The Richard Owen collection

Photograph of Sir Richard Owen

Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892)

Sir Richard Owen was the leading comparative anatomist and palaeontologist of his time. A controversial figure, he is perhaps best known for coining the word dinosaur.

The Owen collection dates between 1881 and 1892 and covers his career progression, scientific research, professional communications, campaign for a museum of natural history and other achievements.

Owen's first professional position was as assistant to William Clift, who he later succeeded as conservator, at the Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons, London. He campaigned for a museum of natural history and was the first superintendent of the British Museum (Natural History), which later became the Natural History Museum, London. 

In a career spanning more than 60 years, Owen played a crucial role in many of the important discoveries in his field. Owen was a contemporary of Charles Darwin and known for his strong opposition to Darwin's theory of natural selection.     

The Owen collection also encompasses material relating to Clift due to Owen's longstanding connection with the Clift family, specifically his professional association with Clift and marriage to his daughter Caroline. As a result, there are a number of items within the collection that relate to the Clift family.

Most of the manuscripts in the collection were presented to the Museum Library by Charles Davies Sherborn (1861-1942) in 1908 and the annotated books by Owen's granddaughter Emily Owen in 1915.

Items collected by and associated with Owen have also been added to the collection in recent years. In December 2002, a further collection that had belonged to Ronald A Cohen was purchased at auction, comprising 19 letters from Owen, seven letters from Thomas Bell (including four to Owen), two volumes of the Life of Richard Owen (1894) and one scrapbook on Owen.  

The collection includes orders and medals awarded to Owen during his lifetime from all over the world, notably the Order of the Bath and awards from The Royal Society (London), The Geological Society (London) and The Linnean Society of London. Also featured are notebooks, diaries, scrapbooks, annotated books and papers, and corrected proofs. Many of these items relate to lectures Owen gave to the scientific community between 1828 and 1862, as well as to lectures given by Sir Everard Home (1756-1832). A full breakdown of the collection can be found in Gruber and Thackray's guide, Richard Owen Commemoration: Three studies (1992).

Collection highlights include 27 volumes of professional correspondence sent to Owen by friends, admirers and acquaintances. These volumes were selected and organised by Sherborn following Owen's death. The Library also holds a significant collection of 3,500 drawings, 110 of which depict type specimens and were used for Owen's scientific publications. Many of these drawings were produced by Owen himself, but other artists featured include Joseph Dinkel (1806-1891), George Scharf (1788-1860) and Franz Bauer (1758-1840). A full list of the drawings was compiled by Jean Ingles and Frederick Sawyer in A Catalogue of the Richard Owen Collection of Palaeontological and Zoological Drawings in the British Museum (Natural History).


Composition: Books, illustrations, drawings, orders and medals, oil paintings and manuscripts


  • Richard Owen (1804-1892)