Richard Owen

Richard Owen

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Richard Owen





Dinosaurs Named:

Cetiosaurus, Massospondylus, Polacanthus, Scelidosaurus, among numerous others

About Richard Owen

Richard Owen wasn't a fossil hunter, but a comparative anatomist--and he was far from the most likeable person in the history of paleontology. Throughout his long career in 19th-century England, Owen had a tendency to dismiss or ignore the contributions of other scientists, preferring to claim all the credit for himself (and he was, it must be said, a very talented, insightful and accomplished naturalist). This was even the case with his most famous contribution to paleontology, his invention of the word "dinosaur" ("terrible lizard"), which was inspired in part by the discovery of Iguanodon by Gideon Mantell (who later said of Owen that it was "a pity a man so talented should be so dastardly and envious.")

As he became increasingly prominent in paleontological circles, Owen's treatment of other professional, especially Mantell, became even more mean-spirited. He renamed (and took credit for discovering) some of the dinosaur fossils Mantell had unearthed, he prevented many of Mantell's posthumous research papers from ever being published, and he was even widely believed to have written a scornful ananomyous obituary of Mantell upon the latter's death in 1852. The same pattern repeated itself (with less success on Owen's part) with Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution Owen mistrusted and was probably envious of.

​After the publication of Darwin's seminal book On the Origin of Species, Owen became involved in an ongoing debate with the evolutionary popularizer and Darwin supporter Thomas Henry Huxley. ​Unable to let go of the idea of animal "archetypes" ordained by god to vary only within tight constraints, Owen ridiculed Huxley for the idea that humans evolved from apes, while Huxley defended Darwin's theory by (for instance) pointing out similar substructures in human and simian brains. Owen even went so far as to imply that the French Revolution was a direct consequence of the theory of evolution, as humans abandoned the natural order of things and embraced anarchy. Darwin, as always, had the last laugh: in 2009, the London Natural History Museum, of which Owen was the first director, retired his statue in the main hall and put up one of Darwin instead!

Although Owen is most famous for coining the word "dinosaur," these ancient reptiles of the Mesozoic Era account for a relatively small percentage of his career output (which makes sense, since the only known dinosaurs at the time, beside Iguanodon, were Megalosaurus and Hylaeosaurus). Owen was also notable for being the first paleontologist to investigate the strange, mammal-like therapsids of southern Africa (especially the "two-dog-toothed" Dicynodon), and he wrote a famous paper about the recently discovered Archaeopteryx; he also actively researched more "ordinary" animals like birds, fish and mammals in a veritable flood of professional publications.


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