1841 - Richard Owen Coins the Word Dinosaur

As part of our 200 year anniversary we are celebrating significant events that have taken place since 1817 – 2017. This week it is 1841 and Richard Owen coins the word Dinosaur.

Richard Owen coined the word Dinosaur (originally Dinosauria) in 1841 and it originates from two greek words deinos – terrible, powerful, wondrous and sauros – lizard. Before 1841 we think people just called them dragons!

Born in Lancaster in 1804 Richard Owen began his professional life by training in medicine with a local surgeon.

In 1837 Owen became a Hunterian lecturer. These lectures became popular very quickly amongst the attendees were members of the Royal Family. Even Charles Darwin attended when he returned from his excursions (is he classed as royalty? – Science royalty perhaps).

Richard Owen and the Natural History Museum

A really interesting fact about Owen is that he was responsible for the Natural History museum. Previously fossils and other artefacts of natural history were kept in the British museum but from when he was appointed as curator there in 1856 he immediately started campaigning that natural history should be separate entirely. In 1881 the Natural History Museum was opened but it would be another 107 years for it to become completely independent of the British Museum in 1963.


Owen worked as a taxonomist for London Zoo giving him a wealth of experience examining exotic animals. Other scientists would bring him fossils they had uncovered and most famously he was brought reptile like fossil bones from southern England. He concluded that these bones were in fact not lizards but displayed “a distinct tribe or sub-order of Saurian reptiles” and named these Dinosauria.

Jealousy and arrogance did not help

It wasn’t all success for Owen though, towards the end of his career he claimed that Charles Darwin was wrong about humans evolving from apes due to a lack of similar parts of the brain. Darwin has been recorded as saying that Owen’s vanity and jealousy had caused them to become enemies – could this be the reason for the denial of Darwin’s famous findings, I’ll let you decide.

Another scientist Thomas Henry Huxley was able to concussively show that Owen was completely incorrect and in fact those parts of the brain are in both humans and apes. This disgrace threw a lot of Owen’s work into question, however some of it has stood the test of time and as we all know the Natural History Museum still stands proud and is visited by millions to this day – so it wasn’t all bad.

We really hope you found this interesting and will join us again next week when we will be skipping ahead to 1842 when the Doppler Effect was formulated.