Papers of Sirt Richard Owen

Scope and Content

The manuscript collection of Sir Richard Owen contains material relating to his work as Conservator of the Hunterian Museum, other material collected by or about Richard Owen, and transcripts or copies of Richard Owen material held at other repositories.

The largest group of records is the material relating to Owen's work as Conservator of the Hunterian Museum. This group of manuscripts includes Owen's work in cataloguing the museum collections, expanding the collections, giving lectures, carrying out general administrative tasks, corresponding with colleagues and contemporaries, and carrying out research for the museum and for publications.

The collection also contains some material that was collected by Richard Owen, or material that concerns him and was added to the collection by the museum or library after his death.

The third group of records are transcripts or copies of material created by Richard Owen that is held in other repositories.Extent19 boxesLanguageEnglishSystem of arrangementThe collection is divided into three main subfonds: 1) Papers relating to work as Conservator of the Hunterian Museum, 2) Miscellaneous material collected by or about Richard Owen, 3) Transcripts and Copies of Richard Owen material held in other repositories.

Administrative / Biographical History

Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892), comparative anatomist and palaeontologist, was born on 20 July 1804 in Lancaster, the second son of Richard Owen (1754–1809) and Catherine Longworth, née Parrin (d. 1838).

In 1810 Owen entered the Lancaster grammar school as a day student. When he was sixteen he intended to become a surgeon-apothecary and began an apprenticeship with a succession of three masters for the next four years. He learned the rudiments of medical practice and developed a skill in dissection with a knowledge of human anatomy. He left his apprenticeship and went to the University of Edinburgh to complete his medical qualification.

Owen studied for two terms in Edinburgh from October 1824, completing the classes designed to prepare students for formal admission to medical practice. He attended John Barclay's course in anatomy, which was supported by a large anatomical collection, and placed human anatomy in the wider context of the whole of the animal kingdom. Barclay recommended that Owen leave Edinburgh and go to London to complete the requirements for membership in the Royal College of Surgeons. He could then pursue a private medical practice, and become a naval surgeon, which was his desire at the time. John Barclay wrote to John Abernethy, at that time President of the Royal College of Surgeons, to recommend Owen to him.

Owen moved to London and although he was too young to become a member of the College, Abernethy dissuaded Owen from his plans for a naval career and took him on as the prosector for his surgical lectures. The appointment gave him valuable experience as a practicing anatomist. It was also useful socially, where influence was an important factor in the success of a member of the medical profession. Owen passed the College membership examination when he turned twenty-two, and began to practice near the College at Cook's Court, off Chancery Lane.

In the mid 1820s the College was being criticised for failing to produce a catalogue of the collection of John Hunter, which made the collection very difficult to use. John Abernethy assisted Owen in obtaining an appointment as Clift's assistant. Owen started his post at the Hunterian Museum on 7 March 1827 at a salary of £30 per quarter. This was the beginning of his long and productive career as a natural scientist. His salary soon increased to £150 per annum.

Owen got on well with the conservator, William Clift and became friends with his son, William Home Clift, whom it was hoped would be successor to Clift in the Museum. Owen also became friends with, and then fiancé to, Clift's daughter Caroline Emily Clift. (1801-1873).

Owen continued with his medical practice and his appointment at the museum in order to earn a little more money. From 1828 he began to lecture in comparative anatomy at St Bartholomew's.

Owen's first task at the Hunterian was to catalogue the natural history specimens, and then the soft-tissue preparations in spirit. Sometimes Owen substituted for Clift in giving guided tours to distinguished visitors, and as he could speak French he acted as guide for Cuvier in 1830. Cuvier then invited Owen to visit him at his own establishment at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. In 1831 Owen spent a month in Paris visiting Cuvier and using his collections.

Also in 1830 Owen became a member of a committee on science and correspondence within the recently organized Zoological Society of London. At the first meeting of this group late in 1830 Owen described, in what was to be his first publication under his own name, his dissection of a rare orang-utan that had recently died soon after its arrival in the society's gardens. This paper began a long series of other papers by Owen over the next 50 years on various aspects of comparative anatomy.

Owen received anatomical subjects from the Zoological gardens and also travellers and members of the College from all around the world, for example, George Bennett, who sent many specimens including that of the pearly nautilus. The College also had a specimen of the duck-billed platypus. Owen wrote papers on these particular specimens establishing himself as a professional comparative anatomist.

Owen was influenced by many members of the anatomy and natural history communities, such as Joseph Henry Green, whose lectures on comparative anatomy Owen attended; and William Buckland the geologist, with whom Owen developed a close personal and professional friendship.

After the sudden death of William Home Clift in 1832, Owen began to take more of a role in the Hunterian Museum. This coincided with the restructuring and expansion of the Museum, which Owen became involved in and from which emerged his interests in the establishment of a national museum of natural history.

Owen's career as a well respected natural historian prospered at this time through his many publications and his election as a follow of the Royal Society in 1834. In 1835 he married Caroline Clift. He was dedicated to his work producing a wide range of publications presented before the Zoological Society, the Royal Society, the Geological Society, the Linnean Society and the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

In 1836 Owen was appointed Hunterian professor of comparative anatomy and physiology at the Royal College of Surgeons. One of his first tasks was to deliver the first of what was to be an annual series of twenty-four lectures. He was an active member of various specialist societies, as well as President of the Microscopical Society.

In 1839 and 1841 he published in two parts his work on the British fossil Reptilia. In the second part of this work he defined a category of large terrestrial reptiles which he named Dinosauria. Also at this time, on the basis of a single fragment of bone, Owen predicted the presence of an extinct terrestrial avian fauna, the Moa, in New Zealand.

Owen succeeded William Clift as resident conservator of the Hunterian Museum in 1842, and received a civil-list pension later that year, becoming Professor Owen at 38 years old. In the 1840s and 1850s, Owen's focus moved from zoology to palaeontology, and he worked on many specimens coming from abroad to the Hunterian Museum. Some of his contributions to palaeontology and comparative anatomy at his time included his work on the Mylodon, monotremes and marsupials of Australia, and dissections of chimpanzees, orang-utan's and the gorilla.

Owen became increasingly frustrated working at the College. Owen sought a broader role and an increased independence for the museum. In 1851 he became engaged in a long running public debate with Thomas H Huxley on the evolution of humans from apes. Eventually in1856, Owen was appointed superintendent of the natural history departments of the British Museum, a position newly created for him.

In 1858 Owen was elected to the presidency of the British Association, and in 1859 was invited to give the first of the renewed Reade lectures at Cambridge. Owen also became a consultant to the government on science.

Owen's popularity began to decline from the end of the 1850s after the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, which Owen reviewed and disagreed with as it proposed new theories relating to species that would oppose the theories upon which much of Owen's work had been based. Some saw his attacks on Darwin's work as bitterness on being upstaged. This, and the criticisms of Huxley, alienated Owen from a new generation. He began to concentrate his work on the description and classification of fossil material from England and further afield.

Owen published his Palaeontology in 1860 and his three-volume Anatomy of the Vertebrates in 1866–8. These works served as visible and useful monuments of his career. These publications were followed by his series of works on the extinct mammals of Australia published between 1877–8, and on the extinct avian fauna of New Zealand in 1879. In 1884 he published his work on British fossil reptiles.

Throughout this time, Owen was increasingly making efforts to establish a separate independent natural history museum. He produced his first plan for the new museum in 1859. Initially his plans were blocked but eventually were approved and work began on the new museum to be built in South Kensington in the 1870s. The museum was officially opened in 1881.

Owen received a knighthood on 5 January 1884. He retired to Sheen Lodge, although still continuing his work in the museum. He died on 18 December 1892 at Sheen Lodge. On 23 December his body, followed by a small but distinguished delegation representing both science and the public, was carried to the cemetery in Ham churchyard where he was buried alongside Caroline, who had died in 1873.

Although Owen's reputation is tarnished by some of the controversies that punctuated his career, and his often hurtful rather than helpful comments of opponents work, Owen is also remembered as a man of great achievements with many accomplishments and honours awarded to him in his life time. He received the Geological Society's Wollaston medal in 1838 for his work on Darwin's fossils; a Linnean medal, jointly with Joseph Hooker, in 1888 ; the Royal and Copley medals of the Royal Society in 1846 and 1851; membership in the Légion d'honneur in 1855 and the Prix Cuvier of the Institut de France in 1856; the Baly medal of the Royal College of Physicians in 1869, and the new honorary medal of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1883. He also received honorary degrees from the universities of Edinburgh in 1847, Oxford in 1852, and Cambridge in 1859. He was created commander of the Bath in 1873 and knight commander of the Bath in 1884.

Edited from the entry by Jacob W. Gruber in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press , 2004 JACOB W. GRUBER [, accessed 10 May 2005]

Access Information



The following manuscripts are noted as missing from the original Owen collection, or have been destroyed:
Cabinet II (10) – Composition of Vertebral segments. Skull Mammalia.
275.h.3 (5) – Books referred to for Natural History. Folio Manuscript in great part by Richard Owen. Not dated.
275.h.7 (1) – Catalogue of Hunterian Osteological Specimens, preserved in boxes in the basement. Birds. Ms by RO. This item was destroyed by Sir Arthur Keith in 1909. The 275.h.7 box list says "Discarded 6.09. AK."
275.h.7 (2) – Observations on the Museum in the Jardin du Roi. Ms by RO. This item was destroyed by Sir Arthur Keith in 1909. The 275.h.7 box list says "Discarded 6.09. AK."

Other Finding Aids

For a more detailed description of this collection, please see the RCS England Archives online catalogue.