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Friday Five: 15 Pieces of Nonsensical Nonfiction

Random Tangents: Sir Richard Owen

Richard OwenSir Richard Owen (1804-1892) showed up on fuckyeahhistorycrushes today, which is awesome. There are a few things I want to add, though.

A caveat: this is a fast and loose summary of an extensive research project I've been working on for years and should not be taken as a source of information. 

Since this came about as my response to a post on Tumblr devoted to "crushes on historical figures," let's start superficially! Owen was legitimately good-looking as a young man. He’s in his fifties in the portrait on the right, but check out this portrait. Here he’s in his early forties and has just shot to fame with his research on the nautilus. (He’s portrayed holding the shell and standing next to a preserved specimen in a jar.) Look how delighted he is! This portrait is in London's National Portrait Gallery, and I strongly encourage everyone to visit it.

Owen stood six feet tall and was very thin. He was also known to be quite vain; in portraits, photographs and even cartoons he’s often portrayed in expensive and flamboyant fabrics and colors. As Owen aged, his height (six feet was very tall in the nineteenth century!), his prominent eyes and his slender build made him look less shaggable than, well - evil. By the end of his life he looked like no one so much as Professor Moriarty. (With a side-trip through Severus Snape-ville.) And, unfortunately, he'd developed a pretty evil reputation by then, too.

Secondly - and this is where it gets interesting - Owen was the most famous British naturalist of his day. He was also cantankerous, ambitious, and enormously controversial; debate dogged his entire professional career, from questions about his integrity to his self-styling as a professor (although he gave public lectures and wore academic robes, he was not a traditional academic) to his frequent and heated quarrels with his contemporaries - particularly his famous conflicts with Darwin and Huxley.

Richard OwenAlthough Owen and Darwin were exact contemporaries and, initially, even friendly, (they worked together to identify the fossils Darwin brought back from his voyage on the Beagle), things blew up between them when Owen gave On the Origin of Species a devastating and, indeed, unnecessarily vituperative review soon after its publication, in 1859. Darwin never forgave Owen and, over time, the dispute between the two men expanded to include most of the scientific establishment of the day. Darwin, who liked his privacy, allowed and even encouraged his protegee Huxley (who loathed Owen) to fight about evolution with Owen; Huxley and his friends spent years engaged in an anti-Owen campaign devoted to humiliating the man in public and plaguing his political and personal ambitions with an eye toward painting Owen as a villain, a man opposed to progress and scientific theory. The evolution controversy overshadowed Owen’s last decades and his legacy.

In 1883, Owen oversaw the culmination of his life’s work - the opening of the Natural History Museum. Owen had begun fighting for a national natural history museum while in his late twenties, and pursued his dream throughout his life. He was 79 when the NHM finally opened its doors, and retired not long after. The man who took over as superintendent of the museum, William Henry Flower, was a friend of Huxley’s, and immediately began a campaign to smear Owen’s name and denigrate his monumental achievement. After Owen’s death, Flower even wrote a popular monograph about Owen, arguing that his museum designs were outdated and unworkable.

In the meantime, Darwin’s theory of evolution had become widely accepted within the scientific community. By the time of his retirement, Owen was being treated as, at best, a joke - and, at worst, a fraud and a deceiver, a man who couldn’t or wouldn't put aside his petty jealousies and accept the truth of Darwin’s theories. Owen died in 1892 and, by the early 20th century, his many accomplishments (including a campaign to buy, at enormous expense, the first archaeopteryx fossil ever discovered, believing it would prove to be of extraordinary scientific value) were forgotten or overlooked, overshadowed by the outcome of his long, losing battle with Darwin and Darwinian evolution. Indeed, many popular science histories even today write Owen off as personally cruel and unfeeling, and professionally jealous, old-fashioned, small-minded and obtuse - if not an outright plagerist. Only in the last few years have historians begun to seriously reexamine Owen’s work and his legacy.

This isn’t the place to get into the intricacies of the Owen/Darwin/Huxley debates, but believe me when I say they’re fascinating, and only just beginning to be really understood. Their fallout, however, is undeniable - Owen lost. For most of the last century, Owen was painted as “anti-Darwin” and “anti-evolution”, easy scientific shorthand for “blinkered” and “probably evil.” But Owen was neither. He had a different theory of evolution, based on theories of embryology that were, in some ways, decades ahead of his time. It seems that Owen couldn’t bring himself to accept he might be mistaken, or that someone might have a better theory. Was he right about evolution? No. Did his jealousies and argumentative nature prejudice him against Darwin’s theories? That’s probably only part of the answer. Owen was also interpreted as embodying the establishment that saw Darwinian evolution as a threat - he was a favorite of Queen Victoria's, had worked with Prince Albert on planning the Great Exhibition, and had even given the royal children lessons in natural history - and had been rewarded with a "grace and favor" house in Richmond and, eventually, a knighthood. Again, these are all only facets of the larger issue, but they're all meaningful.

Richard OwenHe was inarguably a difficult man, but he was not unfeeling; Owen was well-known for his quick wit and extraordinary abilities as an extempore speaker. He also, charmingly, loved songbirds and cats, and made a garden-bench out of whale bones. His scientific output was prodigious, even by 19th century standards; he would often stay up until the early hours of the morning writing, after putting in a full day’s work at the Royal College of Surgeons, the British Museum, or the Natural History Museum. Owen was devoted to his wife, whom he met at 22 and (as far as we know) remained faithful to for more than sixty years. His son, his only child, committed suicide a few years after his wife’s death, leaving Owen responsible for his son’s widow and many children, as well as his own mother and three maiden sisters, (only one of his sisters outlived him). Owen was devastated by his wife’s death and heartbroken by his son’s suicide. 

Owen was a fascinating man, and historians are only just now beginning to come to grips with his work, his life, and his legacy. Five years ago, his Wikipedia article was, to say the least, much briefer. (Tracking the Wikipedia history on the Owen article is fascinating, if you're into that kind of thing.) 

If you’re ever in London, go to the Natural History Museum - walk through the great central hall and gaze up at the terracotta monkeys and birds that decorate the walls, the botanical paintings that grace the ceilings. Stand in the shaft of light that pours through the windows above the statue of Darwin, and breathe in the atmosphere, the knowledge, the centuries of effort and exploration and categorization and discovery that permeates the air. Then go find Owen’s statue, (which used to be where Darwin’s is now, but was removed from its pride of place on Darwin’s 200th birthday and secreted in a dark corner) and say hello. Lector si monumentum requiris circumspice. 


Image courtesy of the NHM's website.