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Royal College of Surgeons of England

Owen, Sir Richard: Correspondence


Reference code(s): GB 0114 MS0255

Held at: Royal College of Surgeons of England

Title: Owen, Sir Richard: Correspondence

Date(s): [1850]-1863

Level of description: Collection (fonds)

Extent: 2 volumes

Name of creator(s): Owen | Sir | Richard | 1804-1892 | Knight | comparative anatomist and palaeontologist


Administrative/Biographical history:

Sir Richard Owen was born in Lancaster, in 1804. He was educated at Lancaster Grammar School and then enlisted as a midshipman in the Royal Navy. He became interested in surgery He returned to Lancaster and became indentured to a local surgeon, in 1820. He entered the University of Edinburgh medical school, in 1824 and privately attended the lectures of Dr John Barclay. He moved to London and became apprentice to John Abernethy, surgeon, philosopher and President of the Royal College of Surgeons, in 1825. He became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, in 1826. He became Assistant Curator of the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, in 1827, and commenced work cataloguing the collection. He set up a private practice in Lincoln's Inn Fields. He became lecturer on comparative anatomy at St Bartholomew's Hospital, in 1829. He met Georges Cuvier in 1830 and attended the 1831 debates between Cuvier and Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire, in Paris. He worked in the dissecting rooms and public galleries of the Jardin des Plantes, Paris, in 1831. He published anatomical work on the cephalopod Nautilus, and started the Zoological Magazine, in 1833. He worked on the fossil vertebrates brought back by Darwin on the Beagle. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society, in 1834; Hunterian Professor of Comparative Anatomy and Physiology, in 1836-1856; and gave his first series of Hunterian Lectures to the public, in 1837. He was awarded the Wollaston gold medal by the Geological Society, in 1838; helped found the Royal Microscopical Society, in 1839; and identified the extinct moa of New Zealand from a bone fragment, 1839. He refused a knighthood in 1842. He examined reptile-like fossil bones found in southern England which led him to identify "a distinct tribe or sub-order of Saurian Reptiles" he named Dinosauria, in 1842. He developed his concept of homology and of a common structural plan for all vertebrates or 'archetype'. He became Joint Conservator of the Hunterian Museum with William Clift, in 1842, and Conservator, in 1849. He was elected to 'The Club', founded by Dr Johnson, in 1845. He was a member of the government commission for inquiring into the health of London, in 1847, including Smithfield and other meat markets, in 1849. He described the anatomy of the newly discovered (in 1847) species of ape, the gorilla, [1865]. He engaged in a long running public debate with Thomas Henry Huxley on the evolution of humans from apes. He was a member of the preliminary Committee of organisation for the Great Exhibition of 1851. He was Superintendent of the natural history collections at the British Museum, in 1856, and began researches on the collections, publishing many papers on specimens. He was prosector for the London Zoo, dissecting and preserving any zoo animals that died in captivity. He taught natural history to Queen Victoria's children, in 1860. He reported on the first specimen of an unusual Jurassic bird fossil from Germany, Archaeopteryx lithographica, in 1863. He lectured on fossils at the Museum of Practical Geology, and he was Fullerian Professor of Physiology at the Royal Institution, during 1859-1861. His taxonomic work included a number of important discoveries, as he named and described a vast number of living and fossil vertebrates. He campaigned to make the natural history departments of the British Museum into a separate museum, leading to the construction of a new building in South Kensington to house the new British Museum (Natural History), opened in 1881; [now the Natural History Museum]. He was knighted in 1884. He died in Richmond in 1892.


Scope and content/abstract:

Papers of Sir Richard Owen, c1850-1863, comprising 2 volumes of letters from Owen. The content is mainly personal, for instance, to his wife Caroline, and sisters Catherine and Eliza; the letters also include some professional content, for instance, to the Council of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, and to the editor of The Lancet.


Language/scripts of material: English

System of arrangement:

The letters are arranged in chronological order.

Conditions governing access:

By written appointment only.

Conditions governing reproduction:

At the discretion of the librarian.

Physical characteristics:

Finding aids:

Additional manuscripts catalogue.


Appraisal, destruction and scheduling information:


Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Donated by Miss Tremaine, of the Opthalmology department at the Royal College of Surgeons, in 1961.


Existence and location of originals:

Existence and location of copies:

Related material:

Lecture of Sir Charles Bell written by Richard Owen - MS0007/1/3; Owen, Sir Richard (1804-1892) - MS0025; Memoir of William Clift by Richard Owen - MS0233; William White Cooper - Notes of Richard Owen's lectures, 1838-1839 - MS0245;Letter from Jean Pierre Flourens to Richard Owen, 1834 - MS0246; Letter from Lyon Playfair to Richard Owen, 1857 - MS0247; Thomas Wormald - Letters from Richard Owen to Thomas Wormald, 1856-1859 - MS0248/2; Two letters from Richard Owen to Sir Astley Cooper and the Royal College of Surgeons of England, 1837-1863 - MS0249; Richard Owen commemorative stamps and postcards, 1991 - MS0250.

Other collections related to the Hunterian Museum: Queckett papers - Histology of Animals plates with manuscript notes by Richard Owen.

For details of Sir Richard Owen material in other repositories, see the main collection description at MS0025.

Publication note:



Archivist's note: Compiled by Anya Turner.

Rules or conventions: Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions: Sep 2008

Letter writing | Writing | Communication skills | Communication process
Letters (documents) | Records and correspondence | Information sources
Correspondence x Letter writing

Personal names
Owen | Caroline | 1801-1873 | nee Clift | wife of Sir Richard Owen
Owen | Sir | Richard | 1804-1892 | Knight | comparative anatomist and palaeontologist

Corporate names
Royal College of Surgeons of England
The Lancet