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A Case Study in Ruthless Ambition

For a picture of ruthless ambition, you could look no further than Richard Owen, the gifted scientist who coined the term dinosaur in 1841. Owen wrote about 600 scientific papers and was the first to describe the archaeopteryx. But he would stop at nothing to further his career.

He told the publication Churchill's Medical Directory that he held the prestigious position of Professor of Comparative Anatomy and Physiology at the Government School of Mines. Too bad that the position was actually held by another man, naturalist T. H. Huxley.

Owen then took a discovery made by scientist Hugh Falconer and claimed that he had done it.

Owen essentially stole important specimens from other scientists; he would borrow the specimens, then never return them. When the scientists confronted him, he would deny he had ever borrowed anything.

When a young anatomist, Robert Grant, showed promise, Owen must have seen him as a threat, because he used his contacts at the Zoological Society to blackball Grant. Writes Bill Bryson, "Grant was astonished to discover that he was suddenly denied access to the anatomical specimens he needed to conduct his research." His promising career went nowhere.

Then Owen turned on Gideon Mantell, the person who had discovered the iguanodon and other dinosaur species. Mantell had been crippled from a serious accident, so he was unable to defend himself when Richard Owen "set about systematically expunging Mantell's contributions from the record, renaming species that Mantell had named years before and claiming credit for their discovery for himself."

When Mantell tried to publish new research, "Owen used his influence at the Royal Society to ensure that most of his papers were rejected. In 1852, unable to bear any more pain or persecution, Mantell took his own life."

If that weren't horrifying enough, when Mantell died, an anonymous obituary appeared in the Literary Gazette, criticizing Mantell as a mediocre scientist and claiming that the iguanodon was really discovered, in part, by Richard Owen. The obituary was almost certainly written by Owen.

Concludes author Bill Bryson: "Even Owen's son (who soon after killed himself) referred to his father's 'lamentable coldness of heart.'"

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