Richard Owen

Sir Richard Owen

An anatomist and vertebrate palaeontologist, Owen became interested in dentition whilst curating the Hunterian collection at the Royal College of Surgeons.

Between 1840 and 1845 he compiled information on a vast number of teeth. His dental studies included the teeth of fish, amphibians, mammals and reptiles, contemporary and fossil.

 

THE AUTHOR OF ODONTOGRAPHY

FORMATIVE YEARS

Born and raised in Lancaster, the teenage Owen was given an apprenticeship with a surgeon/apothecary in 1820, and later attended the University of Edinburgh (1824) and St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, London (1825) to complete his medical training. Whilst at St. Bartholomew’s he met Caroline Amelia Clift who he married in 1835. Owen became assistant to his father in-law William Clift, curator at the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. Whilst working in the museum Owen became interested in the practice of science and abandoned his plans of becoming a surgeon to pursue a career as an anatomist. A large portion of his knowledge was acquired whilst cataloguing the Hunterian collections.

Five years of comparative anatomy..

Writing Odontography

 

Owen was appointed Hunterian professor in 1836. It was during his time as Hunterian professor that Owen compiled the painstaking collection of etchings and writings on the teeth of living and fossil vertebrates, Odontography (1840-1845).

In this volume of work Owen formalized many dental terms including dentine.

 

"I propose to call the substance which forms the main part of all teeth 'dentine'."

LEGACY

Owen succeeded Clift as principal curator (1849) of the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons and held the post until 1856. Early in this new role Owen worked with Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins to create the famous dinosaur, pterosaur and marine reptile sculptures for the great exhibition of 1851. In 1856 Owen was made superintendent of the natural history department in the British Museum. During his time in the British museum, Owen campaigned to parliamentary officials to get a museum for natural history alone. He succeeded in establishing the British Museum (for natural history), now the natural history museum (UK) just before he retired in 1883.

 

Throughout his career Owen described and named new fossil species. He made science more accessible to the public and most famously coined the term dinosaur.

Sir Richard Owen

Richard Owen trained as a physician, but the opportunity to curate the collections of the Royal College of Surgeons arose. He later campaigned to create a national public museum - the Natural History Museum, London. Between 1840 and 1845 Owen compiled the treatise presented here, Odontography.

 

REPUTATION

Unfortunately, in Owen’s career he was plagued by accusations of being ruthless and bitter. Indeed, he was dropped from the council of the Royal Society in 1846 for neglecting to credit another individual with the discovery of a fossil belemnite, the subject of his manuscript. This and other minor infractions meant that supporters of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), namely Joseph Dalton Hooker and Thomas Henry Huxley lead a particularly successful smear campaign against Owen. Owen’s downfall was seemingly that he became jealous of other scientists that did not credit him and rose to their challenges foolhardy. Furthermore, he would not credit others where he felt it unnecessary, leaving him in ill favour with his peers. To say he was misunderstood would be a step too far. Upon the death of one of his long term nemeses, Gideon Mantell, he had his spine removed for scientific purposes and pickled in a jar. Mantell did have a condition in his spine and Owen’s actions may have been genuine.

Steven Uros Vidovic, University of Portsmouth

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