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-