Celebrating the life of Sir Richard Owen and the birth of the ‘dinosaur’

Between 24th July and 5th September 2021, ZSL Whipsnade Zoo will be home to life-size animatronic dinosaurs as part of an immersive new exhibit called Zoorassic Park. And to celebrate, ZSL Library takes a look at the life of the man that originally coined the famous word ‘Dinosauria’ in 1841 – Sir Richard Owen.

Image take from Ipswich portraits, by T.H. Maguire [1849-51]
Image take from Ipswich portraits, by T.H. Maguire [1849-51]

History hasn’t remembered the scientific legacy of Sir Richard Owen quite as well as his contemporary, Charles Darwin.  But for people in the 1840s and 50s Richard Owen was a household name, and was the leading scientist of the time, only surpassed by Darwin in 1859 with the publication of the Origin of Species (the theories of which Owen displayed much skepticism towards). 

Owen was a biologist, a brilliant comparative anatomist and paleontologist.   He started his career as Assistant Conservator of the Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in 1826, where he remained until 1856 when he was appointed Superintendent of the natural history collections of the British Museum.  He is also the man responsible for fighting for the creation of the beautiful Natural History Museum building in South Kensington.

To add to his impressive career, Owen was also a member of many of the learned societies, including being Vice President of ZSL between 1841-45, 1848-53 and 1855-61.

Owen made a substantial contribution to science in his lifetime (over 600 papers published, many of which can be found in ZSL Library!), so, with difficulty, we have chosen just two examples of his brilliance to share with you below.

In 1839 Owen was given a 6 inch bone fragment by a New Zealand sailor, which most of his fellow scientists believed to have originated from a quadruped due to its large dimensions.  But Owen insisted (almost embarrassingly so to his colleagues) that the bone was more likely from a giant bird.  Four, slow, years later his ideas were proven correct when an almost complete set of bones of a moa (Dinoris maximus) came from New Zealand.  His correct interpretation from such scant evidence was a phenomenal achievement, and hugely impressed his critics.  You can see the full skeleton of the New Zealand moa in the picture below, with Owen holding the original bone fragment in his right hand.

Sir Richard Owen with a skeleton of a giant moa. Image from ‘Memoirs on the extinct wingless birds of New Zealand … / Richard Owen’ London : Van Voorst, 1879
Sir Richard Owen with a skeleton of a giant moa. Image from ‘Memoirs on the extinct wingless birds of New Zealand … / Richard Owen’ London : Van Voorst, 1879

And secondly, and more relevant to this blog, is Owen’s use of the term ‘Dinosauria’ at a meeting of the British Association of Science in 1841.  During the 1830’s there had been an explosion in the discovery of ‘dinosaur’ bones, but these bones were considered by scientists to simply be the remains of giant, exotic, lizards and nothing more.  Owen proposed that these species were distinct enough to warrant their own suborder of the family of Saurian reptiles, and thus proposed the name ‘Dinosauria’ (Terrible lizards) at the 11th meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.  His use of this term can be found in his publication ‘A history of British fossil reptiles’, along with many fascinating illustrations of fossils.

‘A history of British fossil reptiles / by Sir Richard Owen’. London : Cassell
‘A history of British fossil reptiles / by Sir Richard Owen’. London : Cassell

Sir Richard Owen was a fascinating character: respected, feared, and often hated by many of his contemporaries, and he is a man well worth reading more about.  Below you can find just a handful of resources to help you discover more.

ZSL Library holds many of the works by Richard Owen in its collection including ‘A history of British fossil reptiles / by Sir Richard Owen. - London : Cassell, 1849-84’ mentioned above. To find out more about the Library, and our online catalogue, see here.

Further reading

Barber, Lynn (1980) The Heyday of Natural History, 1820-1870. London, Jonathan Cape

Rupke, Nicolaas A. (1994) Richard Owen : Victorian naturalist. Yale University Press

Shindler, Karolyn. Richard Owen: the greatest scientist you've never heard of. The Telegraph, 16 December 2010: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/evolution/8185977/Richard-Owen-the-greatest-scientist-youve-never-heard-of.html  (accessed 26/07/16)

Williams, David. (2007) Richard Owen: Champion of comparative anatomy. In: Huxley ed. The Great Naturalists. London, Thames & Hudson, pp. 255-260.



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