Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Remembering Richard Owen

Richard Owen is a man that needs no introduction in the world of vertebrate palaeontology. Indeed it was Owen who, in 1842, coined the name Dinosauria to represent the order of extinct reptiles that were represented at that time by Iguanodon, Megalosaurus and Hylaeosaurus.

However, Owen is mostly seen as a man who was ruthless, who would stop at nothing to get what he wanted and had no qualms about using close friends and allies to achieve his ultimate goals. Those who dared to take him on were often cast aside and left ruined by a man who knew no limits, took no prisoners. Yes, Owen is often portrayed as the bad guy, the man we love to hate.

Despite this image, we must never forget what a truly amazing man he was and must never underestimate his achievements. Not only did he name the dinosaurs but his work in anatomy, zoology, palaeontology and evolutionary biology is remarkable. Owen introduced us to homology which, in biological terms, means that structures that have the same origin may be used for different purposes or may be morphologically different due to evolution, although Owen, of course, did not recognise evolution as the agent of change. One of the most common examples is that of a bat’s wing and the arm of a man and these are described as homologous structures.

Owen also produced gargantuan efforts as a taxonomist, naming and describing an astonishing amount of taxa through the years. Although he was very lucky in so much of his patronage, Owen also made his own luck as well and because he was made prosector of London Zoo, he was able to expand his knowledge of extant animals simply by being able to access every dead animal that died in the confines of the zoo. Being able to dissect these unfortunate beasts gave him unparalleled knowledge in comparative anatomy and was instrumental in his ability to identify so many new taxa.

To many, his biggest legacy is the Natural History Museum in London, a project that Owen vociferously campaigned for from 1856, through its construction from 1873 to its grand opening in 1881. Although it was initially a wing of the British Museum, the NHM finally achieved independent status in 1963 and is truly a magnificent building, worthy of housing the national collections.

My favourite stories regarding Owen stem back to his youth and the display, even then, of his single mindedness and compulsion to learn more. As a sixteen year old, Owen became apprentice to a surgeon who was charged to treat prisoners in the local jail as part of his rounds. It was here that he had his first encounter with the anatomy of the dead, as those prisoners who had died in captivity were subject to post mortem examination.

Owen was deeply affected by the experience and doubted whether mortal man had the right to defile the dead. He found himself “over-awed by the power of the human corpse” and actually wondered if a career in anatomy was for him. As if to compound his misgivings and fear, Owen, that same evening, experienced yet more terror as he revisited that same jail to treat prisoners with the fever.

Owen found himself in the same building where the earlier post mortems had been carried out – only this time it was dark and his lamp he was carrying had been blown out by the wind. As he fumbled about in the dark, Owen suffered visions that only ones imagination can bring forth and despite coming to realise the reality of his situation, he determined never to desecrate the bodies of the dead again.

Fortunately, this only lasted for about six weeks before his urge to learn more about the human body took control yet again – his burning desire pushing him on. This next story is almost hard to believe except for the fact that it is a perfect example of what Richard Owen was all about.

Owen attended the post mortem of a black patient in the jail hospital and was fascinated. His recent reading of an article describing variety in the human species compelled him to return to the jail on a cold snowy night to remove the head for dissection. He carefully placed the head in a brown paper bag and casually walked out of the jail, passed the guards and out into the night with the bag hidden beneath his cloak!

But as he quickly moved away down the hill, he lost his footing and the head tumbled from the bag and rolled down the hill! The head crashed in to the door of a small cottage and actually pushed the door open. As Owen arrived, the air was filled with the screaming of the lady of the house and, as she ran out, Owen quickly picked up the severed head and ran off.

News of a demonic phantom spread throughout the neighbourhood the following day. Ghost of a pirate captain’s cabin boy was one rumour – the Devil himself others thought. Only Owen knew the truth and he kept the secret to himself for many a year. These early escapades were the blue print for a man who was destined for great things.

In 2009, on the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s publication of Origin of Species, the statue of Richard Owen was removed from its prominent position overlooking the Great Hall in the NHM, and replaced with that of Charles Darwin. I was extremely pleased about this – the proponent of the theory of evolution usurping the man who had done so much to deny it.

And yet I for one do not forget the amazing contribution to science of this most amazing of men and contend that Richard Owen should not be castigated for who he was but rather should be celebrated for what he achieved.

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