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Richard Owen and the platypus

The platypus, that famously enigmatic creature, both fascinated and confounded the great scientific minds of the 19th century.  

The Library has recently acquired a letter written by Richard Owen, Britain’s leading comparative anatomist of the 19thCentury, about the findings of his research on the platypus.  The letter is written in 1834 to Francois Arago of l’Institute Academie des Sciences in France. 

lewinplatypus.jpg

Lewin platypus
The first evidence that the platypus laid eggs was provided by George Cayley who reported the information (provided by local Aborigines) to Joseph Banks in 1803-4.  Yet even in the 1830s, most scientists still questioned that a hair bearing animal could lay eggs.  Even if that were so, there was still a further distinction to be made between reptiles, whose young hatched independently, and mammals, whose young were dependent at birth.

Owen's letter refers to his findings, that had been recently published in the Transactions of the Royal Philosophical Society.  Owen found that the platypus was indeed a true mammal.  However, he mistakenly concluded that as the eggs do not have a ‘voluminous yolk’, the animal does not lay its eggs. 

As a creationist, and a famous critic of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, Owen could not accept the idea that an egg-laying mammal could exist, because inherent in that concept, is the notion that animals can evolve over time and develop characteristics of more than one class.

In 1884, some fifty years after Owen's letter, William Caldwell conclusively established that egg-laying mammals which suckle their young are an evolutionary link between reptiles and mammals.  

Owen’s letter was recently purchased from Douglas Stewart Fine Books and is catalogued as Richard Owen letter to Francois Arago, on the taxonomy of the platypus, 1834

The Library also holds a number of other letters written by Richard Owen about the platypus and about other aspects of Australia’s natural history which so fascinated him, and we also have a copy of Owen’s papers pertaining to Australia, including his notebooks on the platypus (the original papers being held in the British Museum).

Wendy Holz, Manuscripts Section