Charles Lyell

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Charles Lyell bigraphy, stories - Geologist

Charles Lyell : biography

14 November 1797 – 22 February 1875

Sir Charles Lyell, 1st Baronet, Kt FRS (14 November 1797 – 22 February 1875) was a British lawyer and the foremost geologist of his day. He is best known as the author of Principles of Geology, which popularised James Hutton’s concepts of uniformitarianism – the idea that the earth was shaped by the same processes still in operation today. Lyell was also one of the first to believe that the world is older than 300 million years, on the basis of its geological anomalies. Lyell was a close and influential friend of Charles Darwin.

Biography

Lyell was born in Scotland about 15 miles north of Dundee in Kinnordy, near Kirriemuir in Forfarshire (now in Angus). He was the eldest of ten children. Lyell’s father, also named Charles, was a lawyer and botanist of minor repute: it was he who first exposed his son to the study of nature. The main geographical divisions of Scotland

The house/place of his birth is located in the north-west of the Central Lowlands in the valley of the Highland Boundary Fault. Round the house, in the rift valley, is farmland, but within a short distance to the north-west, on the other side of the fault, are the Grampian Mountains in the Highlands.Google maps, including terrain and satellite. His family’s second home was in a completely different geological and ecological area: he spent much of his childhood at Bartley Lodge in the New Forest, England.

Lyell entered Exeter College, Oxford in 1816, and attended William Buckland’s lectures. He graduated B.A. second class in classics, December 1819, and M.A. 1821. After graduation he took up law as a profession, entering Lincoln’s Inn in 1820. He completed a circuit through rural England, where he could observe geological phenomena. In 1821 he attended Robert Jameson’s lectures in Edinburgh, and visited Gideon Mantell at Lewes, in Sussex. In 1823 he was elected joint secretary of the Geological Society. As his eyesight began to deteriorate, he turned to geology as a full-time profession. His first paper, "On a recent formation of freshwater limestone in Forfarshire", was presented in 1822. By 1827, he had abandoned law and embarked on a geological career that would result in fame and the general acceptance of uniformitarianism, a working out of the ideas proposed by James Hutton a few decades earlier.

In 1832, Lyell married Mary Horner of Bonn, daughter of Leonard Horner (1785–1864), also associated with the Geological Society of London. The new couple spent their honeymoon in Switzerland and Italy on a geological tour of the area.

During the 1840s, Lyell traveled to the United States and Canada, and wrote two popular travel-and-geology books: Travels in North America (1845) and A Second Visit to the United States (1849). After the Great Chicago Fire, Lyell was one of the first to donate books to help found the Chicago Public Library. In 1866, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Lyell’s wife died in 1873, and two years later Lyell himself died as he was revising the twelfth edition of Principles. He is buried in Westminster Abbey. Lyell was knighted (Kt), and later made a baronet (Bt), which is an hereditary honour. He was awarded the Copley Medal of the Royal Society in 1858 and the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society in 1866. Mount Lyell, the highest peak in Yosemite National Park, is named after him; the crater Lyell on the Moon and a crater on Mars were named in his honour; Mount Lyell in western Tasmania, Australia, located in a profitable mining area, bears Lyell’s name; and the Lyell Range in north-west Western Australia is named for him as well. The jawless fish Cephalaspis lyelli, from the Old Red Sandstone of southern Scotland, was named by Louis Agassiz in honour of Lyell.

Image source

  • Portraits of Honorary Members of the Ipswich Museum (Portfolio of 60 lithographs by T.H. Maguire) (George Ransome, Ipswich 1846–1852)

Scientific contributions

Lyell’s geological interests ranged from volcanoes and geological dynamics through stratigraphy, paleontology, and glaciology to topics that would now be classified as prehistoric archaeology and paleoanthropology. He is best known, however, for his role in popularising the doctrine of uniformitarianism.