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Richard Owen, the “Sea-Serpent Killer”

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In the beginning were the Greek and Roman encyclopedias, followed by the medieval bestiaries and the first cabinets of curiosities, soon replaced by natural history collections and the search for mysterious cryptids – humans were always fascinated by weird things and strange tales. Even philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626) argued that science should also consider “all prodigies and monstrous births of nature; of everything in short that is in nature new, rare and unusual“. So if you have a tale or post to share, unusual or not, for The Giants’ Shoulders” history of science blog carnival, let me know until tomorrow evening, the carnival will then be ready for Monday.

And now, a weird tale about Monsters and Men, as History of Geology will in September-October feature a series of posts dedicated to the topic.

The Victorian paleontologist Richard Owen (1804-1892) is today often only remembered as father of the term “dinosaurs, but his fields of interests included the anatomy of mammals, especially marsupials, the ox-like bones of birds from New Zealand, toads entombed in solid rock and even sea monsters.

Fig.1. Richard Owen (probably in 1848) with bones of the monstrous Moa-species Dinornis (from “Yearbook of Facts in Science and Art”, 1852).

Owen’s early years of education weren’t very promising. He completed a basic education, in which he was described as “lazy and rebellious“. After only half a year at Edinburgh University, he left studies to practice as surgeon in various hospitals. He worked for a brief period as a doctor, but soon (and under fortunate circumstances) he entered the museum environment, where he developed great interest in comparative anatomy. And in his role as a curator and organizer of exhibitions he became very popular to the general public. As one consequence of his fame he became a requested expert on strange animals and amazing sightings, but he showed also an active personal interest in such topics (those British paleontologists…).
Between 1830 and 1870 Owen compiled a private booklet, where he collected letters and clipped and saved news reports about alleged sightings of sea serpents. His view on these sea monsters became public in 1848, in response to one of the most spectacular and publicized sightings of sea serpents in modern history.
October 14, 1848 the newspaper “The Times” published the report of an encounter with a sea serpent by Captain Peter M ‘Quahe and the crew of the ship “HMS Daedalus“. Just one month earlier the Daedalus was sailing between the island of St. Helena and the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa), when someone noticed a strange shape in the open sea. Captain m’ Quhae provided a description of the five to twenty minutes long encounter:

The diameter of the serpent was about 15 or 16 inches behind the head, which was, without a doubt, that of a snake; … its color a dark brown, with yellowish white about the throat. It had no fins, but something like a mane of a horse, or rather a bunch of seaweed, washed about its back. It was seen by the quartermaster, the boatswain’s mate, and the man at the wheel, in addition to myself and officers above mentioned.

The story became very popular after appearing in the famous gossip magazine “The Illustrated London News“, especially due the illustrations based on the description of Captain M ‘Quahe.

Fig.2. The sighting of “HMS Daedalus”, one of the three illustrations published in 1848 by “The Illustrated London News”, image from LEE, H. (1883) “Sea monsters unmasked“. The real nature of the sighting of the Daedalus is still unknown; however, the famous figure of the sea serpent is based more on the artist’s imagination than on verifiable facts. The sketch of the first officer Edgar Drummond, probably made shortly after the encounter, is much less detailed and ambiguous on the possible interpretation.

November 14, 1848 was published a response by Richard Owen in “The Times” (later reprinted by various newspapers):

As it contains the substance of the explanation I have endeavored to give to numerous inquirers, in the Hunterian Museum and elsewhere, and as I continue to receive many applications for my opinion of the “Great Sea Serpent”, I am desirous to give it once for all through the medium of your columns, if space of such value may be allotted to it.

Owen starts cautiously, arguing that the description and representation of the monster excludes a reptile (a theory influenced by the discovery of the first fossil marine reptiles at the time) – especially considering the described head – and despite admitting that

I am far from insensible to the pleasures of the discovery of a new and rare animal; but before I can enjoy them, certain conditions – e.g., reasonable proof or evidence of its existence – must be fulfilled.

Owen concluded that the creature was a mammal, probably a large seal (the entire conversation arguing for and against sea monsters has been republished in OudemansThe Great Sea-Serpent“, 1892; See also REGAL 2012).
Owens main argument was based on the lack of physical evidence – bones send to a museum or found in a collection – of the alleged monsters and sea serpents:

A larger body of evidence from eye-witnesses might be got together in proof of ghosts than of the sea serpent.

Owen lived in a period of (r)evolution for the study of the natural world. Just fifty years earlier bones of prehistoric animals were widely regarded as proof of myths and human giants. He was convinced that the modern science of zoology and paleontology should only be based on tangible evidence, collected, stored and analyzed in a museum (he was after all custodian of the “Hunterian Museum” and one of the minds behind the Natural History Museum in London).
Owen´s public criticism had unexpected consequences. Where Owen proposed skepticism regarding the presented evidence, naturalists soon adopted a general attitude of rejection towards all stories of locals or amateurs of unidentified animals.

Bibliography:

LYONS, S.L. (2009): Species, Serpents, Spirits, and Skulls: Science at the Margins in the Victorian Age. Univ of New York Press: 245
REGAL, B. (2012): Richard Owen and the sea-serpent. Endavour Vol. 36(2): 65-68
RUPKE, N. A. (2009): Richard Owen. Biology without Darwin. University of Chicago Press: 344

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. JRWermuth 7:28 pm 09/17/2012

    Nicely done David – it is such pleasure to read informative and entertaining writing skillfully managed by an expert hand with remarkable curiosity.

    Link to this

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