Richard Owen (1804-1892)

Fullerian Professor of Physiology and Comparative Anatomy, 1858-1862

  • Richard Owen

    Richard Owen

    Credit: Royal Institution


Ri positions

  • Fullerian Professor of Physiology and Comparative Anatomy, 1858-1862

Born in Lancaster, he attended the grammar school there before serving as an apprentice to a number of local surgeons, which inspired his interest in anatomy. In 1824 he moved to Edinburgh to study medicine at the University there. The following year he moved to London where he established a private practice and worked at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, becoming, in 1829, Lecturer on Comparative Anatomy. In 1830 he spent some time in Paris where he came under the influence of Cuvier and Geoffroy St Hilaire, especially in their ideas of a progressivist view of animal development. Since 1827 he had held a number of positions at the Royal College of Surgeons and in 1842 became joint Conservator of its Hunterian Museum, taking over the entire position shortly afterwards. That same year he coined the word dinosaur to describe the fossil remains of large extinct animals that were increasingly being unearthed.

In 1856, by which time he was regarded as the leading anatomist in England, he changed career to take charge of the natural history collections at the British Museum. This position allowed him leisure to pursue his research and writing. This included attacking Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which he did not only directly but by providing advice to Samuel Wilberforce. From 1858, the year he was President of the British Association, he began lobbying for the establishment of a national museum of natural history. In this he was eventually successful when the building of the British Museum (Natural History) was begun at South Kensington in 1873, although not opened until 1881, two years before his retirement.

Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography