You probably haven’t heard of Richard Owen. I’ll almost guarantee it. And when I start telling you about him, your first thought might be, “I was totally fine having not heard of Richard Owen.” But you’re wrong. You do want to know about Richard Owen. You want a movie about him, or at least a Netflix show. Richard Owen was crazy.
OK, sure, he was a stuffy old British biologist. And yes, he looked like the Cryptkeeper with a slightly better skincare routine. But bear with me because Richard Owen changed the world. He’s the reason you can go to a museum and look at massive skeletons of extinct creatures. He’s the reason you’ve ever heard of a “dinosaur.” Oh, and he did it all while being maybe the biggest jerk in history.
Seriously, if you go around thinking scientists are boring old geezers, you need more Richard Owen in your life. The dude was basically a Real Housewife of the British Museum.
A Real Cut Up
So let’s start with the stuff that made Owen famous, because the first 50 or so years of his life ain’t that interesting. He was a boring old doctor, then he started studying animal biology, and eventually got a gig with the British Museum. To say this dude loved cutting up dead animals would be an understatement. He actually had a deal with the London Zoo that said they had to tell him every time an animal croaked, so he had first dibs on the corpse. That’s how Owen’s wife ended up coming home one day only to find an entire rhino carcass filling up the front foyer.
This is the kinda guy we’re dealing with here.
Like I said before, Owen’s biggest claim to fame is when he decided to invent a name for all these gigantic reptile skeletons that were being found all over the world. He mashed together the Greek words for “terrible” and “lizard,” and presto change-o, we’ve got dinosaurs. Next time you’re watching Jurassic Park or laughing at someone in one of those ridiculous T-Rex costumes, put some respect on Owen’s name.
Back when paleontology barely existed, Richard Owen had an incredible gift for looking at mangled, incomplete fossils and seeing how creatures looked when they were alive. He helped stoke the public’s fascination with these amazing, gigantic, ancient animals. Before Owen, scientists kept this kind of thing hidden in universities. Richard Owen brought dinosaurs to the world.
Not only is Richard Owen almost single-handedly responsible for the creation of London’s Natural History Museum, he also made sure that it became a place for the public. Before him, museums were mostly for the educated elite, but Owen knew they could be a lot more. If you’ve ever gone to a Natural History Museum and marvelled at million-year-old skeletons, once again you’ve got Richard Owen to thank.
Because of all this, Richard Owen was one of the most famous scientists of his day, probably second only to Charles Darwin. But we’ve all heard of Darwin, so why do none of us know about Owen? Well, the answer to that is simple: Richard Owen was probably one of the most unpleasant men to ever walk the earth.
A Truly Miserable Human being
To put it plainly, Richard Owen sucked. Charles Darwin once said, “I used to be ashamed of hating him so much, but now I will carefully cherish my hatred and contempt to the last days of my life.” Historians call him “malicious,” “dishonest,” and “hateful.” A “social experimenter with a penchant for sadism.” “Addicted to controversy and driven by arrogance and jealousy.”
No, Richard Owen was not some David Attenborough-like figure, benevolently bringing paleontology to the masses. He was a complete tool.
It’s not just that Owen was unpleasant to be around—he was unabashedly immoral. He used his notoriety to steal credit from anyone too obscure to do anything about it. He spent years doing everything he could to drag Charles Darwin’s name through the mud because the two of them disagreed over certain aspects of evolution.
But by far the worst thing he ever did was his absolutely insane feud with a rival biologist named Gideon Mantell.
You see, one of Owen’s biggest discoveries back in his day was the Iguanodon. One of the first large dinosaurs known to science, Owen wrote extensively about the ancient reptile and helped make Iguanodon one of the first world-famous dinosaurs. He made detailed descriptions of the creature and even designed lifelike recreations as part of the now-famous Crystal Palace dinosaurs.
There was just one problem: Richard Owen didn’t discover the Iguanodon. Gideon Mantell did. Owen was already plenty famous, he didn’t really need the street cred, but because he was basically the paleontological Mr. Burns, Owen completely buried Mantell. He used his clout at the Royal Society to make sure that none of Mantell’s papers ever got published and simply took credit for everything Iguanodon-related himself. But that’s not even the worst part.
Spit On Your Grave
Towards the end of his days, Gideon Mantell was in a horrible accident. It left him clinging to life, and so he wasn’t exactly able to worry about publishing papers. So what did Owen do? He took the opportunity to rename most of the dinosaurs that Mantell had discovered and then take credit for discovering them himself.
Already, this was crossing that line between everyday villainy and cartoonish supervillainy—but Owen still hadn’t hit rock bottom. That came when Mantell passed in 1852. A few days later, an “anonymous” obituary hit the newspapers. The elegy basically said Mantell was an idiot and a bad scientist who never really accomplished anything. Three guesses as to who the “anonymous” writer was…
All That And He Was Wrong
That’s right, Richard Owen not only stole Mantell’s greatest discovery. He not only took advantage of a horrible accident to steal even more credit. On top of all that, he danced on the man’s grave and took the chance to drag him even more. And the craziest part is, for all his name-calling and plagiarism, Owen was completely, embarrassingly wrong about the Iguanodon.
Mantell thought Iguanodon walked on two legs. Owen called Mantell an idiot and said the Iguanodon walked on all fours and looked like a gigantic iguana. That’s why his famous Crystal Palace Iguanodon looks just like that. But you know what? Scientists eventually confirmed that Owen was completely wrong and Mantell was right. Owen’s famous Crystal Palace Iguanodons are laughably inaccurate. Granted, Mantell was long dead and utterly humiliated by that point, but hey, moral victories.
Richard Freaking Owen
So that was Richard Owen. He gave us dinosaurs and museums, and he was also a total scumbag liar who alienated almost everyone around him and used his power to take credit for anything he could. But I think weirdest thing about all of this is, Owen actually was brilliant. He wasn’t some total fraud con artist who had to steal because he couldn’t accomplish anything on his own. Maybe out of hubris, or jealously, or just outright malice, he did it anyway.
So what do we take away from Richard Owen? That even geniuses can be petty and childish? That we shouldn’t blindly trust powerful intellectuals? Maybe. I’ll leave that part up to you. At least, now you know about this hot-mess scrooge paleontologist, so I’ve done my job.