Sir Charles Lyell

John Gehl sends this bio of the Scottish geologist Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875), who popularized the theories, methods, and principles on which the modern science of geology is based. Lyell's major contribution was demonstrating that physical, chemical, and biological forces operating over long periods of geological time produced all features of the Earth's surface. This was intended to contradict the prevailing theory that the Earth's properties are the result of a short period of catastrophic upheaval and flooding. Lyell's extensive investigations of rock formations and the strata of the earth's crust convinced him his data were better explained by James Hutton's uniformitarian theory of gradual and ongoing change. Hutton's views had been known for 40 years, but had little support until Lyell took it up as the guiding framework for his popular three-volume work, The Principles of Geology. The other major work of Lyell was his 1863 publication The Antiquity of Man, in which he applied Darwin's evolutionary views to the development of man, a position that Darwin himself had not yet proposed.

Lyell was born at Kinnordy in eastern Scotland. The eldest of 10 children, Lyell attended a series of private schools, and at age 19 entered Oxford University, where he studied the classics, mathematics, and geology. In 1819 he earned a B.A. with honors and moved to London to study law (but found relief from his legal studies by taking geological excursions to examine formations in the Earth's crust and sedimentation in freshwater lakes). Admitted to the bar in 1825, he continued his geological investigations, with the intention of gathering evidence to support his conviction that the ordinary natural processes of today do not differ in kind or magnitude from those of the past -- and that the Earth must therefore be very ancient because these everyday processes work so slowly.  Finally, in 1830 he was able to put his findings in order and write the first volume of The Principles of Geology.  On one geological trip to a volcanic district in Germany, he met his future wife, Mary Horner, whom he married in July 1832, combining their honeymoon with a geological excursion in Switzerland and Italy. Following publication of the Principles of Geology, Lyell became friends with Charles Darwin and other notable scientists. In 1841, he undertook the first of three visits to North America, where he visited nearly every part of the most of the United States east coast and much of eastern Canada, viewing Niagara Falls and other geological formations.  During his lifetime Lyell received many awards and honorary degrees, including the Copley Medal, the highest award of the Royal Society of London. He was knighted in 1848 and made a baron in 1864. He died in 1875, while revising his Principles of Geology for its 12th edition, and he is buried in Westminster Abbey.

[See <> for Lyell's Principles of Geology

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Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: October 8, 2004