S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Owen, Sir Richard (palaeontology)

Born: 20 July 1804, Lancaster, England.
Died: 18 December 1892, England.
Sir Richard Owen

Richard Owen, British anatomist and palaeontologist, followed an apprenticeship as surgeon-apothecary in Lancaster from 1820 to October 1824, when he left to study at the University of Edinburgh. However, he stayed only two semesters, during which he attended preparatory medical classes and studied some comparative anatomy. In 1825 he went to London to become a prosector at St Bartholomew's Hospital, where he disected cadavers in preparation for anatomical lectures. He qualified as a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons (MRCS) of England as soon as he reached the minimum age for registration in 1826. His first paper, on dissection, was published in the Medico-Chirurgical Transactions in 1830. Meanwhile, in March 1827, he was appointed in the Huntarian Museum, the pre-eminent anatomical museum of its time in Britain, maintained by the Royal College of Surgeons, to describe, catalogue and expand its collection. After serving as curator of the museum from 1842, during which period he also taught anatomy, he gave up his post in 1856 to become superintendent of the natural history collections of the British Museum (Natural History), a post he held until his retirement in 1883 at the age of 79.

Owen published over 400 papers, at first in comparative anatomy, but from the early eighteen-forties mainly in palaeontology. His main works were: Descriptive and illustrated catalogue of the physiological series of comparative anatomy contained in the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London (1833-1840), Odontography: a study of the comparative anatomy of the teeth (1840-1845), Lectures on comparative anatomy and physiology of invertebrates (1843), A history of British fossil mammals and birds (1846), Descriptive catalogue of the fossil organic remains of Reptilia and Pisces contained in the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London (1854), Fossil reptiles (1857-1862), Palaeontology, or a systematic summary of extinct animals and their geological relations (1860), On the anatomy of invertebrates (1866-1868), and Researches on fossil remains of extinct mammals of Australia (1877-1878).

In 1842 Owen introduced the term "dinosaur", and after the Great Exhibition of 1851 he and the artist B.W. Hawkins used the spectacular steel and glass building known as the the Crystal Palace to create the world's first theme park, housing life-size dinosaur statues of concrete, stone and iron. Owen severely criticised Charles Darwin's* Origin of species (1859), taking an ambiguous but often rabidly negative attitude to evolution. His acerbic manner in discussing this and other controversial topics isolated him in the scientific community. None the less he was the leading British palaeontologist of his time and was awarded many honurs, including election as a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1834. He was knighted that same year.

Owen never visited South Africa, but for 40 years studied and described many of the important early fossil finds from the Karoo. Most of these were mammal-like reptiles of Permian to Jurassic age belonging to the Class (or Subclass) Synapsida. In his first paper on this topic, published in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society in 1845, he reported on the first collection of fossils that A.G. Bain* sent to the Geological Society of London from Grahamstown. The title says it all: "Report on the reptilian fossils of South Africa. Part 1. Description of certain fossil crania, discovered by A.G. Bain in sandstone rocks at the south-eastern extremity of Africa, referable to different species of an extinct genus of Reptilia (Dicynodon), and indicative of a new tribe or sub-order of Sauria". The genus Dicynodon later proved to be the dominant group of herbivorous mammal-like reptiles of the Karoo era. Parts 2 and 3 of the paper followed in 1855. In later papers, most of them published in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society between 1860 and 1884, he described many more new species of Synapsida. He also provided the first description of a dinosaur fossil from South Africa, which had been collected near Harrismith, in the Free State, by J.M. Orpen* in 1853. In 1876 he produced a Descriptive and illustrated catalogue of the fossil Reptilia of South Africa in the collection of the British Museum, in which most specimens had been sent to London by Bain. The publication was discussed in an editorial article in the Cape Monthly Magazine (2nd series, 1876, Vol 13, pp. 117-123). Owen's only paper to be published in South Africa appeared in the same Journal (3rd series, 1879, Vol. 1(1), pp. 32-37). Based on a paper read before the Royal Colonial Institute, it was entitled "The extinct animals of the Cape of Good Hope". The South African marine molluscs Donax oweni and Cypraea oweni were named after him.

List of sources:
Barnard, K.H. Personal names in South African conchology. Cape Town: Conchological Society of Southern Africa, 1965.

Brink, A.S. Illustrated bibliographic catalogue of the Synapsida. Pretoria: Geological Survey, Handbook 10, Part 1, 1982.

Cape Monthly Magazine, 1876, 1879.

De Klerk, W.J. Albany Museum. In C.R. Anhaeusser (ed.), A century of geological endeavour in southern Africa, 1895-1995 (pp. 324-336). Johannesburg: Geological Society of South Africa, 1997.

Hall, A.L. Bibliography of South African geology to the end of 1920. Pretoria: Geological Survey, Memoir No. 18, 1922.

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980.

Oxford dictionary of national biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Palmer, D. Invention of the dinosaur: Richard Owen, 1804-92. In The science book (p. 154). United Kingdom: Cassell, 2001.

Royal Society of London. Catalogue of scientific papers [1800-1900]. London: Royal Society, 1867-1925.

Compiled by: C. Plug