In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Richard Owen (Victorian Naturalist)

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Imperial Anatomy
  • Religion and Science
  • Scientific Sites
  • Further Scientific Career
  • Art and Aesthetics

Victorian Literature Richard Owen (Victorian Naturalist)
by
Richard Fallon
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0203

Introduction

Richard Owen (b. 1804–d. 1892), best known for his skills in comparative anatomy, was one of 19th-century Britain’s most celebrated naturalists. Owen coined the term “dinosaur” to describe a series of British fossil reptiles, but, in his own lifetime, he was better known for work on other strange specimens (both extant and extinct) brought into his hands from across the British Empire and the world. These included the moa bird, the pearly nautilus, the giant ground sloth Mylodon, and the gorilla. Most of Owen’s anatomical research was carried out from the vantage point of well-stocked London museums, namely the Hunterian Museum and the natural history department of the British Museum—the latter of which, thanks chiefly to Owen’s efforts, was relocated to South Kensington’s purpose-built Natural History Museum in 1881. Although born into a lower middle-class family in Lancaster, Owen’s scientific rise enabled him to move in elevated circles. He and his wife Caroline (née Clift) thus enjoyed the patronage of the royal family and prime minister Robert Peel and the friendship of literary figures like Charles Dickens and Thomas Carlyle. During the mid-19th century, his gift for publicity made his name the byword for an almost preternatural knowledge of fossil bones. Owen’s theistic anatomy combined the functionalism of French paleontological pioneer Georges Cuvier with concepts from German transcendentalism, the latter of which inspired his notion of a divinely ordained archetype underlying all vertebrate skeletons. During the late 1850s, however, this framework came under attack from iconoclastic naturalists like T. H. Huxley, whose subsequent association with Charles Darwin and evolutionary theory overshadowed Owen’s complicated ideas of life’s progressive development. At his death, Owen’s reputation had wilted. For decades, the Darwinian winners and their acolytes wrote the history, their work made easier by Owen’s reputation for abrasiveness. In the second half of the 20th century, scholars started to take him more seriously. While the proto-evolutionary nature of his early writings has intrigued the “Darwin Industry,” other fascinating parts of his career have also become better understood, including his anglicization of German and French anatomical ideas, his mastery of serial publishing and influence on Victorian literary culture, and his formative role in Australian colonial natural history. Despite this flowering of Owen scholarship, his life and works have not received the quantity of attention granted to other similarly eminent Victorians.

General Overviews

Gruber 2004 packs substantial value into a short space in his biographical account, although the essential book-length biography and overview of Owen is Rupke 2009, supplemented with some of the extended sections of Rupke 1994. Rupke focuses more on Owen’s career and thinking than on his private life, which is discussed in undiscriminating detail in the oft-quoted Owen 1894. Wessels and Taylor 2017 provides detail on Owen’s less commonly discussed early life in Lancaster.

  • Gruber, Jacob W. “Owen, Sir Richard (1804–1892), comparative anatomist and palaeontologist.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.

    Gruber’s concise but precise online biography of Owen, which includes a list of relevant archival holdings, makes for an ideal introduction to the study of his life.

  • Owen, The Rev. Richard. The Life of Richard Owen, 2 vols. London: John Murray, 1894.

    DOI: 10.5962/bhl.title.130474

    This Victorian life-and-letters biography, written by Owen’s grandson, has been excoriated by scholars for its pretentious name-dropping. It occludes important aspects of Owen’s career but remains valuable for intimate information, often taken from Caroline Owen’s now lost diary. The journal recorded both “important facts” and “trivial details” alike, including attention to the family’s sartorial, musical, artistic, and literary tastes, as well as their social networks and correspondence.

  • Rupke, Nicolaas A. Richard Owen: Victorian Naturalist. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994.

    Generally superseded, as far as the needs of most scholars are concerned, by the revised and streamlined Rupke 2009, but this more extensively illustrated book contains some valuable material cut from the later version. These include sections on Owen’s criticism of the use of judicial procedures in evaluating the validity of sea serpent sightings and on his rhetorically complex defense of vivisection.

  • Rupke, Nicolaas A. Richard Owen: Biology without Darwin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226731780.001.0001

    The indispensable book-length biography and overview of Owen’s career. Argues that Owen’s activities are best characterized as uniformly “pro-museum.” Rupke also plays down the common stress on anti-transmutation (or anti-evolution) as the salient factor in Owen’s early science, depicting him as shifting between (but not reconciling) a Cuvierian functionalism that appealed to Oxbridge patrons and a more radical transcendental approach in which he developed his own theistic evolutionism.

  • Wessels, Q., and A. M. Taylor. “Anecdotes to the Life and Times of Sir Richard Owen (1804–1892) in Lancaster.” Journal of Medical Biography 25.4 (2017): 226–233.

    DOI: 10.1177/0967772015608053

    Describes rarely discussed aspects of Owen’s life: his schooling in Lancaster, his work on sanitary reform there in the 1840s, and his enduring reputation in the city.

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