Posted by: whipplelib | August 1, 2016

O is for Owen: On the quest for the giant sloth

Richard Owen (1804-1892) was a prominent figure in British natural history for much of his long career, but his posthumous reputation suffered from negative reactions to his public criticism of Darwin, and his achievements were buried under withering assessments of his awkward character.

L0014087 Sir Richard Owen. Photograph by Maull & Polyblank.

L0014087 Sir Richard Owen. Photograph by Maull & Polyblank. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Sir Richard Owen. Photograph by Maull & Polyblank. Published: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Happily, Owen has received more sympathetic treatment in recent years through studies that consider his work in a wider context than simply in relation to the development of evolutionary theory.[1]

Historical assessments aside, however, Owen’s popular legacy is assured, whether consciously or not, through his coining of the term ‘dinosauria’ to describe a category of extinct large terrestrial reptiles, and through the legacy of the Natural History Museum, which he campaigned to establish.

Dinosaur mania itself has a distinguished history. Prince Albert thought to celebrate recent discoveries in prehistorical natural history by commissioning a series of life-sized sculptures for the re-homed Crystal Palace at Sydenham Park, and visitors have been enjoying the benefits of Owen’s anatomical expertise through these models since 1854.

 

London_-_Crystal_Palace_-_Victorian_Dinosaurs_1_compressed

Megalosaurus at Crystal Palace Park, London. By http://www.CGPGrey.com, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=708630

Owen was a prolific writer with a distinguished publication record in his specialist field of comparative anatomy. Of the several works held at the Whipple we’re particularly fond of the two concerning giant sloths: Description of the skeleton of an extinct gigantic sloth (1842) and Memoir on the Megatherium: or giant ground-sloth of America (1861).

M0012517 Portrait of William Buckland

M0012517 Portrait of William Buckland Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Portrait of William Buckland Mezzotint By: S. Cousinsafter: T. PhillipsPublished: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Originally intending to practise medicine, Owen was soon overtaken by an interest in comparative anatomy, and travelled from Edinburgh to London in 1827 where he fell under the patronage of John Abernethy, president of the Royal College of Surgeons. He was soon established there as assistant to William Clift, conservator of the Hunterian Museum, and so began a fruitful apprenticeship that set the path for his future career. A fortuitous encounter with the French naturalist Georges Cuvier in 1830 brought Owen into contact with a functionalist approach to fossil zoology which he adopted enthusiastically as a principle in his own work, becoming in time a disciple of theologian, geologist and palaeontologist William Buckland (1784-1856).[2]

Buckland had made a feature of the Megatherium – affectionately described as the ‘Behomoth of the Pampas’, with reference to its original habitat in Argentina – in his Bridgwater Treatise of 1836 in which he sought to show that every aspect of its anatomy pointed to the work of an intelligent creator in providing physical features well suited to their function.

 

Owen further advanced Buckland and Cuvier’s view of the vegetarian root-digging habits of the prehistoric sloth supported by discoveries based on fossil bones brought back by Darwin from his Beagle voyage in 1836.

Owen_Megatherium_Americanum

Skeleton of Megatherium Americanum from Owen’s Memoir. Whipple Library Store 188:26

Famously, Owen’s Description includes the suggestion that the Mylodon (another South American ground sloth, smaller than the Megatherium) used its tail as a third hind leg for extra support when wrenching over trees.[3] The tripod pose depicted in this fold-out plate became the iconic image of the long-extinct creature.

 

Owen_Mylodon

Upright Mylodon from Owen’s Description. Whipple Library Store 188:24

 

These copies of Owen’s Description and Memoir came to the Library with a transfer of books from the Department of Anatomy in 2000. Receiving transfers of historical material from other libraries in the Cambridge network remains an important part of the Whipple’s remit, where it complements our existing collections.

Anna Jones
Librarian

[1] E.g. Jacob W. Gruber, ‘Owen, Sir Richard (1804-1892)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2006 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/21026, accessed 25 July 2016]  and Nicolaas Rupke, Richard Owen: Biology without Darwin, a revised edition (University of Chicago Press, 2009), to both of which this post in indebted.

[2] Gruber, op cit.

[3] Rupke, op cit., pp 75-77.

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