by the king of the Belgians with the Order of Leopold (1873). He was chosen one of the eight foreign associates of the Institute of France in 1859. The universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Dublin conferred upon him their honorary degrees, and he was an honorary or corresponding member of nearly every important scientific society in the world. The Royal College of Physicians conferred on him the Baly medal (for physiology) in 1869, and the Royal College of Surgeons its honorary gold medal in 1883. He was the first to receive the gold medal established by the Linnean Society at the centenary meeting of that body in 1888. The Royal Society, on the council of which he served for five separate periods, awarded him one of the royal medals in 1846, and the Copley medal in 1851.
A fine portrait of Owen as a young man, by Pickersgill, is reproduced as frontispiece to the ‘Life’ issued by his grandson, the Rev. Richard Owen, in 1894. In the same work are reproduced portraits from a daguerreotype taken in 1846, and from a photograph taken in later life. In 1881 his portrait was painted by Mr. Holman Hunt, and exhibited in the Grosvenor Gallery (see ‘Times,’ 2 May 1881). In the same year Mr. Hamo Thornycroft, R.A., exhibited a bust of Owen at the Royal Academy. A posthumous full-length bronze statue by Mr. Brock, R.A., was executed for the hall of the Natural History Museum, and a marble bust, by Mr. Gilbert, R.A., for the Royal College of Surgeons.
Apart from his innumerable contributions to scientific periodicals, special memoirs, and catalogues, the following are Owen's chief works:
- ‘Odontography; or a Treatise on the Comparative Anatomy of the Teeth, their Physiological Relations, Mode of Development, and Microscopic Structure in the Vertebrate Animals. Text and Atlas.’ London, 4to, 1840–5.
- ‘The Zoology of the Voyage of Her Majesty's Ship Beagle … during the Years 1832 to 1836.’ Part i. Fossil Mammalia, London, 1840.
- ‘Lectures on the Comparative Anatomy and Physiology of the Invertebrate Animals, delivered at the Royal College of Surgeons in 1843’ (from notes taken by Owen's pupil, W. White Cooper), London, 1843, 8vo (2nd edit. 1855). This forms vol. i. of the ‘Hunterian Lectures,’ of which vol. ii. (Fishes) appeared in 1846.
- ‘A History of British Fossil Mammals and Birds,’ London, 8vo, 1846 (issued in twelve parts between 1844 and 1846).
- ‘A History of British Fossil Reptiles,’ 4 vols. 4to, 1849–84. (A reprint of papers which appeared between 1849 and 1884 in the publications of the Palæontological and other Societies).
- ‘On Parthenogenesis, or the successive production of procreating individuals from a single ovum,’ London, 1849, 8vo.
- ‘Instances of the Power of God as manifested in His Animal Creation,’ London, 1855 (2nd edit. 1864).
- ‘On the Classification and Geographical Distribution of the Mammalia’ (Rede Lecture at Cambridge), London, 1859, 8vo.
- ‘The Principal Forms of the Skeleton and the Teeth, as the Basis for a System of Natural History and Comparative Anatomy’ (Orr's Circle of the Sciences), London, 1860, 8vo.
- ‘On the Extent and Aims of a National Museum of Natural History,’ London, 8vo, 1862.
- ‘On the Anatomy of Vertebrates,’ 3 vols. 8vo, London. Vol. i. Fishes and Reptiles, 1866; vol. ii. Birds and Mammals, 1866; vol. iii. Mammals, 1868.
- ‘Memoir on the Dodo,’ with an historical Introduction by W. J. Broderip, London, 4to, 1866.
- ‘Researches on the Fossil Remains of the Extinct Mammals of Australia, with a notice of the Extinct Marsupials of England,’ 2 vols. London, 4to, 1877–8.
- ‘Memoirs on the Extinct Wingless Birds of New Zealand, with an Appendix on those of England, Australia, Newfoundland, Mauritius, and Rodriguez,’ 2 vols. London, 4to, 1879.
- ‘Experimental Physiology; its Benefits to Mankind,’ London, 8vo, 1882.
- ‘Aspects of the Body in Vertebrates and Invertebrates,’ London, 8vo, 1883.
A complete list of Owen's contributions to scientific journals; Remarks, Descriptions, Notes, Observations, Reviews, Reports, Catalogues, and Appendices is given in ‘The Life, by his Grandson’ (1894, ii. 333–86).
But no account of Owen's enormous contributions to scientific literature would be complete without mention of his custom of having privately struck off a certain number of copies both of the text and illustrations of memoirs communicated to various societies, and at a later period of issuing and selling them as independent works, with slight alterations and additions, and with very little reference to the fact that they had been previously published elsewhere; the original signatures to the sheets and lettering of the plates were invariably altered. Nos. 5, 13, and 14 in the above list are examples of this confusing practice. Although Owen's method of double publication may have made his memoirs more accessible to specialists working at particular subjects, it has caused much confusion in determining the real dates of his discoveries and of their publication. For scientific purposes the original memoirs should always be consulted.
[Extensive use has here been made of the memoir contributed by the present writer to the Proceedings of the Royal Society in 1893, and of the Life of Richard Owen by his grandson, the Rev. Richard Owen, which was published in two vols. in 1894, with an essay on Owen's position in anatomical science by T. H. Huxley, F.R.S. (2 vols. 1894).]