My subject for this week’s investigation of stolen ideas and discoveries is Sir Richard Owen. He was a British anatomist and paleontologist who lived from 1804-1892, and as a rampant plagiarist, he is proof that being knighted by the queen does not necessarily prevent one from stooping to the level of stealing others’ scientific discoveries.
Though many people may not have heard of him, his work had a huge impact on science at the time. He made groundbreaking discoveries in paleontology. He published impressive work in the study of animal fossils, studied the difference between modern reptiles and dinosaurs, and he founded the British Museum of Natural History. While all of this may sound like a positive contribution to the scientific world, a large portion of his work on dinosaurs was stolen from another scientist.
Gideon Mantell was a respectable paleontologist in the 1800s who studies fossils in order to develop an understanding of prehistoric creatures. He discovered species such as the Iguanodon and many others. However, unfortunately for him Richard Owen stoll and took credit for his research. Richard Owen was the head of the Royal Society, and as a better known and wealthier man, he was able to discredit Mantell and present the ideas in Mantell’s papers as his own. On top of that, much of the information Owen published about the species discovered my Mantell was actually incorrect. For example, Owen’s work claimed the Iguanodon was a four legged reptilian creature, but Mantell had in fact believed it was bipedal and feathered. More recent research has proven that Mantell’s description of the creature’s characteristics were correct and Owen was wrong. Owen stole the credit for discovery that should have been given to Gideon Mantell, and at the same time set back our understanding of how prehistoric species looked an behaved. As a true scientist Mantell was distressed by the accuracy of the information Owen published and angry that he was receiving no credit. Unfortunately, there was nothing Mantell could do and he eventually fell into poverty and committed suicide.
Plagiarizing research and butchering science were not enough for Sir Richard Owen, so he went on to discredit Mantell even prior to his death. After Mantell died, Owen put his spine on display and the Natural History Museum. While there is no way to know Owen’s true motivation for this act, it seems like yet another twisted attempt to disgrace Mantell. He also used his social influence to get the job of writing Mantell’s Obituary, and I think the image below of said obituary speaks for itself…
While Richard Owen had some positive impact on developing the museum system we have today, overall his plagiarism of ideas and misrepresentation of Mantell’s work show him to be a conceited thief. Luckily for the scientific community, people eventually came to the realisation that Richard Owen was a fraud as well as an asshole, and he was removed from his position at the Royal Society. Unfortunately, this realization came too late to save Gideon Mantell, but the least we can do is to remember him and NOT Owen as the true discoverer of the Iguanodon.