Richard Owen

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.  

4 thoughts on “Richard Owen

  1. Wow, when I read that obituary I refused to believe it wasn’t photoshopped. Regardless of all of the horrible academic errors he committed that is by far the worst disgracing someone’s name for no other reason than jealousy. You’re right I had not heard of Richard Owen prior to this post and I’m glad that I hadn’t. Also, this is another example of people with status and wealth abusing their given power.

  2. With the nature of the field of science, multiple researchers come to the same conclusions and race to publish first in order to receive credit. However, this does not seem like one of those instances. I like how you expanded the story of Owen and Mantell past just the plagiarized piece and included the obituary excerpt!
    In the end, I’m glad that justice was somewhat served and Owen was stripped of his honors.

  3. I have never heard of Richard Owen and it seems like that was the right way to be. It’s bad enough to steal someone’s work, but to ruin them socially and disgrace their name even after they have died is revolting. The obituary is horrible, you’d think after somebody kills them self you might try and be a little kinder being that he is probably a large part of why Mantell committed suicide. But overall I really liked your post and how you included the social aspect as well as the science side.

    1. Its amazing that people can get away with things like this. It makes you wonder if things like this are still happening and if the people we respect and admire are deserving of our praise. I like how this post highlights history, not the traditional history that paints figures as infallible, but the history that is less desirable. It may make the reader question humanity, but boy is it interesting to read about.

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