The following definitely isn’t one of my most trafficked posts, but it is one of my favorites. There’s something about the unique and sometimes bristly personalities of scientists from centuries past that interests me. (Richard Owen was so abrasive, he is the only person Charles Darwin is said to have hated.)
For a more complete telling of this tale, I recommend Bill Bryson’s book A Short History of Nearly Everything (especially the audio edition).
Richard Owen was one of the great jerks of history. He also happened to coin Dinosauria, from which we get “dinosaur”, he made a number of important scientific discoveries, and he did a great deal in making museums what they are today by way of organizing the Natural History Museum in London. Taken together, we still look back on him with fair acknowledgement for his accomplishments. But, boy, was he ever a jerk.
The man’s heyday was the middle of the 19th century alongside greats like Charles Darwin and Charles Lyell. People tended to recognize Owen’s quality of mind, but they couldn’t help but notice how petty and vindictive he could be. Cross the man and he would make your life as awful as he possibly could. Just ask Gideon Mantell.
Gideon Mantell made his splash in the sciences long before Owen came on the scene. He discovered the first bits of Iguanodon, a major genus of dinosaur, and is credited with kick starting the study of the ancient monsters before the 19th century had even reached its 25th anniversary.
At first Owen and Mantell were friends. For reasons now lost to time, though, they parted ways, becoming bitter enemies – Owens the more bitter of the two. They both were quite remarkable in their discoveries and descriptions of dinosaurs, giving title to many of the dinosaurs commonly recognized by the layman today. Unfortunately for Mantell, little could keep him from poverty.
As time wore on, Mantell’s health and focus waned. He was a doctor by training – and an excellent one, at that – and he had once run an incredibly successful practice, but his geological and paleontological research got the better of his time. Soon his wife left him, then he found himself suffering from spinal damage after being dragged by a carriage. He was forced to turn his home and all its fossils into a museum to pay his bills, but fearing his status as a gentlemen was in danger he would tend to wave the entrance fee. He eventually sold off most of his collection to the Natural History Museum.
Throughout all this, though, Mantell still wrote and published a number of papers. Unfortunately, he was unable to publish as many as he would have liked because the head of the Royal Society was none other than Richard Owen. Owen did all he could to have Mantell’s papers cast aside. It wouldn’t be long until Mantell could no longer bear the pain of his spine and the burden of Owen’s hatred.
Gideon Mantell took his own life in 1852. His obituary soon followed in the papers and although there was no byline, no one doubted its uncharitable nature was due to Richard Owen. In fact, Owen even transferred claim of a number of discoveries from Mantell to himself. Then, as a final act of indignity, Owen had Mantell’s spine placed in a jar and put on display at the Royal College of Surgeons of England where Owen taught.
Of course, no man could come to be known as one of the most hated and reviled men in scientific history without finding some black mark on his career. For Owen this mark came when it was found that he had failed to credit another scientist with a discovery – a discovery for which Owen had already accepted a prestigious award from the Royal Society. Moreover, he had an ongoing dispute with Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog. Huxley tended to win the specifics of their dispute, often showing Owen as deceptive in many of his claims. This lowered Owen’s standing as a gentlemen and, in 1862, Huxley managed to have him voted off the Royal Society Council. Few members of the scientific community were saddened.
It was at this point, Mantell long dead, that Owen turned his full attention to the Natural History Museum in London. He continued with his plans to make the museum appealing to the general public rather than simply the scientific community and its followers. It was perhaps some of his greatest work, despite not being the most prominent of his career. He remained at his post in the museum, controversy diminished in his life, until his retirement late in the century.
As for Gideon Mantell’s spine, it was destroyed by the Royal College of Surgeons in 1969 due to the distressingly fitting reason that more space was needed.