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Charles Lyell

Birth: 1797


Charles Lyell (1797-1875), geologist, eldest son of Charles Lyell of Kinnordy, near Kirriemuir, in central Forfarshire, was born in the family residence there on 14 Nov. 1797. The family moved to the south of England before Charles was one year old, and his father rented Bartley Lodge, in the New Forest, two miles from Lyndhurst, from that time until 1825. Lyell's schooldays were passed, first at Ringwood, then at Dr. Radcliffe's school in Salisbury, and finally, in 1810, at Dr. Bayley's school at Midhurst. An autobiography of this period is prefixed to his 'Life, Letters, and Journals' (published in 1881).

The scientific taste of his father, himself a competent botanist, gave an undoubted impetus to Charles's powers of observation, while the open-air freedom of his life in the New Forest and Sussex encouraged a liking for natural history. His favorite pursuit was the collection of insects, but we have a glimpse of him and his companions rolling flints down the steep sides of Old Sarum, and searching for quartz crystals in the fragments (Life and Letters, i. 9). In 1816 he entered Exeter College, Oxford, graduated B.A. in 1819, being placed in the second class in classical honors, and proceeded M.A. in 1821. He complains in his letters of his deficiencies in classics.

His interest in entomology continued during his stay at Oxford, but the lectures of Dr. Buckland finally attracted him to geology. A new meaning had just been given to fossils by the publication in 1816 of William Smith's 'Strata identified by Organized Fossils,' in which the succession of faunas, and their utility in determining the relative ages of deposits, had been conclusively and for the first time pointed out. A great change was in consequence coming over the methods of observation in geology, and the study of rocks and minerals became only a small portion of the subject.

The discovery of the differences between successive faunas opened up the question of their origin and extinction, and thus a correct appreciation of the principles of geology became essential to the zoologist who would understand the relations between existing genera and species. It was felt that the physical changes in past times accounted in some way for the changes among organisms; but the nature of these physical changes still required accurate determination. The insistence that the processes of the past must be judged of by those now in progress forms the keynote of the whole of Lyell's scientific work.

As early as 1817 Lyell noted the recent occurrence of changes in the coastline near Norwich. In the autumn he traversed the central Grampians with two Oxford friends, and visited the west of Mull and Staffa. In 1818 began the series of continental tours which formed the foundation of his best-known works. With his parents and his two eldest sisters he crossed the Juras and the Alps, and finally reached Florence. His journal of this period contains a few scattered geological notes, and is remarkable for the absence of the startling theories which so many geologists were tempted to put forward when journeying among the phenomena of mountains. In later years Lyell writes characteristically: 'We must preach up traveling as the first, second, and third requisites for a modern geologist' (Life, i. 233).

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In 1819, the year in which he left Oxford, he joined the Geological and the Linnean Societies of London, and entered Lincoln's Inn to study for the bar. A weakness of his eyes, which troubled him greatly through life, prevented him, however, from continuing professional work, and he again travelled in Italy with his father. In 1823 he was elected secretary of the Geological Society, and read a paper in the following year 'On a Recent Formation of Freshwater Limestone in Forfarshire' (Trans. Geol. Soc. 2nd ser. vol. ii. 1826, pt. i. p. 23). In this he shows the similarity of deposits in ancient and modern lakes. But his first published paper is 'On a Dike of Serpentine in the County of Forfar' (Edinb. Journ. Science, 1825, p. 112). His friendship with Dr. G. A. Mantell led at this period to much joint work in the Cretaceous beds of south-eastern England. He retired from the post of secretary of the Geological Society in 1826, but accepted the foreign secretaryship, and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in the same year. His relations with men of science in Paris were by this time personal and cordial; he met Cuvier, Laplace, Arago, and Alex. Brongniart, while Humboldt congratulated him upon his father's scientific attainments.

In 1825 Lyell resumed the law, occupying chambers in Raymond's Buildings, Gray's Inn; and in 1827 he was actually on circuit. He now began to contribute to the 'Quarterly Review,' and in an article on English scientific societies described the part that they are destined to play in provincial education (Quart. Rev. vol. xxxiv.). In a notice of his friend Scrope's 'Memoir on the Geology of Central France' (ib. 1827, xxxvi. 437-84) he attacked those who would measure the facts of nature, not by observation, but by an appeal to the literal text of holy scripture.

Writing to Mantell on 2 March 1827, after reading Lamarck, Lyell remarked: 'How impossible will it be to distinguish and lay down a line, beyond which some of the so-called extinct species have never passed into recent ones;' but, in his desire to enforce his doctrine of the similarity of modern and ancient conditions on the surface of the earth, he dwelt very strongly upon the weakness of negative evidence in palaeontology, and suggested that both birds and mammals might have freely existed in the earlier geological periods (Life, i. 169). The great value of this position, maintained for thirty years, was that it put both collectors and theorists on their mettle. It checked a host of rash generalizations, and made the belief in a continuous progress in the organic world much more secure when Lyell himself finally gave it his support.

In 1828, with his 'Principles of Geology' continually in view, he joined [Sir] Roderick and Mrs. Murchison in Paris; they travelled together through Auvergne to Padua, and three joint papers were the result (Edinburgh Phil. Journ. 1829, pp. 15, 287; abstracts in Proc. Geol. Soc. i. 89, 150; and Annales des Sciences Naturelles, 1829, p. 173; abstract in Proc. Geol. Soc. i. 140). In the autumn he left his companions and turned southward towards Naples. The times were rough, with Tripoli pirates still scouring the Mediterranean; but he made successful expeditions into Sicily, mule-riding and walking, and the evidences of recent elevation of the land and recent mountain-building confirmed him in his faith in the efficiency of existing causes. He saw that the relative ages of the later deposits could be determined by the proportion of living to extinct molluscan species which they contained; and to this we owe his division of the tertiary strata into eocene, miocene, and pliocene, which has met with world-wide acceptance (Principles of Geology, iii. 1833; a revised sketch of the observations of this period occurs in the preface to the 3rd edition, 1834). In opposition to the invocation, by Buckland and others, of numerous universal deluges, Lyell's studies in these volcanic areas taught him how fossiliferous deposits might have been slowly raised above the sea. The first volume of his book was published by Murray in January 1830, and its title was a summary of his work: 'Principles of Geology: being an attempt to explain the former changes of the earth's surface, by reference to causes now in action.' The second and third volumes appeared in 1832 and 1833 respectively, and the whole work was reprinted in four smaller volumes in 1834. This edition was styled the third, since the first and second volumes of the original edition had been reissued prior to the publication of the third. The sale of the book was remarkable from the outset, and it underwent constant revision from the author, appearing in one volume in 1853, and in its final two-volume form in 1867-8. The twelfth edition was issued in 1875. The 'Principles' practically gave the death-blow to the catastrophic school of geologists. By its support of George Poulett Scrope in questions relating to volcanos, it led to the acceptance of moderate views, even in respect of the more paroxysmic forces of the globe.

It was only natural, when these principles met with rapid, though not unquestioning acceptance (see, for instance, Sedgwick, Proc. Geol. Soc. i. 302-6), that contemporaries and later critics should point out that they were merely a revival of older theories. Dr. Fitton, in a very friendly spirit, regretted (Edinb. Review, lxix. 411) that James Hutton's advocacy of the same views was inadequately noticed by Lyell; Lyell replied that Steno (1669), Hooke (1705), and Moro (1740) deserved as much credit as Hutton, and that his earlier chapters dealt equally with all (Life, ii. 47). The nature of the evidence that Lyell adduced from fossiliferous deposits distinguished his position from that of all his predecessors; palontology had arisen as a science between the date of Hutton's 'Theory of the Earth' (1785) and that of the 'Principles,' and Lyell, who spared no pains in consulting the conchologists, used the new weapon with a master-hand (see Geikie, memoir in Nature, xii. 325). The frank and uncompromising appeal to existing causes, to uniformity of action during vast geological periods, has made the doctrine of uniformitarianism in geology seem to some critics opposed to that of evolution; writing, however, to Scrope in 1830, Lyell says: 'It is not the beginning I look for, but proofs of a progressive state of existence in the globe, the probability of which is proved by the analogy of changes in organic life' (Life, i. 270). He did great service in substituting his views of the gradual extinction of species and the continuous creation of new ones for the catastrophes which even entered into the theories of Hutton, and which were supposed to sweep off whole faunas at a time; but he opposed Lamarck's theory of transmutation of species, until Charles Darwin and Mr. A. Russel Wallace brought forward evidence which seemed adequate to account for the evolution of higher from lower forms.

In 1830 Lyell visited Bordeaux and the Pyrenees, and was busy consulting Deshayes in Paris as to the species of his Sicilian shells. In 1831 the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the other governors of King's College, London, appointed him professor of geology in that institution. He never seems to have had much inclination for this work; but he gave one course in May and June 1832, and another in the spring of 1833. The attendance at this second course was much diminished through the exclusion of ladies by the governors; in this matter, as on most educational questions, Lyell was in advance of the general opinions of his day. His geological lectures were to some extent concerned with the Mosaic cosmogony, as well as with questions of actual observation, a combination necessitated by the temper of the times. He also gave seven lectures at the Royal Institution in 1832.

At Bonn, on 12 July 1832, he married Miss Mary Horner, daughter of Leonard Horner, whose name and influence are conspicuous in the early work of the Geological Society. In Miss Horner he found a most devoted and accomplished wife, and, owing to his weakness of sight, many of his letters were subsequently written in her hand. The two travelled together frequently on the continent, continuing those studies in comparative geology which gave such width to the theories deduced and propagated by Lyell. Yet in all such work his defective sight was necessarily against him, and at times even a source of danger (J. W. Dawson, Canadian Naturalist, new ser. vol. viii.) The changes of level in the Baltic in recent times attracted his attention in 1834, and he communicated his results to the Royal Society (Phil. Trans. 1835, p. 1). The council of this body awarded him one of the royal medals in the same year, in recognition of the publication of the 'Principles,' prudently 'at the same time declining to express any opinion on the controverted positions contained in that work' (Proc. Roy. Soc. iii. 306).

In 1835, at the age of thirty-eight, he was elected president of the Geological Society, and was re-elected, according to the custom of that body, for a second term in 1836. He was now examining the crag beds of eastern England, and it is noteworthy how his particular bent of mind led him to work mainly among the newest deposits, while his friends Murchison and Sedgwick were turning to the much neglected palaeozoic group. At this time, devoting himself entirely to geology, he was living at 16 Hart Street, London, and enjoying the society and friendship of Dean Milman, Hallam, Rogers, and other literary men, in addition to his scientific circle. Charles Darwin spoke later affectionately of this house as his 'morning house of call.'

In 1838 Lyell published a volume entitled 'Elements of Geology,' of which a sixth edition appeared in 1865. The third, fourth, and fifth editions bore the title of 'A Manual of Elementary Geology.' This work was supplementary to the 'Principles,' and more in the manner of a descriptive text-book. In 1841 he visited the United States, and delivered a course of lectures at the Lowell Institute, Boston, before an audience averaging three thousand. From this time forward his opinions on social questions are freely and clearly expressed in a series of letters written to George Ticknor the historian.

After publishing 'Travels in North America, with Geological Observations,' in 2 vols. in 1845, Lyell again visited the States, remaining there until the autumn of 1846. His observations on slave-life in the south had led him to style Mrs. Beecher-Stowe's 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' 'a gross caricature;' but we find him in full sympathy with the northern states during the war of 1861-5.

In 1848 he was knighted by the queen, at the suggestion of Lord Lansdowne, an honor exchanged for a baronetcy in 1864. Between these dates his relations with the prince consort both in Scotland and in London formed a pleasant feature in his life, devoted as the two men were to the progress of liberal education. In 1849 and 1850 Lyell was again president of the Geological Society. He had now moved to Harley Street, where he resided for the remainder of his life.

He published two further volumes in 1849, entitled 'A Second Visit to the United States of North America,' and spent the greater part of 1852 in that country, again lecturing at Boston. He returned thither for the fourth and last time in 1853 as commissioner to the New York International Exhibition.

Still bent on extending his personal experiences, he spent the winter of 1853-4 in the Canary Islands, and a paper on Madeira, extracted from his letters to Mr. Horner, was contributed to the 'Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society,' x. 325. In 1854 he was awarded the degree of D.C.L. at Oxford.

Continuing to insist upon the poverty of our knowledge concerning the life of older periods, Lyell hailed the discovery of mammalian remains in jurassic and triassic strata as a blow to the acceptance of merely negative evidence (Life, ii. 239). But the influence of Darwin was already making its impression in the circle of his personal friends, and the story of Lyell's action in arranging for the publication of the views of Darwin and Wallace upon the origin of species is highly characteristic of his open-hearted fairness [see Darwin, Charles Robert]. As Sir J. W. Dawson has remarked (Canad. Naturalist, new ser. vol. viii), Lyell 'seemed wholly free from that common failing of men of science which causes them to cling with such tenacity to opinions once formed, even in the face of the strongest evidence.' The position of the 'Principles of Geology,' as preparing the way for Darwin's 'Origin of Species,' has been admirably discussed by Professor Huxley (Life and Letters of C. Darwin, ii. 190-3). When Darwin's book appeared in 1859, Lyell was found among the warmest supporters of the views which it expressed as to the reality of the transmutation of species, and Darwin justly wrote of his friend's action, 'Considering his age, his former views, and position in society, I think his conduct has been heroic on this subject' (ib. ii. 326).

Lyell's geological work in 1858 included new ascents of Etna, his descriptions of which are as fresh and energetic as those of thirty years before. Almost his last original communication, 'On the Structure of Lavas which have consolidated on steep Slopes,' was presented to the Royal Society in this year (Phil. Trans. 1858, p. 703). The controversy with the supporters of Von Buch's theory of 'craters of elevation,' who sought to show that volcanic mountains resulted from the conical upthrusting of strata, was now destined to close in favor of Scrope and Lyell, who had so consistently maintained that the outward dip of ash and lava from the volcanic centre was due to original conditions of deposition.

In 1862 Lyell was elected a correspondent of the Institute of France. In 1863 he published his book on 'The Antiquity of Man,' which ran through three editions during the year, and reached a fourth in 1873. The evidence in favor of assigning an extreme antiquity to the human remains found in certain caves and gravels made a deep impression on the public mind; but Darwin was somewhat disappointed at the caution displayed in the treatment both of the origin of species (chaps. xx-xxiii.) and of man's place in nature (chap. xxiv.) (Life and Letters of C. Darwin, iii. 9, 10).

In 1864 Lyell was president of the British Association, and in 1866 received the Wollaston medal of the Geological Society. In 1867 he considerably revised the 'Principles,' the second volume being deferred until 1868. This constituted the tenth edition of the work. The last page of chapter xliii. (ii. 493) shows how open the author was to accept any certain proof that man forms but the highest link in the long chain of organic evolution.

In 1871 he published a virtually new work, which has seen four editions, 'The Student's Elements of Geology.' For several years this was the only convenient modern text-book on the subject, and it may already be regarded as a classic. The great life-work of the author is exemplified even here, by the treatment of the various systems in descending order, thus proceeding from the known towards the unknown, from existing phenomena to the endeavor to comprehend the past.

His health was much shaken by the death of Lady Lyell, which took place on 24 April 1873; but he maintained to the last his interest in geological discovery, and found, in discussing the work of Professor Judd among the volcanos of the Hebrides, much to remind him of his earliest observations on the continent. He died in his house in London, 53 Harley Street, on 22 Feb. 1875, and was buried in the nave of Westminster Abbey; thus closing a life of seventy-eight years, at least fifty of which had been devoted to the progress of geology and to the establishment of truths which reached far beyond his favorite science.

As regards the man himself, we have the testimony of his contemporaries and associates. Sedgwick, who at the outset opposed the uniformitarian school, and who complained of Lyell's acceptance of the transmutation of species, wrote in 1865 as follows:'Lyell is an excellent and thoughtful writer, but not, I think, a great field observer his mind is essentially deductive, and not inductive' (Life of Sedgwick, ii. 42). Charles Darwin, in his autobiographical sketch, written in 1876 (Life and Letters of C. Darwin, i. 71), gives a valuable estimate of the work and character of his friend. 'The science of geology,' he writes, 'is enormously indebted to Lyellmore so, as I believe, than to any other man who ever lived;' and he goes on to speak of the thoroughly liberal character of Lyell's religious views. The testimony of Dean Stanley is worth quoting in this connection (Life and Letters of Lyell, ii. 461). 'From early youth to extreme old age it was to him a solemn religious duty to be incessantly learning, constantly growing, fearlessly correcting his own mistakes, always ready to receive and reproduce from others that which he had not in himself. Science and religion for him not only were not divorced, but were one and indivisible.' Lyell's toleration in religious matters was certainly conspicuous; but the attitude of many churchmen towards science led him at one time to protest strongly against 'the exclusive privileges of Church of England ascendency' (ib. ii. 82).

'Above the medium height and having a well-shaped head and clear-cut intellectual features [with a forehead of surprising height and width], Lyell would have been a man of commanding presence if his extremely short sight had not obliged him to stoop and to peer into anything he wished to observe. In Lyell a keen insight into nature and human nature, a well-balanced judgment, and a strong sense of justice, were combined with a deep veneration for all that is noble and true. It was his warm sympathy and receptivity, combined with true philosophical candor, which kept him to the very last in touch with advancing knowledge. In his work Lyell was very methodical, beginning and ending at fixed hours. Accustomed to make use of the help of others on account of his weak sight, he was singularly unconscious of outward bodily movement, though highly sensitive to pain. When dictating, he was often restless, moving from his chair to his sofa, pacing the room, or sometimes flinging himself full length on two chairs, tracing a pattern with his finger on the floor, as some thoughtful or eloquent passage flowed from his lips. But though a rapid writer and dictator, he was sensitively conscientious in the correction of his manuscript, partly from a strong sense of the duty of accuracy, partly from a desire to save his publisher the expense of proof corrections. Hence passages once finished were rarely altered, even after many years, unless new facts arose.

'When not at work Sir Charles (himself a good classical scholar, a strong liberal, and a great lover of poetry) found much pleasure in intellectual society of all kinds, and most of the leading men in politics, literature, science, and art met together at his house, which the ready tact and hospitality of Lady Lyell rendered a centre of the highest type of social intercourse' (letter to the present writer from Arabella Buckley, Mrs. Fisher, at one time Lyell's secretary).

Seventy-six memoirs are recorded in the 'Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers,' the most recent being a reprint of his address to the British Association, 'On the Mineral Waters of Bath and other Hot Springs' (Amer. Journ. Science, 1865, xxxix. 13). A list of papers and of the various editions of his books is appended to the 'Life, Letters, and Journals.' The frequent editions of the 'Principles' and the 'Elements of Geology' enabled him to incorporate many original discoveries or suggestions in the text, and in his latter years, when incapacitated from active observation, he had the satisfaction of seeing in the field a host of geologists whom his method and enthusiasm had inspired.

Portraits of Lyell hang in the apartments of the Geological Society, Burlington House, London, and an engraved portrait by C. H. Jeens was published in 'Nature,' xii. 325 (26 Aug. 1875). Busts by Theed, after Gibson, stand in Westminster Abbey and in the rooms of the Royal Society, Burlington House.

[Life, Letters, and Journals of Sir Charles Lyell, 1881, edited by his sister-in-law; Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 1887, edited by Francis Darwin; Memoir of Sir R. Murchison, 1875, by A. Geikie; Life and Letters of Adam Sedgwick, 1890, by Clark and Hughes; obituary notices in various journals, notably Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, xxxii. 53, and Nature, vol. xi. (4 March 1875); review of Life and Letters in Quarterly Review, 1882, cliii. 96; and private information. An excellent summary of the bearings of Lyell's scientific work is appended to the article by Miss A. B. Buckley (Mrs. Fisher) in the Encycl. Brit. 9th edit. vol. xv.]


Grenville Arthur James Cole, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 34. pgs. 319-324.

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