The FIRSTS: Dinosaurs and reputation (1842)

‘Dinosaur’ is a common noun in most languages of the Globe and, in its weak sense, it means “extinct big-sized reptile-like animal that lived a long-time ago”. The word has been in usage for so long that it can be used also for describing something “impractically large, out-of-date, or obsolete” (Merriam-Webster dictionary). “Dinosaur” is a composite of two ancient Greek words (“deinos”, “sauros”) and it means “terrible lizard”.

But, it turns out that the word hasn’t been in usage for so long, just for a mere 175 years. Sir Richard Owen, a paleontologist that dabbled in many disciplines, coined the term in 1842. Owen introduced the taxon Dinosauria as if it was always called thus, no fuss: “The present and concluding part of the Report on British Fossil Reptiles contains an account of the remains of the Crocodilian, Dinosaurian, Lacertian, Pterodactylian, Chelonian, Ophidian and Batrachian reptiles.” (p. 60). Only later in the Report does he tell us his paleontological reasons for the baptism, namely some anatomical features that distinguish dinosaurs from crocodiles and other reptiles.

“…The combination of such characters, some, as the sacral ones, altogether peculiar among Reptiles, others borrowed, as it were, from groups now distinct from each other, and all manifested by creatures far surpassing in size the largest of existing reptiles, will, it is presumed, be deemed sufficient ground for establishing a distinct tribe or sub-order of Saurian Reptiles, for which I would propose the name of Dinosauria.” (p.103)

At the time he was presenting this report to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, other giants of biology were running around the same halls, like Charles Darwin and Thomas Henry Huxley. Indisputably, Owen had a keen observational eye and a strong background in comparative anatomy that resulted in hundreds of published works, some of them excellent. That, in addition to establishing the British Museum of Natural History.

Therefore, Owen had reasons to be proud of his accomplishments and secure in his influence and legacy, and yet his contemporaries tell us that he was an absolutely vicious man, spiteful to the point of obsession, vengeful and extremely jealous of other people’s work. Apparently, he would steal the work of the younger people around him, never give credit, lie and cheat at every opportunity, and even write lengthy anonymous letters to various printed media to denigrate his contemporaries. He seemed to love his natal city of Lancaster and his family though (Wessels & Taylor, 2015).

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Sir Richard Owen (20 July 1804 – 18 December 1892). PD, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Owen had a particular hate for Darwin. They had been close friends for 20 years and then Darwin published the “Origin of Species”. The book quickly became widely read and talked about and then poof: vitriol and hate. Darwin himself said the only reason he could think of for Owen’s hatred was the popularity of the book.

Various biographies and monographers seem to agree on his unpleasant personality (see his entry in The Telegraph, Encyclopedia.com, Encylopaedia Britannica, BBC. On a side note, should you be concerned about your legacy and have the means to persuade The Times to write you an obituary, by all means, do so. In all the 8 pages of obituary written in 1896 you will not find a single blemish on the portrait of Sir Richard Owen.

This makes me ponder on the judgement of history based not on your work, but on your personality. As I said, the man contributed to science in more ways than just naming the dinosaur and having spats with Darwin. And yet it seems that his accomplishments are somewhat diminished by the way he treated others.

This reminded me of Nicolae Constantin Paulescu, a Romanian scientist who discovered insulin in 1916 (published in 1921). Yes, yes, I know all about the controversy with the Canadians that extracted and purified the insulin in 1922 and got the Nobel for it in 1923. Paulescu did the same, even if Paulescu’s “pancreatic extract” from a few years earlier was insufficiently purified; it still successfully lowered the glicemic index in dogs. He even obtained a patent for the “fabrication of pancrein” (his name for insulin, because he obtained it from the pancreas) in April 1922 from the Romanian Government (patent no. 6255). The Canadian team was aware of his work, but because it was published in French, they had a poor translation and they misunderstood his findings, so, technically, they didn’t steal anything. Or so they say. Feel free to feed the conspiracy mill. I personally don’t know, I haven’t looked at the original work to form an opinion because it is in French and my French is non-existent.

Annnywaaaay, whether or not Paulescu was the first in discovering the insulin is debatable, but few doubt that he should have shared the Nobel at least.

Rumor has it that Paulescu did not share the Nobel because he was a devout Nazi. His antisemitic writings are remarkably horrifying, even by the standards of the extreme right. That’s also why you won’t hear about him in medical textbooks or at various diabetes associations and gatherings. Yet millions of people worldwide may be alive today because of his work, at least partly.

How should we remember? Just the discoveries and accomplishments with no reference to the people behind them? Is remembering the same as honoring? “Clara cells” were lung cells discovered by the infamous Nazi anatomist Max Clara by dissecting prisoners without consent. They were renamed by the lung community “club cells” in 2013. We cannot get rid of the discovery, but we can rename the cells, so it doesn’t look like we honor him. I completely understand that. And yet I also don’t want to lose important pieces of history because of the atrocities (in the case of Nazis) or unsavory behavior (in the case of Owen) committed by our predecessors. I understand why the International Federation of Diabetes does not wish to give awards in the name of Paulescu or have a Special Paulescu lecture. Perhaps the Romanians should take down his busts and statues, too. But I don’t understand why (medical) history books should exclude him.

In other words, don’t honor the unsavories of history, but don’t forget them either. You never know what we – or the future generations – may learn by looking back at them and their actions.

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By Neuronicus, 19 October 2017

References:

1) Owen, R (1842). “Report on British Fossil Reptiles”. Part II. Report of the Eleventh Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science; Held at Plymouth in July 1841. London: John Murray. p. 60–204. Google Books Fulltext 

2) “Eminent persons: Biographies reprinted from the Times, Vol V, 1891–1892 – Sir Richard Owen (Obituary)” (1896). Macmillan & Co., p. 291–299. Google Books Fulltext

3) Wessels Q & Taylor AM (28 Oct 2015). Anecdotes to the life and times of Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892) in Lancaster. Journal of Medical Biography. pii: 0967772015608053. PMID: 26512064, DOI: 10.1177/0967772015608053. ARTICLE

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