Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/May 1883/Sketch of Professor Richard Owen, F.R.S.

PSM V23 D010 Richard Owen.jpg


PROFESSOR OWEN'S especial field of labor, that of comparative anatomy, covers every portion of the realm of zoõlogy; and in that field, as one of his biographers well observes, he has published original papers on every branch of the animal kingdom, living and fossil. Another writer, reviewing his work, has said felicitously and justly that, "from the sponge to man, he has thrown light on every subject he has touched."

Richard Owen was born in Lancaster, England, July 20, 1804. He received an elementary education at the grammar-school of his native town, and was for some time a pupil of a surgeon in that place. He became a student of the University of Edinburgh in 1824, and there enjoyed the guidance of the third Monro, Alison, Jameson, and Hope, in the university, and of Barclay in the out-door school. He was one of the founders of the Hunterian Society, and was chosen president of it in 1825. He visited Paris in the same year, and made the acquaintance of Baron Cuvier. Having spent about a year in the study of medicine at Edinburgh, he went to London, and became a student in the medical school of St. Bartholomew's Hospital, where he received the diploma of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1826. He had intended to enter the navy, but had settled down to practice in London, when Dr. Abernethy, with whom he had been associated for a little time at St. Bartholomew's as one of the dissectors, procured for him a position as assistant to Dr. Clift, Curator of the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. In this position it was his duty to make the catalogue of the Hunterian collection; and he prepared catalogues of the "Pathological Specimens," "Monsters and Malformations," and, chiefly, of the "Specimens of Natural History in Spirits," in 1830 and 1831. He continued the study of these collections through many years, succeeding Clift as curator of the museum on his death, and was gradually led by them to the extensive field of research with which his name is connected. In order to identify the specimens, it was necessary to make new dissections; and these were constantly opening new paths of inquiry and leading to new discoveries. He issued a "Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue of the Physiological Series of Comparative Anatomy," in sections, from 1833 to 1840; the "Paleontological Catalogue," in 1845 and 1854; and the "Catalogue of Recent Osteology," in which he described 5,906 specimens, in 1854. The work of cataloguing and examining for the catalogues was accompanied with constant additions to the specimens and consequent growth of the collection till, in 1856, when Owen's connection with the work ceased, they filled ten times the space that had been sufficient for them in 1828.

An important corollary to these labors was the editorial work he performed upon the writings of Hunter, the illustrious founder of the collection. In 1837 he published a new edition of Hunter's "Animal Economy," to which he added all the known published papers of the author; and he gave, in the preface, the first descriptive narrative of Hunter's real discoveries. He afterward published two volumes of Hunter's "Essays and Observations on Natural History, Anatomy, etc.," which had been transcribed by Clift before Home destroyed the originals, and had been deposited by him, with an autographic authentication, in Owen's hands. The preface to this work embodied a showing of the advanced views which Hunter entertained in geology and paleontology.

In 1834 Dr. Owen was appointed to the newly-founded chair of Comparative Anatomy in St. Bartholomew's Hospital, and two years afterward was made the first Hunterian Professor in the Royal College of Surgeons. He filled this position for twenty years, after which, in 1856, he was appointed Superintendent of the Natural History Department of the British Museum.

The history of the whole of the earlier thirty years of Professor Owen's active life is illustrated by the records of his anatomical and zoological investigations. His earliest published paper was a demonstration of the manner in which an aneurism had been obliterated by Dr. Stevens, of Santa Cruz, by means of a ligature of the internal iliac artery, which was communicated to the Medical Society of St. Bartholomew's Hospital in 1830. Soon after becoming connected with the Hunterian Museum, he obtained a specimen of the Nautilus pompilius, or pearly nautilus, an animal then almost unknown, on which he published a memoir, with drawings by himself, foreshadowing the advanced views on structure and affinities which characterize his scientific system. In 1835 he published the first account of the Trichina spiralis, that remarkable nematoid worm of swine and men which has since become famous as a cause of disease.

Professor Owen's earliest communications to the Royal Society were papers on the generation of the ornithorhyncus and the kangaroo. In numerous later memoirs he discussed the structure and affinities of the higher quadrumana, and proposed the use of the brainstructure as an important element of classification. Between 1840 and 1845 appeared his "Odontography," a very important work, founded on microscopic examinations, containing descriptions and drawings of the structure of the teeth of every class of animals. His "Lectures on Comparative Anatomy and Physiology" were published between 1843 and 1846. His great work on the "Archetype and Homologies of the Vertebrate Skeleton" was the fruit of twenty-one years of study of the subject, and presented a revision of Cuvier's conclusions in the direction of recognizing a greater conformity to type than his illustrious predecessor had been willing to admit. In forwarding a copy of this work to Professor Silliman, of Yale College, Professor Owen wrote, in 1846: "You may remember the condition in which this philosophical department of anatomy was left by the great Cuvier and Geoff roy, and the discussions which unhappily tended to sever those estimable men in the latter period of their lives. The result was the formation of two schools, or parties, in the French world of anatomy, and subsequently the facts and arguments bearing upon these transcendental questions have been viewed in Paris through the prism of such party feeling. The chief and most cherished labor and reflections of many past years have been devoted by me to the acquisition of such truth as might lie at the bottom of the well into which this philosophy of anatomy seemed to have sunk after the departure of the great luminaries of the Jardin des Plantes."

In this work, and one on "The Nature of Limbs," that appeared after it, Professor Owen developed the idea of Oken, that the typical form of development in the higher mammals is the vertebra. In another work, "On Parthenogenesis," he introduced a term, which has since come into general use, to describe a most curious and interesting phenomenon in reproduction.

A very important division of Professor Owen's investigations is his work relating to the apteryx, and other fossil gigantic birds of New Zealand, concerning which he presented numerous carefully elaborated papers to the Royal and Zoölogical Societies. The successful restoration of one of these birds, from the few parts first found, was regarded by him as affording a vindication of Cuvier's principle, that the entire animal may be reconstructed from a single bone, or articular facet of a bone. By other applications of this principle to more or less complete fossil remains he was able to restore many remarkable forms of extinct animals from the fossil fragments brought home by Darwin from South America. He carried on valuable studies on the sloths from the same region, among which was the mylodon, and described the gigantic extinct marsupials of Australia. Turning his attention to the fossil beds at home, he published memoirs on the chelonia of the Purbeck lime-stones and Wealden clays, and the reptiles of the London clay and the cretaceous formations, and a monograph of the British fossil mammalia. Among his later studies in the field of fossil anatomy is his reconstruction of the curious long-tailed bird from Solenhofen, the Archeopteryx. In one of his communications to the Royal Society (April, 1872), on the fossil mammals of Australia, he remarked, touching upon some generalizations suggested by the then present stage of discovery, that "the disappearance of the larger species was explicable on the principle of the 'contest of existence,' as applied by him to the problem of the extinction of the fossil birds of New Zealand ('Transactions of the Zoölogical Society,' vol. iv, 1850), and subsequently by Darwin to the incoming of new species, as 'the battle of life.'" In concluding this paper he remarked that "it is neither creditable nor excusable that so great a divergence should still be maintained, chiefly through theological teaching, in the ideas of the majority of men 'of ordinary culture' as to the cause and conditions of the distribution of living species over the globe from those suggested by the clear and multiplied demonstrations of science." One of his studies in the London clay, in 1873, brought to light the Odontopteryx, a fossil bird, having the peculiarity not found in any existing bird, and one previously unknown in birds, of jaws provided with long, conical, bony processes, like the serrations in a coarse saw.

When he assumed the position to which he was called at the British Museum, Professor Owen's attention was at once directed to the insufficiency of the space the museum afforded for the accommodation of the natural history collections. Repeated representations had already been made on this subject in vain. The Government would not enlarge the provisions at the museum, and finally intimated that it would prefer the alternative of having the collections removed. Professor Owen determined to accept this alternative, and had plans prepared for a large new museum at South Kensington, which would afford a superficial space of five acres to well-arranged collections. The plan was approved by the Government, but did not receive the favor of the House of Commons. Professor Owen then published a pamphlet "On the Extent and Aims of a National Museum of Natural History" (1862). After ten years more of agitation, a parliamentary appropriation was obtained, in 1872, with which the present magnificent range of buildings, now rapidly filling with the nation's treasures of natural history, were erected. "In the obtaining of this splendid casket in which to display Nature's gems," says "Nature," "Professor Owen has seen accomplished one great object of his life." "Nearly a quarter of a century," said the same journal in 1880, "has elapsed since he entered on his duty at the British Museum, and the record of his contributions to science during this period equals, if it does not surpass, that of the previous thirty years' period. Among the more important of these we must notice: 'Memoir on the British Fossil Reptiles of the Mesozoic Formations—Pterodactyles,' 1873-1877; 'On the British Fossil Reptiles of the Liassic Formations—Ichthyosaurs and Plesiosaurs,' 1865-1870; 'On the British Fossil Cetacea of the Red Crag,' 1870; 'On the Fossil Reptiles of South Africa,' 1876; 'On the Classification and Geographical Distribution of Mammals,' 1859; a 'Manual of Paleontology.' The long list of papers published in the 'proceedings' of learned societies, to be found in the Royal Society's invaluable catalogue (numbering over three hundred and sixty), includes many the scientific value of most of which would have given an abiding fame to their author."

Professor Owen was a member of the commission to inquire into the health of towns, in 1843 and 1846; was one of the commissioners on the health of the metropolis, in 1846 and 1848; and was a member of the commission on the meat-supply in 1849. In 1848 he published a special report on the sanitary condition of his native town of Lancaster, which was followed by the introduction of an improved sewerage and a new water-supply. He was one of the commissioners for the Great Exhibition of 1851, and was chairman of two of the juries in the Great Exhibition of Paris in 1855.

In the way of honors, Professor Owen received the Royal Medal from the Royal Society in 1842, and the Copley Medal in 1846; the "Ordre pour le Mérite," from the King of Portugal, in 1851, and the Cross of the Legion of Honor from Napoleon III in 1855; degrees from the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Dublin; and an honorary Fellowship in the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland. In 1858 he was elected one of the eight foreign associates of the Institute of France, in place of the botanist, Robert Brown. Prussia gave him its order of merit, and Italy its order of St. Maurice and St. Lazare; the Emperor of Brazil, the Imperial Order of the Rose; the Queen of England, the order of the Bath. He was President of the British Association in 1857, and his name is on the lists of honorary or corresponding members of most of the learned societies of Europe and America. In 1874 he gave new evidence of the extent and comprehensiveness of his researches by presenting to the Anthropological Institute an interesting paper on the races of ancient Egypt, as depicted in the sculptures. Continuing his studies in this direction, as well as in the whole field of anthropology, he made before the International Congress of Orientalists in the same year, as president of its ethnological section, the most remarkable address of the meeting, in which he recommended adherence to the scientific method in the study of ethnology, and particularly of ancient Egyptian and Oriental history.

In 1880 "Nature" reported Professor Owen as still active in labor at an age when most men have to cease from their work; and added that no better proof could be given of a spirit still young, than to witness the energy with which he had entered upon the occupation of the new home for natural history at South Kensington. Still, in the present year, by the latest accounts received from him, though he is seventy-nine years old, he was in good health, and publishing important papers.