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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 July, 2004, 11:55 GMT 12:55 UK
Career of dino 'inventor' marked
Sir Richard Owen holding leg bones of a Moa,  The Natural History Museum, London
Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892) holding a leg bone from a Moa
London's Natural History Museum, one of the top UK scientific establishments and tourist attractions, is celebrating the bicentenary of Sir Richard Owen.

The controversial Victorian founded the NHM in 1881 after a 25-year campaign.

Designed by Alfred Waterhouse, Owen's "cathedral to nature", with its arched galleries and terracotta carvings, has become a major city landmark.

Sir Richard was one of the first to recognise the importance of a group of extinct reptiles he called Dinosauria.

He recognised that some of these fossil reptiles were rather special
Dr Paul Barrett, NHM
He is also credited with being the first scientist to describe in detail the flightless dodo bird (Raphus cucullatus).

But this great establishment figure was also somewhat notorious, accused of stealing other scientists' specimens and undermining people by writing anonymous reviews of their work while supporting them in public.

Reputation at stake

Owen's contemporary and rival Gideon Mantell described him as "overpaid, over-praised and cursed with a jealous monopolising spirit."

Dr Paul Barrett, the NHM's dinosaur researcher, told the BBC: "There was undoubtedly envy - he was so prestigious and so good at what he did that many of his contemporaries just couldn't bear to see him being so successful.

Dino eats a child, PA
Dinomania at the museum continues to this day
"But the other thing is that he was a very aggressive, pompous individual. He used to go and gazump people when they were trying to acquire fossil collections. He would get in there very quickly and take them out from under their noses."

Despite this reputation, few could deny his genius. In 1839 he published the first identification of the moa, from New Zealand - another extinct, flightless bird.

"Owen received a small, 6-inch fragment of [leg bone] from a large flightless bird," explained NHM palaeontologist Julian Hume.

"He didn't know that at the time but he assumed it and staked his whole reputation on the fact that these birds would be discovered on New Zealand; and it turned out to be the case just a few years later. Complete specimens were found."

Important link

The NHM is running a display called Richard Owen - The Man Who Invented Dinosaurs. It describes many of his discoveries and displays artefacts that played a significant role in his remarkable story.

The original moa bone Owen worked on will be on show for the first time since the Natural History Museum opened in 1881.

Other specimens to be displayed that he worked on include Diprotodon, the largest marsupial that ever lived; and the tiny horse ancestor (Equus curvidens), a dog-sized ancestor to modern horses.

Richard Owen drawing of the head of Raphus cucullatus, The Natural History Museum, London
Owen was the first scientist to describe the dodo
But it is the dino connection for which Sir Richard Owen will be best remembered.

He was commissioned by the British Association to write a report on all the fragmentary reptilian remains found in southern England in the early 19th Century.

"In doing that he recognised that some of these fossil reptiles were rather special, actually much more mammal-like in their anatomy than all the other reptiles he was familiar with," explained Dr Barrett.

"And he used those features to link together three animals to form this amazing group, the dinosaurs, which he named the 'terrible lizards', largely on the basis of their enormous size."

Richard Owen oversaw the construction of the first ever full-size dinosaur models and when they went on display in 1854, Victorian Britain was struck with the first ever outbreak of "dinomania".

The BBC's Christine McGourty
"Just about all of his contemporaries hated him"

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