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Richard Owen

Sir Richard Owen (July 20, 1804 - December 18, 1892) was an English biologist, comparative anatomist and palaeontologist.

Owen and Dinornis

Table of contents
1 Early life and career
2 Work on invertebrates
3 Work on fish, reptiles and birds
4 Work on mammals
5 Owen's legacy

Early life and career

Owen was born in Lancaster. He received his early education at the grammar school of that town. In 1820 he was apprenticed to a local surgeon and apothecary, and in 1824 he proceeded as a medical student to the university of Edinburgh. He left the university in the following year, and completed his medical course in St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, where he came under the influence of the eminent surgeon, John Abernethy.

He then contemplated the usual professional career; but his bent was evidently in the direction of anatomical research, and he was induced by Abernethy to accept the position of assistant to William Clift, conservator of the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. This congenial occupation soon led him to abandon his intention of medical practice, and his life henceforth was devoted to purely scientific labours. He prepared an important series of catalogues of the Hunterian collection in the Royal College of Surgeons; and in the course of this work he acquired the unrivalled knowledge of comparative anatomy which enabled him to enrich all departments of the science, and specially facilitated his researches on the remains of extinct animals. In 1836 he was appointed Hunterian professor in the Royal College of Surgeons, and in 1849 he succeeded Clift as conservator. He held the latter office until 1856, when he became superintendent of the natural history department of the British Museum. He then devoted much of his energies to a great scheme for a National Museum of Natural History, which eventually resulted in the removal of the natural history collections of the British Museum to a new building at South Kensington, the British Museum (Natural History). He retained office until the completion of this work in 1884, when he received the distinction of K.C.B., and thenceforward lived quietly in retirement at Sheen Lodge, Richmond Park, until his death.

Work on invertebrates

While occupied with the cataloguing of the Hunterian collection, Owen did not confine his attention to the preparations before him, but also seized every opportunity of dissecting fresh subjects. He was especially favoured with the privilege of investigating the animals which died in the Zoological Society's gardens; and when that society began to publish scientific proceedings in 1831, he was the most voluminous contributor of anatomical papers. His first notable publication, however, was his Memoir on the Pearly Nautilus (London, 1832), which was soon recognized as a classic. Henceforth he continued to make important contributions to every department of comparative anatomy and zoology for a period of over fifty years. In the sponges Owen was the first to describe the now well-known Venus's flower basket or Euplectella (1841, 1857). Among Entozoa his most noteworthy discovery was that of Trichina spiralis (1835), the parasite infesting the muscles of man in the disease now termed trichinosis (see also, however, Sir James Paget). Of Brachiopoda he made very special studies, which much advanced knowledge and settled the classification which has long been adopted. Among Mollusca, he not only described the pearly nautilus, but also Spirula (1850) and other Cephalopoda, both living and extinct; and it was he who proposed the universally-accepted subdivision of this class into the two orders of Dibranchiata and Tetrabranchiata (1832). The problematical Arthropod Limulus was also the subject of a special memoir by him in 1873.

Work on fish, reptiles and birds

Owen's technical descriptions of the Vertebrata were still more numerous and extensive than those of the invertebrate animals. His Comparative Anatomy and Physiology of Vertebrates (3 vols., London, 1866-1868) was indeed ,the result of more personal research than any similar work since Cuvier's Leçons d'anatomie comparée. He not only studied existing forms, but also devoted great attention to the remains of extinct groups, and immediately followed Cuvier as a pioneer in vertebrate paleontology. Early in his career he made exhaustive studies of teeth, both of existing and extinct animals, and published his profusely illustrated work on Odontography (1840-1845). He discovered and described the remarkably complex structure of the teeth of the extinct animals which he named Labyrinthodonts. Among his writings on fishes, his memoir on the African mud-fish, which he named Prolopterus, laid the foundations for the recognition of the Dipnoi by Johannes Muller. He also pointed out later the serial connexion between the teleostean and ganoid fishes, grouping them in one sub-class, the Teleostomi.

Most of his work on reptiles related to the skeletons of extinct forms, and his chief memoirs on British specimens were reprinted in a connected series in his History of British Fossil Reptiles (4 vols., London, 1849-1884). He published the first important general account of the great group of Mesozoic land-reptiles, to which he gave the now familiar name of Dinosauria. He also first recognized the curious early Mesozoic land-reptiles, with affinities both to amphibians and mammals, which he termed Anomodontia. Most of these were obtained from South Africa, beginning in 1845 (Dicynodon), and eventually furnished materials for his Catalogue of the Fossil Reptilia of South Africa, issued by the British Museum in 1876. Among his writings on birds, his classical memoir on the Apteryx (1840-1846), a long series of papers on the extinct Dinornithidae of New Zealand, other memoirs on Aptornis, Notornis, the Dodo, and the Great Auk, may be specially mentioned. His monograph on Archaeopteryx (1863), the long-tailed, toothed bird from the Bavarian lithographic stone, is also an epoch-making work.

Work on mammals

With regard to living mammals, the more striking of Owen's contributions relate to the monotremes, marsupials, and the anthropoid apes. He was also the first to recognize and name the two natural groups of typical Ungulate, the odd-toed (Perissodactyla) and the even-toed (Artiodactyla), while describing some fossil remains in 1848. Most of his writings on mammals, however, deal with extinct forms, to which his attention seems to have been first directed by the remarkable fossils collected by Darwin in South America. Toxodon, from the pampas, was then described, and gave the earliest clear evidence of an extinct generalized hoof animal, a pachyderm with affinities to the Rodentia, Edentata, and Herbivorous Cetacea. Owen's interest in South American extinct mammals then led to the recognition of the giant armadillo, which he named Glyptodon (1839), and to classic memoirs on the giant ground-slothss, Mylodon (1842) and Megatherium (1860), besides other important contributions.

At the same time Sir Thomas Mitchell's discovery of fossil bones in New South Wales provided material for the first of Owen's long series of papers on the extinct mammals of Australia, which were eventually reprinted in book-form in 1877. He discovered Diprotodon and Thylacoleo, besides extinct kangaroos and wombats of gigantic size. While occupied with so much material from abroad, Owen was also busily collecting facts for an exhaustive work on similar fossils from the British Isles, and in 1844-1846 he published his History of British Fossil Mammals and Birds, which was followed by many later memoirs, notably his Monograph of the Fossil Mammalia of the Mesozoic Formations (Palaeont. Soc., 1871). One of his latest publications was a little work entitled Antiquity of Man as deduced from the Discovery of a Human Skeleton during Excavations of the Docks at Tilbury (London, 1884).

Owen's legacy

Owen's detailed memoirs and descriptions require laborious attention in reading, on account of their nomenclature and ambiguous modes of expression; and the circumstance that very little of his terminology has found universal favour causes them to be more generally neglected than they otherwise would be. At the same time it must be remembered that he was a pioneer in concise anatomical nomenclature; and, so far at least as the vertebrate skeleton is concerned, his terms were based on a carefully reasoned philosophical scheme, which first clearly distinguished between the now familiar phenomena of analogy and homology. Owen's theory of the Archetype and Homologies of the Vertebrate Skeleton (1848), subsequently illustrated also by his little work On the Nature of Limbs (1849), regarded the vertebrate frame as consisting of a series of fundamentally identical segments, each modified according to its position and functions. Much of it was fanciful, and failed when tested by the facts of embryology, which Owen systematically ignored throughout his work. However, though an imperfect and distorted view of certain great truths, it possessed a distinct value at the time of its conception.

To the discussion of the deeper problems of biological philosophy he made scarcely any direct and definite contributions. His generalities rarely extended beyond strict comparative anatomy, the phenomena of adaptation to function, and the facts of geographical or geological distribution. His lecture on virgin reproduction or parthenogenesis, however, published in 1849, contained the essence of the germ plasm theory elaborated later by August Weismann; and he made several vague statements concerning the geological succession of genera and species of animals and their possible derivation one from another. He referred especially, to the changes exhibited by the successive forerunners of the crocodiles (1884) and horses (1868); but it has never become clear how much of the modern doctrines of organic evolution he admitted. He contented himself with the bare remark that "the inductive demonstration of the nature and mode of operation of the laws governing life would henceforth be the great aim of the philosophical naturalist."

See The Life of Richard Owen, by his grandson, Rev. Richard Owen (2 vols., London, 1894). (A. S. Wo.)