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Richard Owen: Victorian Naturalist

Biography / Memoir

By: Nicolaas A Rupke (Author)

462 pages, 27 illustrations

Yale University Press

Hardback | Jan 1994 | #27580 | ISBN: 0300058209
Temporarily out of stock: order now to get this when available Details
NHBS Price: £65.00 $80/€73 approx

About this book

Richard Owen (1804-92) was, after Darwin, the leading naturalist of nineteenth-century Britain. A distinguished anatomist and paleontologist, he was influential in Victorian scientific reform and in the debate over natural selection. Leader of the nineteenth-century museum movement, he founded London's monumental Natural History Museum, wrote and published copiously, and won every professional honor. This first full-fledged biography of Owen presents the complete range of his scientific and intellectual achievements.

Nicolaas Rupke discusses Owen's epic power struggles with colleagues, the most notorious of which were with Darwin and Huxley. As a renowned opponent of natural selection, Owen became the bête noire of the Darwinian evolution debate. Rupke argues, however, that Owen should no longer be judged by the evolution dispute that was only a minor part of his work yet has come to dominate his memory. Instead, Rupke emphasizes and throws new light on a wide area of Owen's other activities. In particular, he explains the central division in Owen's scientific oeuvre between the functionalism of Oxbridge natural theology and the transcendentalism of German nature philosophy. Rupke shows that this was a fundamental extension of the intellectual and political maneuvering for control of Victorian cultural institutions and an inextricable part of the rise to public authority of the most articulate proponents of the scientific study of nature.

"Nicolaas Rupke's solid, painstaking unravelling of the [...] struggles over the ideological foundation of institutions is a marvelous contribution to the social history of science [...] Rupke offers a discussion of Owen's work and correspondence which would be hard to equal for detail and subtlety [...] A valuable and fine biography."
– Victoria Neumark, Times Educational Supplement

"Nicolaas Rupke's intelligent, readable book explores the reasons why Owen was all but forgotten within a decade of his death in 1892 – or, worse still, remembered with a sneer [...] Rupke threads his way through the mesh of museum politics with quiet brilliance, handling encyclopedic detail and constant shifts of time and scene without apparent effort."
– Hugh Barnes, The Independent on Sunday

"This important and rich biography gives a broad picture of Victorian biology."
– Rudolf Schmid, Taxon

"Rupke nicely sets Owen's achievement within the context of Victorian imperialism."
– Peter J. Bowler, Times Higher Education Supplement

"A marvellous achievement [...] Rupke does us great service in restoring parts of the Victorian world usually neglected in favour of the quest for origins."
– Janet Browne, Times Literary Supplement

"Rupke has produced an unusually interesting account of 19th-century biology."
– Stephen Webster, New Scientist

"Riveting. In relating bitter Victorian debates Rupke shows how science affected great social and religious questions still urgently relevant today."
– A.C. Grayling, The Financial Times

"The text provides vivid pictures of Richard Owen and conflicting impressions that [...] represent the best picture we can hope to grasp of this strangely enigmatic personality."
– J. F. M. Cannon, Annals of Science

"Rupke's landmark study surely serves as the commencement of a repositioning of Owen in history [...] Superb."
– Phillip R. Sloan, Review Symposia

"All of the chapters in Rupke's biography are well-researched studies. Their topics are clearly defined and thoroughly pursued by the author [...] "
– Leah Angell, Yale Scientific Magazine

"Based on much detailed research and reading (and there is a substantial bibliography and section of notes for each chapter) the book traces the interaction of personalities and allegiances to different schools of work in Britain and on the Continent. The substantial bibliography provides access to Owen's many publications over half a century, and there is a full index to the contents of the book. This is a useful volume which uses primary sources to re-evaluate Richard Owen as a man of his time."
– June Chatfield, British Naturalists Association

"Recent reinterpretations of the social and cognitive dimensions of Victorian science have brought new light to bear on Owen and Huxley, but Nicolaas Rupke's Richard Owens: Victorian Naturalist offers the first full-scale analysis of this important, but ambiguous, figure. Rupke's analysis of the sociopolitical context of Owen's science offers much new information and a new perspective on Owen."
– Ronald Rainger, The J.H.B. Bookshelf

"Thanks to Rupke's meticulous, judicious and tireless researches, the result is a major contribution to the historical literature."
– M.J.S. Hodge, Trends in Ecology and Evolution

"Richard Owen is solidly based on manuscript collections in Britain, continental Europe, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, and on nineteenth-century scientific periodicals. Rupke has made good use of a sizeable body of historical literature, and generously acknowledges the findings and insights of other scholars."
– Michael J. Brodhead, Environmental History

"At last we have a full scientific biography of Richard Owen [...] Rupke provides a useful contribution both in understanding the meaning of the museum movement and in depicting Owen's role in it. The book is thoroughly researched, with due space for archival material."
– Mario A. DiGregorio, British Journal for the History of Science

"Rupke's narrative constantly displays the scrupulous detail of his research and the depth of his erudition. A careful reading of Richard Owen will yield an elaborate account not only of Owen's own scientific accomplishments and experience, but of the institutional context within which he operated, and of the competing theories and ideologies that conditioned his work and that of his colleagues and antagonists."
– Harriet Ritvo, Victorian Studies


Personality matters; museum politics; gothic designs; the vertebrate blueprint; eclipsed by Darwin; cerebral constructs; frames of mind; the scientific estate. Appendix: anatomy of Owen's scientific oeuvre.

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