The man who gave us dinosaurs

 thehindu.com  07/31/2020 11:22:54 

In the 1990s, there was discussion as to when exactly the dinosaur birthday had to be celebrated. Not a birthday like we celebrate, but one that commemorates the 150th anniversary of coining the term dinosaur. There were three dates on offer  July 30, August 2 and August 24  and even the year wasnt certain. Should the 150th anniversary be celebrated in 1991 or 1992? One thing was for sure though. Everyone unanimously agreed that the one who coined the term dinosaur was British palaeontologist Richard Owen.

Born on July 20, 1804 in Lancaster, England, Owen came up from a poor background in Lancashire before going on to become a celebrated scientist. Not much about his time at the Lancaster Royal Grammar School (1809-1819) now remains, except for the fact that teachers labelled him imprudent. They might have well got it right, as Owen clearly didnt show much respect for his contemporaries, later on in his life as well.

Following his medical training, Owen became an anatomist and was even engaged as the curator of the Hunterian Collections, made by renowned Scottish anatomist John Hunter. Despite growing well in his chosen field, Owen was increasingly drawn towards palaeontology in the 1930s and chose to leave medical practice, dedicating his time fully to research.

Trio of fossils

The 19th Century saw scientists studying dinosaurs with the fossil discoveries of that time in southern England including Megalosaurus (big lizard), Iguanodon (Iguana tooth) and Hylaeosaurus (woodland lizard). Owen examined bones of this trio of finds and noticed shared characteristics.

In July 1841, at the annual meeting of the British Association in Plymouth, England, Owen delivered a speech that lasted two hours, introducing these fossils. On further study, he was able to see that the vertebrae at the base of the spine, known now as sacrum, had fused together for these animals.

Not terrible, but fearfully great

Based on his observations and other similarities, Owen placed these reptiles in a new group, which he named dinosauria. While it is unsure whether Owen used this term to describe them during his speech, we know for certain that he ensured that the word appears in the report of the meeting, which was published only in 1842. And naturally, this has led to the confusion as to when to celebrate the dinosaurs birthday.

The word dinosauria is rooted in Greek and even though it is often quoted as meaning terrible lizard, Owen actually referred to them as fearfully great lizard  a nod to their large sizes, way beyond any reptile we see today. While the concept of dinosaurs drifted out of favour late in the 19th Century, evidence gathered in the 1970s, including the fact that birds evolved from dinosaurs, firmly established dinosaurs as a valid grouping again.

Owen, who was appointed superintendent of the natural history departments of the British Museums in 1856, became a controversial figure. He gained this reputation as he was accused of stealing others works and also writing anonymous reviews undermining others. He was also said to be jealous of the success achieved by fellow scientists, evident clearly in the way he treated naturalist Charles Darwin, who was in fact a good friend for nearly 20 years.

Natural History Museum

Despite his shortcomings, there is no doubting that Owen was a remarkable palaeontologist with a gift for examining and interpreting fossils. It was also his zeal for success and persistence that eventually led to the establishment of the now world-famous Natural History Museum in London.

From the time he was appointed in 1856, Owen was vocal about the need for more space to house the exhibits, resulting finally in the Natural History Museum in 1881. By making this museum a place for everyone to visit, and not just the rich, Owen also did admirably in changing our expectations out of museums.

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Meet Dippy and Hope

Dippy is a plaster cast replica of the fossilised bones of the skeleton of a Diplodocus dinosaur. The original, which is on display at Pittsburghs Carnegie Museum of Natural History, is also called Dippy.

The 70 feet cast of Dippy was on display in the Natural History Museum in London, set up by Owen, from 1905 to 2017. It was moved to the Hintze Hall, the museums large central space, in 1979, replacing a mounted African elephant nicknamed George, which had been on display as the central exhibit since 1907.

Dippys place was taken by Hope in 2017, following the redevelopment of the Hintze Hall. Hope is the skeleton of a 25.2 m blue whale that had been stranded on sandbanks in Ireland in 1891 and had been displayed in the museums Mammals gallery since 1934. Hope, suspended from the ceiling, hopes to remind visitors about humanitys role in protecting Earths biodiversity.

Horizon: Dippy and the Whale is a BBC Television special that has documented the work involved in removing Dippy and replacing it with Hope. It is narrated by acclaimed English broadcaster and natural historian David Attenborough and was first broadcast in 2017, the day before Hope was unveiled in its new home.

In case you are wondering what happened to Dippy, it started a tour of other British museums in February 2018.

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