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When you step into the main hall at the Natural History Museum in London, it feels more like you're in a cathedral. Vaulted ceilings, light streaming through tall windows, all that jazz. And when you walk through that hall, under the blue whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling and past the full dinosaur skeleton, you approach a staircase. It's one of those grand staircases, like the one in the Titanic, with a landing for someone very important to stand on very prominently. And that's exactly where you'll find Charles Darwin, or a gleaming white statue of him, sitting all pensive on a throne with his hands folded in his lap overseeing the hall.
But there was one person who would have really, really hated that Darwin statue. The founder of the Natural History Museum. His name was Sir Richard Owen and he invented the word dinosaur. From Science Friday, this is Science Diction. I'm Johanna Mayer. We're talking about the word dinosaur.
When it came to dinosaurs, for millennia people had seen these mysterious bones but they had no idea what they were. There's even evidence that griffins, those magical creatures with the lion's body and wings, were inspired by dinosaur fossils. And it just so happens that England was a fossil goldmine. People came up with random names for this or that creature as they stumbled upon them but nobody really put the pieces together that all of these fossils were connected, part of the same family, under a common name. Enter Richard Owen. Owen was a super talented naturalist and paleontologist.
He had more than 600 scientific books and papers to his name. He ranked high up there in the scientific community. He was chummy with the royal family, they asked him to tutor their kids. He once looked at a six inch fragment of a bone and was able to figure out what the whole animal would look like. This guy knew his bones.
So when he got a good look at some of these mysterious fossils. He was perfectly positioned to crack this dinosaur case wide open. In particular, he noticed the specimens that he was looking at shared this one strange quality. All five vertebrae at the base of their spines looked like they had fused together during their lifetime, something he hadn't seen in contemporary reptiles. He wrote up his observations in a journal in 1841 and he called this new class of creatures Dinosauria. And there you have it. Dinos, a Greek word which means horrible or fearful, and sauros, which means lizard. A terrifying lizard.
It was Owen who determined that dinosaurs were their own special group of reptiles, the dinosaurs, and not just any other scaly creature based on that strange quality those specimens shared, a fused vertebrae. Those fossils people were finding, they were no longer just a smattering of random bones lodged in a hillside. Now they were connected. They were a thing. They had a name. And soon it was full dino fever in Victorian London. And Owen, by creating that word and conjuring up a single name, became the father of the dinos.
The newly discovered prehistoric creatures even made an appearance at the iconic Crystal Palace, which was home to exhibitions and festivals, kind of like a World's Fair. A sculptor was hired to create this life-sized three dimensional herd of dinosaurs to roam the park outside the Crystal Palace and Owen was his scientific advisor. The sculptor invited a group of scientists, academics, and two other important men for dinner inside the mold used for the giant Iguanodon sculpture.
And I'm not joking when I say giant. It took 600 bricks, 38 casts of cement, 100 feet of iron hooping, and 900 plane tiles, among others, to bring the sculpture to life. And on New Year's Eve 1853, the guests took their seats inside the dinosaur's shell where they dined on mock turtle soup, pheasant, and pigeon pie. And at the head of the table right inside the noggin of that giant Iguanodon was Richard Owen.
So why is it Darwin sitting on the landing of that grand staircase at the Natural History Museum? Well, because Richard Owen blew his chance. Not once, but twice. The thing about Richard Owen was, he was brilliant but he was also not the easiest person to get along with. He's been accused of failing to acknowledge others' work or flat out stealing it for himself. Some even say that other scientists had done the tougher work of describing the dinosaur fossils and Owen just kind of swooped in at the last minute to name them, getting all the glory. Basically, he would do whatever it took to stay at the top of his field.
And that came out full force when Charles Darwin came to town. You've probably heard of Darwin's famous book, On the Origin of Species, the book that introduced the world to evolutionary theory and turned a whole lot of science on its head. But look, it's not like Origin of Species was this instant hit. Most of the old guard in the scientific community wasn't too happy about the ideas about evolution in that book, Owen included. He wasn't about to give up his top perch in the field by backing some younger, scrappy scientist with crazy ideas. Owen decided to write an anonymous tear down of the book. But everyone knew it was him.
RICHARD OWEN: The scientific world has looked forward with great interest to the facts which Mr. Darwin might finally deem adequate to the support of his theory on the supreme--
JOHANNA MAYER: Let's just say the review wasn't the most riveting piece of work you've ever heard.
RICHARD OWEN: --throwing light on 'that mystery of mysteries'. But--
JOHANNA MAYER: Honestly, it was dry as hell. And also really dismissive of Darwin's ideas.
RICHARD OWEN: --our disappointment may be conceived. Failing the adequacy of such--
JOHANNA MAYER: All right. So strike one. The review was a chance for Owen to react in this open, generous way to new scientific ideas and come out on the right side of history. And he blew it. But look, a lot of people weren't on board with Darwin's ideas in the beginning. But then Owen got a second chance. Just two years after Darwin published his book, archaeopteryx showed up and that was a big deal. Archaeopteryx was a transitional fossil. You've probably seen pictures of it in your high school textbook. It had wings and feathers but also a full set of teeth and a long bony tail.
It was a missing link between non-avian dinosaurs and birds, the evolutionary evidence that bridge those two things together. And what better person to be able to make that connection than Richard Owen. He described these giant birds, he'd named the dinosaurs. This fossil should have been a slam dunk. And it was also his opportunity to say, hey, you know what? I might have been wrong. Maybe Darwin was actually onto something here. Let's take another look at his theory, see where it takes us.
But that's not what Owen said. He dismissed archaeopteryx as just any other h-hum fossil, claiming it was nothing more than a bird. He blew it. Again. We were this close to remembering Richard Owen as just an incredible biologist who named the dinosaurs but instead Richard Owen will forever be the man who looked at a feathered dinosaur and saw nothing special. He read Darwin's grand theory and dismissed it. So today everyone's heard of Charles Darwin but Richard Owen? He is Darwin's footnote.
The rivalry outlasted both the men. Owen may have founded the Natural History Museum but it was Darwin who became the apple of Britain's eye. And it was his statue that was erected in the place of honor in the museum after he died. We can only imagine how Richard Owen might have felt about that. But their story didn't end there. Owen finally did get his due after he died. When curators shunted the famous Darwin statue into a different room and a statue of Owen went up in its place.
But it wasn't to last. It was Darwin who ultimately had the final word. 11 years ago, on the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species, museum curators decided that Darwin deserved to sit at the top of those stairs after all and Richard Owen got the boot. Darwin literally knocked the father of the dinosaurs off his pedestal. Again. He's been there ever since.
Science Diction is written and produced by me, Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata and we had additional story editing from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and most of our music are by Daniel Peterschmidt and additional music credits are on our website. Fact-checking help from Michelle Harris. We had mixing help from Kaitlyn Schwalje
For more stories like these, subscribe to Science Diction wherever you get your podcasts. Special thanks this week to the biologist Sean B. Carroll and huge shout out to the staff at the Natural History Museum in London. If you want to read more about this, there's an article by Howard Markel on our site at ScienceFriday.com/Dinosaur. Thanks as always to the entire Science Friday staff. We'll see you next time with a brand new word.