Richard Owen FRS (1804-1892) appears to have had an almost exceptional ability to offend those around him, especially those working in his own field. Whether by insulting their work, or by behaving in a decidedly underhanded and ungentlemanly manner, he had a knack for making enemies, even out of friends.
Gideon Algernon Mantell FRS (1790-1852) was one such fellow. A geologist and palaeontologist, Mantell was to cross swords with Owen in the mid-nineteenth century, notably over the award of a medal which they both received.
Owen and Mantell were at one stage, if not friends, then at least sufficiently comfortable with one another to socialise – it is recorded in Owen’s biography, written by his grandson and originally published in 1894, that he “brought back with him to dinner Dr. Buckland, Professor Agassiz, and Dr. Mantell, and afterwards entertained them to their heart’s content with the microscope.” Moreover, in 1842 Owen cited Mantell in a comparative anatomy lecture as a positive example of what a medical practitioner may do while he has spare time, in turning his mind to scientific study. In 1845, Mantell sent Owen a warm message of thanks and congratulations on receiving a copy of ‘British Fossil Mammalia and Birds’.
The first indication of any criticism is recorded in Mantell’s journal in 1846, upon hearing that Owen is to be awarded the Royal Medal of the Royal Society for his paper ‘A Description of Certain Belemnites’ (1844), which Mantell describes as “a paper which turns out unfortunately to be a tissue of blunders from beginning to end!” Mantell wrote his own paper on the Belemnites, designed to address some of the errors made in Owen’s work, which was read at a Royal Society meeting on 28 March 1848. Owen, also present, launched an attack on Mantell and his paper, though Mantell was defended by the Dean of Westminster. Historian Roy MacLeod posits that Owen was so virulent in his attack as he felt that the award of the medal meant that his assertions were “right” and resented Mantell’s criticism.
The hostility seems to have bubbled away somewhat for the rest of the year – Mantell only mentions Owen with relief, when he is not in attendance at any meeting. However, in 1849 Mantell was proposed by the Royal Society as a suitable recipient for the Royal Medal for his paper ‘On the Structure of the Jaws and Teeth of the Iguanodon’ (1848). According to Mantell’s friends, Owen attended the Committee meeting as a visitor in order to persuade them not to put his name forward. Happily for Mantell, he failed, though he was not quite done. At the Council meeting where the final decision was to be voted on, Owen “repudiated all [Mantell’s] labour, said all [he] had done was to collect fossils and get others to work on them.”
The Council did not view it that way, and only Owen and one other voted against Mantell, who, upon hearing an account of Owen’s behaviour, was understandably unimpressed. While Owen challenged his opinions in scientific meetings, that was one thing, but without his friends on the selection committee and the Council, Mantell would have known nothing of Owen’s perfidiousness in the matter. He showed his displeasure in a much more upfront manner, when Owen approached him at the December Council meeting, he records: “Owen came up and shook hands with those near me, and about to offer his hand to me; I bowed and declined it.”
There is an indication that the animosity abated somewhat, as Mantell wrote to Owen in 1850, cautioning him against overwork, advice which his grandson recorded as most likely followed by Owen. Mantell’s journal ends abruptly in June 1852, and he died in November that same year.
Why then, was Owen so abrasive to his colleagues? Nicolas Rupke suggests a plausible reason in his 1994 biography ‘Richard Owen: Victorian Naturalist‘:
“as long as Owen was acknowledged as the supreme expert, by the non-expert, by junior naturalists, by admiring disciples and by distant colleagues, he was a model of kindness and generosity; but when interacting with near-equals, [...] Owen turned petty, and failed to act with the magnanimity which, given his position and fame, he could well afford.”
Given Owen’s treatment of Mantell, this seems like a fairly accurate portrayal of a man determined to stay at the top of his field – whatever the cost to his relationships.