Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/June 1897/Richard Owen

PSM V51 D154 Richard Owen.jpg

By President DAVID S. JORDAN.

EIGHTY years ago in America the feeling was becoming general that the age of competition was past, and that a new social and industrial era was about to begin. Benjamin Franklin held that if every man and every woman should work for three hours a day at something useful, poverty would be banished, and each one might spend every afternoon of his days and the whole afternoon of his life amid the consolations of philosophy, the charms of literature, or the delights of social intercourse. In the words of Robert Dale Owen: "Every one looked forward to the time when riches, because of their superfluity, would cease to be the end and aim of man's thoughts, plottings, and lifelong strivings; when the mere possession of wealth would no longer confer distinction—any more than does the possession of water—than which there is no property of greater worth."

William Maclure, a wise man and a learned geologist in those days, refused to invest money in the city of Philadelphia, giving as a reason that "land in cities can no longer rise in value. The community system must prevail, and in the course of a few years Philadelphia must be deserted, and those who live long enough may come back here and see the foxes looking out of the windows."

It is not strange, therefore, that Robert Owen, of Lanark, fresh from contact with the reforms in the Old World, and full of projects for the development of the New, found in William Maclure an ardent disciple and active co-worker.

Owen and Maclure did not overestimate the power of co-operation in the struggle of humanity with Nature, but they did overlook the fundamental law of Nature that co-operation means working together, and equality of reward must imply some degree of equality of effectiveness. "The fatal error" of the New Harmony Community, according to Robert Dale Owen, lay in their failure to recognize this law. No "industrial experiment," he continues to say, "can succeed which proposes equal remuneration to all men, the diligent and the dilatory, the skilled artisan and the common laborer, the genius and the drudge. . . . Such a plan of remunerating all alike will ultimately eliminate from a cooperative association the skilled and industrious members, leaving an ineffective and sluggish residue, in whose hands the experiment will fail, both socially and pecuniarily." In other words, no community can succeed in which the drones and the workers have equal access to the honey cells.

But though the project at New Harmony, judged by the measure of its founder's purposes, was a failure, still the influence for good of the men who, as a result of the experiment, became part of the life of the infant State of Indiana, is incalculable. New Harmony was located far in the backwoods, in the long-despised county of Posey, but for a time it was truly the center of American science, and to this day few names in the annals of our science are brighter than those of Le Sueur, Say, and the Owens.

To gain a just appreciation of the scientific career of Richard Owen we must consider for a moment the lives of the men of science whose dreams and projects he shared, and who were the companions of his youth. It was through the agency of William Maclure that most of these were drawn to New Harmony. Maclure was a geologist of note and an earnest student of social science. On leaving Philadelphia he planned to conduct at New Harmony a school of industry where the arts of the conquest of Nature should be taught to all. The essence of human progress, in his thought, was the increase of human knowledge. The farmer should cease to be a mere tiller of the soil, and should be trained to make the earth his benefactor. A man is better unborn than untrained. An unskilled laborer is a deformity, and they who toil should do so to the best advantage.

William Maclure published fortnightly at New Harmony a magazine called The Disseminator of Useful Knowledge, containing Hints to the Youth of the United States, from the School of Industry. Its motto was, "Ignorance is the frightful cause of human misery." Its subscription price was one dollar a year in advance.

This magazine was filled with wise reflections on social and political matters, having for lighter reading scraps of science and bits of useful information of every sort.

In the pages of the Disseminator the name of Thomas Say often appears. Say wrote on the shells of the Wabash. He followed Maclure from Philadelphia, and came down from Pittsburg in a keel boat, along with the notable company famous in the New Harmony Community as the "boat-load of knowledge."

Thomas Say had been with Long's expedition across the Rocky Mountains, and had already won fame as a naturalist and traveler. His papers on shells and insects were widely known. These investigations he continued at New Harmony. A close and conscientious observer, his work bears the stamp of a master mind. At his death in 1835 it was asserted that "he had done more to make known the zoölogy of this country than any other man." With a touch of his own modesty, one of his friends said that "he will he remembered ever as one who did honor to his country and enlarged the boundaries of human knowledge." A worthy monument stands to his memory over his burial place at New Harmony.

One of the most attractive of our pioneer naturalists was the artist, Charles Alexander Le Sueur, who was a native of France, but had lived for a time in Philadelphia, from which place he came to New Harmony in the "boat-load of knowledge." But before leaving France his fame had become widespread. He enjoyed the friendship and correspondence of Cuvier. He had been around the world as a naturalist in the celebrated voyage of Péron. He was one of the most careful of observers and had singular skill in drawing and painting animals. The turtles and fishes were his special subjects of study, and his pictures of them are among the most lifelike ever published. He had been the first naturalist to study the fishes of the Great Lakes and the first to examine the great group of fishes called suckers and buffaloes. He made large collections of the animals of the Wabash Valley, which he sent to Cuvier, and which are still preserved in the museum at Paris. A number of his water· color sketches remain; one, a small but very lifelike portrait of the old Governor Francis Vigo, I have seen in Indianapolis. Le Sueur painted the drop curtain of the theater at the Community Hall. It represented the Falls of Niagara, and to heighten the Americanism of the scene he painted by the side of the Falls that other great wonder of the New World, the rattlesnake.

When the community disbanded, Le Sueur returned to Philadelphia, earning thereafter, it is said, a precarious living by giving lessons in painting. Afterward he returned to France, where he became curator of the museum at Havre. Richard Owen was a great favorite with Le Sueur, and I have already published in these pages Owen's account of him and of the days when as a boy he waded barefooted in the bayous of the Wabash to gather mussel shells for the naturalist.

Dr. Gerard Troost, a Dutch geologist, was also a member of the community, and after leaving it he became State Geologist of Tennessee. He made a magnificent collection of minerals, which was purchased, it is said, by a society in Louisville for thirty thousand dollars.

Dr. Joseph F. Neef, a blunt, plain-spoken, honest man, was the teacher of New Harmony, and he was a great favorite with his pupils. He was born in Alsace, and in his early life had been both priest and soldier. He was a mathematician of great ability. After leaving the army he became an associate of Pestalozzi in his school near Yverdun in Switzerland. He was mentioned by Pestalozzi as an earnest, manly worker who did not disdain to occupy himself with the elements of science. Neef left Switzerland for Paris to introduce there the system of Pestalozzi. In Paris he met Maclure, and was induced by him to come to America. "It is my highest ambition," said Neef, "to be a country school teacher amid a hardy, vigorous community." And this he became in New Harmony.

He was an intimate associate of the Owens. His daughter Caroline became the wife of David Dale Owen, and Anne the wife of Richard.

There were besides these, who were a part of the community, other men of note in science who spent longer or shorter periods in the community as visitors. Among them was the eccentric, "mattoed" Rafinesque, whose stay was so short and whose story so long that I must pass him by with a word. Sir Charles Lyell was for a time the guest of the Owens.

Reared among such surroundings, and with such men as friends and teachers, it is not strange that the sons of Robert Owen were imbued with a love of Nature, nor that they formed high ideals of the work they should do in life.

Robert Owen, in accordance with his own theories, gave his children the best education which the world could offer, and they made good use of their opportunities. Robert Dale Owen, the eldest son, had a strong taste for philosophy and literature, and was long known as a charming essayist, one of that circle of writers who gave to the Atlantic Monthly its high literary character. He too was a part of the "boat-load of knowledge" and took an active part in the affairs of the community. He became a member of the State Legislature, and exerted a powerful influence in shaping the school system of Indiana. He must ever remain one of the prominent figures in the history of the State.

William Owen, the second son, died early at New Harmony.

David Dale Owen was the third son, and Richard Owen the youngest of the family. These two were intimately and constantly associated.both in their early education and in their later work. They were alike in taste and disposition, and, if we can trust the portraits of David Dale Owen, they were very much alike in personal appearance. They were born at New Lanark, in Scotland, David in 1807, Richard in 1810. They studied first at home under private tutors, and afterward were sent to Hofwyl, in Switzerland, to the famous school of Emmanuel Fallenberg. Later they studied chemistry under the famous Dr. Ure in Glasgow, and in 1827 they came to America together in a sailing vessel, landing at New Orleans. Until 1832, when Richard Owen was twenty-two years old, he had never been separated from his brother for a single day.

David Dale Owen was especially interested in fossils and minerals, and was employed to label and arrange the large collection of Maclure. A part of the collection became his property, and formed the nucleus of the famous Owen Museum, containing some eighty-five thousand specimens. This was purchased by the University of Indiana for the sum of twenty thousand dollars, but it was in great part lost in the destruction of the museum building in the disastrous fire of 1883.

David Dale Owen spent most of his life as geologist in the public service. He was State Geologist of Indiana in 1837. Afterward he undertook government work in Wisconsin and Iowa. He spent five years as United States Geologist in field work in the region beyond the Mississippi. Then in turn he had charge of the State Surveys in Kentucky, Arkansas, and Indiana. He was State Geologist of Indiana at the time of his death, in 1860. His work was admirably and conscientiously performed, and as first State Geologist of several different States he set a high standard of public work which few of his successors have been able to follow. One of the most untiring of workers and most unselfish of men, David Dale Owen has left a deep impression on the history of American geology, and the students in the Geological Department of the University of Indiana are proud to do their work in the building named "Owen Hall."

Richard Owen spent much of his early life as a teacher. He served for a time in the Mexican War, commanding a company under General Taylor. At the close of the war he became his brother's chief assistant, and was the first geologist to explore the northern shore of Lake Superior. For a time he held a professorship in the Western Military Institute in Kentucky, and afterward a similar position in a college in Nashville. This position he resigned to become his brother's successor as State Geologist of Indiana. While engaged in the survey of the State the civil war began, and he became lieutenant colonel of the Fifteenth Indiana regiment, under a commission from Governor Morton. While in camp he read the proof sheets of his last geological report. He took part in the battles of Rich Mountain and Greenbriar, and was promoted to the rank of colonel of the Sixtieth Indiana regiment.

The following facts regarding the war record of Colonel Owen I quote from an address by Judge R. W. Miers, one of his students: "In the winter of 1861-'62 he guarded at Indianapolis four thousand prisoners captured at Fort Donelson. In the spring of the following year he was ordered to Kentucky, where his regiment was taken prisoners of war by General Bragg at Mumfordsville. Three months later they were exchanged. Although the regiment was paroled, Dr. Owen was not, nor were his side arms taken from him. On the contrary, General Buckner went out into the field where the regiment was guarded, and thanked Colonel Owen for his kindness to the four thousand Fort Donelson prisoners at Camp Morton. He was treated very politely by General Bragg, with whom he had become acquainted in the Mexican War."

Later Owen was in the battle of Arkansas Post, and took part in the campaigns of Sherman and Grant about Vicksburg. He was with General Banks in 1863 on the Red River campaign, and while thus engaged was elected by the trustees of the University of Indiana to the professorship of natural science. He accepted the position on condition that his place should be temporarily supplied till the end of the war.

On January 1, 1864, he assumed the duties of his professorship in the university, which he continued to fill for fifteen years. In June, 1879, at the age of sixty-nine, he resigned, an increasing deafness, the result of sunstroke, having made his college duties burdensome to him. He retired to his estate at New Harmony, where he lived until March 25, 1890. His death was a tragic one, caused by accidentally drinking a quantity of arsenical embalming fluid.

While connected with the university he continued his work for the United States Geological Survey, exploring New Mexico and Arizona. During 1869 he traveled widely in Europe and America.

Of Dr. Owen's work as a teacher I may speak briefly. Under the present system of elective study he would have been an ideal teacher, earnest, thorough, and inspiring. Under the old system his best powers were never called for. He had neither skill nor taste for the work of drill master. He taught those well who cared to learn. He believed in large freedom of the student. His students were on their honor, and those who had no honor abused their freedom. It was part of the vicious system which prevailed in our colleges in the last generation that learned men capable of the highest work, and full of the inspiration which comes from thorough knowledge, should be compelled to spend their time and strength in crowding the elements of various subjects upon unwilling and unresponsive boys. A teacher should have the opportunity to give the best that is in him, and to give this to those who are ready and worthy to receive it.

In 1872 Dr. Owen was elected President of Purdue University, the agricultural and mechanical college of Indiana, established under the Morrill Act. This position he accepted, but, as after two years the school still remained unorganized, he never assumed the duties of the office. He published an interesting report to the trustees on the proposed method of organization and government of the new School of Agriculture. Its discipline he had planned to place in the hands of a representative senate of students. The lower classes were to be divided into sections, each numbering ten to fifteen, and each section to be under the direct supervision of some member of the senior class.

Dr. Owen's scientific publications were very numerous. His favorite subjects were the significance of the contour of continents and the causes of earthquake action. His mind was especially attracted to the study of hidden causes in the development of the earth—that is, to those causes which we have not yet learned to associate with their effects. This difficult line of research involved a vast amount of reading in every tongue, and the breadth of his early education made such reading possible. His first important work, A Key to the Geology of the Globe, was an endeavor to show that the present features of the earth are all the results of fixed and demonstrable laws, like those governing the development of animals and plants. He believed that the earth was a great magnet, made so directly or indirectly by the heat of the sun. As a result of this, he thought that the axis and coast lines of both continents tend to conform to the axis of the ecliptic. The angular distance of twenty-three and a half degrees, which marks the northward extension of the sun in summer, he took to be a natural unit of measure in the structure of the earth.

Whether these relations are real or fanciful I have no means of knowing. Perhaps in the ultimate progress of science it does not matter, for many hypotheses must be framed and tested before we come to the full measure of the laws which regulate the changes in the earth's crust.

Dr. Owen was a gentle and reverent man, unassuming and unselfish in all his relations—a man of perfect courtesy of manners because of perfect courtesy of thought; a man whom everybody loved because his love went out to every one. He was the highest type of teacher, of naturalist, of scholar, of soldier even, because above all his was the highest type of man.[2]

  1. So far as I know, Dr. Richard Owen, of New Harmony, was not related to the famous comparative anatomist in London who bore the same name.
  2. The writer once gave a lecture at New Harmony in the old building which had been the Community Theater. Dr. Owen presided. He was then nearly eighty years of age and very deaf. He did not hear one word of the lecture, but he had the art of appearing to hear. To every point the speaker or the audience deemed good he responded with a smile of appreciation, the expression of perfect courtesy, the courtesy of the "gentleman of the old school," of which type Dr. Owen was one of the most perfect examples.