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Old friends

Richard Owen in old age

As geologist and science writer Nina Morgan discovers, friendship can be a very valuable commodity…

Geoscientist 20.09 September 2010

Richard Owen (1804-1892) was a talented anatomist and vertebrate palaeontologist. But in the popular imagination, he is more remembered for his attacks on colleagues than for the key role he played in the establishment of the Natural History Museum in London, which opened in 1881.

‘Owen is both feared and hated’, wrote one contemporary, the biologist Thomas Huxley. ‘It is astonishing with what an intense feeling of hatred he [Owen] is regarded by the majority of his contemporaries.' Owen's ill-natured attacks on Gideon Mantell and Charles Lyell, as well as the publication of his harsh review of The Origin of Species, in which he not only criticised the book, but also questioned Darwin's professional competence to discuss the species question in the first place, did nothing to improve Owen's image.

But in spite of his reputation for vitriol, Owen did have a softer side. For example, his close professional and personal friendship with William Buckland, first Reader in Geology at Oxford University began around 1832 lasted until Buckland's death in 1854. And in a letter to John Phillips, first Professor of Geology at Oxford and another friend of long standing, Owen reveals admiration for Phillips's work as well as a sentimental nostalgia for the past when he writes:

British Museum
10 Nov 1871

My dear Phillips,

I can now thank you not only for your Note but for your Book [Phillips's Geology of Oxford and the Valley of the Thames, published in 1871], which is so full of good matter as an egg's full of meat. On this I have been feasting, till interruptions called me away. Much I find that recalls happy old times with dear Buckland, when we were groping our way...
So again, thanking you,

I remain, with every good wish,

most truly yours,

Richard Owen
This charming insight into the gentler side of Owen's character is now being offered for sale on the AbeBooks website for a whopping £1004.60 + £5.85 postage. Such is the price of friendship!


The quote from Thomas Huxley is taken from L. Huxley, Life and Letters of Thomas Huxley, published in 1900 and quoted in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) Owen's review of The Origin of Species appears in the Edinburgh Review vol. 111, 1860, pp. 487–532. The transcript of Richard Owen's letter which appears on the website and can be found by searching on the term Richard Owen, was drawn to my attention by Professor Christopher Howgego Keeper, Heberden Coin Room, at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
  • If the past is the key to your present interests, why not join the History of Geology Group (HOGG). For more information and to read the latest HOGG Newsletter visit the HOGG website at: A HOGG conference on Geological Collectors and collecting is planned for 4-5 April 2011 at the Natural History Museum, London. To receive further information and announcements about the conference, e-mail: [email protected]

Nina Morgan is a geologist and science writer based near Oxford.