Charles Lyell

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Biography of Charles Lyell, 1797-1875.

From: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition, 1910-1911.

LYELL, SIR CHARLES (1797-1875), British geologist, was the eldest son of Charles Lyell of Kinnordy, Forfarshire, and was born on the 14th of November 1797, on the family estate in Scotland. His father (1767-1849) was known both as a botanist and as the translator of the Vita Nuova and the Convito of Dante: the plant Lyellia was named after him. From his boyhood Lyell had a strong inclination for natural history, especially entomology, a taste which he cultivated at Bartley Lodge in the New Forest, to which his family had removed soon after his birth. In 1816 he entered Exeter College, Oxford, where the lectures of Dr Buckland first drew his attention to geological study. After taking his degree of B.A. in 1819 (M.A. in 1821) he entered Lincoln's Inn, and in 1825, after a delay caused by chronic weakness of the eyes, he was called to the bar, and went on the western circuit for two years. During this time he was slowly gravitating towards the life of a student of science. In 1819 he had been elected a fellow of the Linnean and Geological Societies, communicating his first paper, "On a Recent Formation of Freshwater Limestone in Forfarshire," to the latter society in 1822, and acting as one of the honorary secretaries in 1823. In that year he went to France, with introductions to Cuvier, Humboldt and other men of science, and in 1824 made a geological tour in Scotland in company with Dr Buckland. In 1826 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, from which in later years he received both the Copley and Royal medals; and in 1827 he finally abandoned the legal profession, and devoted himself to geology.

At this time he had already begun to plan his chief work, The Principles of Geology. The subsidiary title, "An Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of the Earth's Surface by Reference to Causes now in Operation," gives the keynote of the task to which Lyell devoted his life. A journey with Murchison in 1828 gave rise to joint papers on the volcanic district of Auvergne and the Tertiary formations of Aix-en-Provence. After parting with Murchison he studied the marine remains of the Italian Tertiary Strata and then conceived the idea of dividing this geological system into three or four groups, characterized by the proportion of recent to extinct species of shells. To these groups, after consulting Dr Whewell as to the best nomenclature, he gave the names now universally adopted -- Eocene (dawn of recent), Miocene (less of recent), and Pliocene (more of recent); and with the assistance of G. P. Deshayes he drew up a table of shells in illustration of this classification. The first volume of the Principles of Geology appeared in 1830, and the second in January 1832. Received at first with some opposition, so far as its leading theory was concerned, the work had ultimately a great success, and the two volumes had already reached a second edition in 1833 when the third, dealing with the successive formations of the earth's crust, was added. Between 1830 and 1872 eleven editions of this work were published, each so much enriched with new material and the results of riper thought as to form a complete history of the progress of geology during that interval. Only a few days before his death Sir Charles finished revising the first volume of the 12th edition; the revision of the second volume was completed by his nephew Mr (afterwards Sir) Leonard Lyell; and the work appeared in 1876.

In August 1838 Lyell published the Elements of Geology, which, from being originally an expansion of one section of the Principles, became a standard work on stratigraphical and palaeontological geology. This book went through six editions in Lyell's lifetime (some intermediate editions being styled Manual of Elementary Geology), and in 1871 a smaller work, the Student's Elements of Geology, was based upon it. His third great work, The Antiquity of Man, appeared in 1863, and ran through three editions in one year. In this he gave a general survey of the arguments for man's early appearance on the earth, derived from the discoveries of flint implements in post-Pliocene strata in the Somme valley and elsewhere; he discussed also the deposits of the Glacial epoch, and in the same volume he first gave in his adhesion to Darwin's theory of the origin of species. A fourth edition appeared in 1873.

In 1831-1833 Lyell was professor of geology at King's College, London, and delivered while there a course of lectures, which became the foundation of the Elements of Geology. In 1832 he married Mary (1809-1873) eldest daughter of Leonard Horner (q.v.), and she became thenceforward associated with him in all his work, and by her social qualities making his home a centre of attraction. In 1834 he made an excursion to Denmark and Sweden, the result of which was his Bakerian lecture to the Royal Society "On the Proofs of the gradual Rising of Land in certain Parts of Sweden." He also brought before the Geological Society a paper "On the Cretaceous and Tertiary Strata of Seeland and Möen." In 1835 he became president of the Geological Society. In 1837 he was again in Norway and Denmark, and in 1841 he spent a year in travelling through the United States, Canada and Nova Scotia. This last journey, together with a second one to America in 1845, resulted not only in papers, but also in two works not exclusively geological, Travels in North America (1845) and A Second Visit to the United States (1849). During these journeys he estimated the rate of recession of the falls of Niagara, the annual average accumulation of alluvial matter in the delta of the Mississippi, and studied those vegetable accumulations in the "Great Dismal Swamp" of Virginia, which he afterwards used in illustrating the formation of beds of coal. He also studied the coal-formations in Nova Scotia, and discovered in company with Dr (afterwards Sir J. W.) Dawson (q.v.) of Montreal, the earliest known landshell, Pupa vetusta, in the hollow stem of a Sigillaria. In bringing a knowledge of European geology to bear upon the extended formations of North America Lyell rendered immense service. Having visited Madeira and Teneriffe in company with G. Hartung, he accumulated much valuable evidence on the age and deposition of lava-beds and the formation of volcanic cones. He also revisited Sicily in 1858, when he made such observations upon the structure of Etna as refuted the theory of "craters of elevation" upheld by Von Buch and Élie de Beaumont (see Phil. Trans., 1859).

Lyell was knighted in 1848, and was created a baronet in 1864, in which year he was president of the British Association at Bath. He was elected corresponding member of the French Institute and of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Berlin, and was created a knight of the Prussian Order of Merit.

During the later years of his life his sight, always weak, failed him altogether. He died on the 22nd of February 1875, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Among his characteristics were his great thirst for knowledge, his perfect fairness and sound judgment; while the extreme freshness of his mind enabled him to accept and appreciate the work of younger men.

The LYELL MEDAL, established in 1875 under the will of Sir Charles Lyell is cast in bronze and is to be awarded annually (or from time to time) by the Council of the Geological Society. The medallist may be of any country or either sex. Not less than one-third of the annual interest of a sum of £2000 is to be awarded with the medal; the remaining interest, known as the LYELL GEOLOGICAL FUND, is to be given in one or more portions at the discretion of the Council for the encouragement of geological science.

See Life, Letters and Journals of Sir Charles Lyell, Bart., edited by his sister-in-law, Mrs Lyell (2 vols. 1881); Charles Lyell and Modern Geology, by T.G. Bonney (1895).

(H.B. Wo.)

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