Owen had grown up in Lancaster, in the north of England, where he had trained as a doctor. He was a born anatomist and so devoted to his studies that he sometimes illicitly borrowed limbs, organs, and other parts from cadavers and took them home for leisurely dissection.
Once while carrying a sack containing the head of a black African sailor that he had just removed, Owen slipped on a wet cobble and watched in horror as the head bounced away from him down the lane and through the open doorway of a cottage, where it came to rest in the front parlor. What the occupants had to say upon finding an unattached head rolling to a halt at their feet can only be imagined. One assumes that they had not formed any terribly advanced conclusions when, an instant later, a fraught-looking young man rushed in, wordlessly retrieved the head, and rushed out again.
In 1825, aged just twenty-one, Owen moved to London and soon after was engaged by the Royal College of Surgeons to help organize their extensive, but disordered, collections of medical and anatomical specimens. Most of these had been left to the institution by John Hunter, a distinguished surgeon and tireless collector of medical curiosities, but had never been catalogued or organized, largely because the paperwork explaining the significance of each had gone missing soon after Hunter's death.