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Sir Richard Owen

the man who "invented" dinosaurs

Richard Owen

Richard Owen was born in Lancaster, England, on July 20, 1804. He attended the Lancaster Grammar School, whose master called him "lazy and impudent." In 1820, he was apprenticed to a surgeon-apothecary in Lancaster, and, in 1824, he entered the medical school at the University of Edinburgh. Displeased with the quality of teaching at Edinburgh, especially in comparative anatomy, Owen left the university after six months and transferred to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, England, where he was mentored by John Abernethy. He was admitted into and received his license from the Royal College of Surgeons in 1826.

Hunter Museum

In 1827, Owen was placed in charge of identifying and cataloging the 13,000 human and animal anatomical specimens collected by John Hunter, which had been purchased by the Crown and presented to the Royal College. Unfortunately, a previous caretaker of Hunter's estate, the surgeon Sir Everard Home, had burned most of Hunter's papers and documentation (because he had been publishing Hunter's discoveries as his own, and was afraid of getting caught). This meant that Owen had to identify and catalog the entire collection anew, but by 1830 he had labelled and identified every specimen, reorganized the entire collection, and was publishing a catalog. By the time he had finished Owen was more interested in comparative anatomy than medicine. A Catalogue of the Physiological Series of Comparative Anatomy Contained in the Museum of the Royal College, published in five volumes between 1833 and 1838, is still of considerable value. Owen succeeded William Clift as Curator of the Hunter Museum in 1849.

Royal College of Surgeons

In 1836, Owen was appointed Professor of Comparative Anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons, charged with giving lectures on anatomy that would use make of the Hunterian Collections. In 1837, Owen gave his first series of Hunterian Lectures to the public. These popular lectures were attended by royalty and many important figures in Victorian England, including Charles Darwin.

British Museum of Natural History

In 1856, Owen was appointed Director of the Natural History Department of the British Museum, a post he held until his retirement in 1884. He immediatedly started a campaign to make the natural history departments of the British Museum into a separate museum. His campaign bore fruit with the construction, beginning in 1873, of a new building in South Kensington to house the Natural History Department of the British Museum, which opened its doors in 1881. It did not become the fully independent British Museum of Natural History until 1963, however.


Owen's first work of note was Memoir on the Pearly Nautilus, which was published in 1832 and soon recognized as a classic.

Among Entozoa, Owen's most noteworthy discovery was that of Trichina spiralis (in 1835), the parasite that infects human muscles to cause the disease now known as trichinosis.

Owen also studied the Brachiopoda and Mollusca, and proposed the subdivision of Cephalopoda into the orders of Dibranchiata and Tetrabranchiata (in 1832). The Arthropod Limulus was the subject of a special memoir by him in 1873.


To properly identify the species to which the Hunter Museum's specimens belonged, Owen dissected many animals, carefully recording the dissections of the rarer species. Two of his most important works on vertebrates were Lectures on Comparative Anatomy and Physiology of the Vertebrate Animals (1846) and Anatomy and Physiology of Vertebrates (1866-1868). The latter work was based entirely on personal observations, and remains an important reference for naturalists and comparative anatomists today. The most striking of his contributions to the study of living mammals relate to the monotremes, marsupials, and anthropoid apes.


Owen defined homology in 1843 as "the same organ in different animals under every variety of form and function." For example, structures as visually different as a bat's wing, a seal flipper, a cat's paw, and a human hand actually display a common plan of structure, with identical or very similar arrangements of bones and muscles. Taking homology to its conclusion, Owen reasoned that there must exist a common structural plan for all vertebrates, as well as for each class of vertebrates. He called this plan the archetype.

the Archetype vertebrate, according to Owen
The Archetype vertebrate, according to Owen


Because teeth are the hardest parts of the body (regardless of animal) and are often found in fossils, Owen engaged in extensive investigations of the teeth of mammals. The most important result of those investigations was Odontography, which was published between 1840 and 1845.


A meeting with Georges Cuvier in 1830 inspired Owen's interest in paleontology, and his work with both the Hunter and British museums gave him ample opportunity to conduct paleontological research. Two of his most important works in this field were A History of British Fossil Mammals and Birds (1846) and A History of British Fossil Reptiles (4 volumes, 1849–84).

In 1839, Owen was sent a small fragment of bone from New Zealand. From it, he described a large, extinct bird "bigger than an ostrich," even though there was no evidence that such a bird had existed. Four years later, he was sent complete bones that confirmed his identification. The giant moa (which he named Dinornis) became the iconic symbol of Owen's ability to conjure from fragments of bones the likeness of beasts that had once inhabited Earth. Other notable examples of that ability were his descriptions of Mylodon robustus, a giant walking sloth that once inhabited South America (1842), and Archaeopteryx, the first fossil to show both reptilian and birdlike characteristics (1879).

the Dinornis, as assembled by Owen
The Dinornis, as assembled by Owen

Owen also discovered and named the earliest known horse, Hyracotherium (aka Eohippus), in 1841.


In 1842, after noticing that a group of fossils (including specimens of Megalosaurus, Iguanodon, and Hylaeosaurus) had certain characteristics in common, including column-like legs and five fused vertebrae fused to the pelvic girdle, Owen published an article in Proceedings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in which he stated: "The combination of such characters, some, as it were, from groups now distinct from each other, and all manifested by creatures far surpassing in size the largest of existing reptiles, will, it is presumed, be deemed sufficient ground for establishing a distinct tribe or suborder of Saurian Reptiles, for which I would propose the name of Dinosauria."

Over the course of his career, Owen named and described a number of dinosaurs: Anthodon (1876), Bothriospondylus (1875), Cardiodon (1841), Cetiosaurus (1841; Owen incorrectly thought that it was a kind of crocodile and not a dinosaur, however), Chondrosteosaurus (1876), Cimoliornis (1846), Cladeidon (1841), Coloborhynchus (1874), Dacentrurus (1875), Dinodocus (1884), Echinodon (1861), Massospondylus (1854), Nuthetes (1854), Polacanthus (1867), and Scelidosaurus (1859).

Honors and Awards

He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1834.

Created a Knight of the Order of the Bath in 1884.

Other Information

While working at the Hunter Museum, Owen fell in love with curator William Clift's daughter, Caroline. Within months, they were engaged, but Caroline's mother forbade the marriage until Owen was earning a decent living, which finally happened in 1835.

Owen served on a series of government committees, took part in the London Exhibition of 1851, and served as an advisor and expert witness to the government on all sorts of scientific matters. He also taught natural history to Queen Victoria's children.

Sir Richard Owen died in London, England, on December 18, 1892.

Encyclopędia Britannica
University of California Museum of Paleontology

John Hunter
Georges Cuvier
Queen Victoria

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This page was last updated on 06/10/2017.