Adam Sedgwick

Adam Sedgwick, FRS  (1785-1873)

by David Rowe 

Early Life and Education

Adam Sedgwick, a pioneer of geology and one of Britain’s most distinguished geologists, was born in March 1785 in Dent which in 1974 was incorporated in the newly formed administrative county of Cumbria. It is, however, in the Yorkshire Dales National Park and was traditionally part of the West Riding of Yorkshire. Sedgwick can, therefore, be fairly claimed as a Yorkshire scientist.

Adam Sedgwick at 47

Adam Sedgwick at 47 [1]

He was the third of seven children of the vicar of Dent, Richard Sedgwick, and his second wife (and cousin) Margaret, née Sturgis. Between the ages of 8 and 16 he attended the village grammar school run by his father, and from 1801 to 1803 he went to Sedbergh School, not far away and then also in Yorkshire. After a summer of tutoring in 1804 from John Dawson, a Sedbergh surgeon and mathematician who coached at least twelve senior wranglers, he proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he remained for the rest of his life, graduating as 5th Wrangler in 1808 and becoming a Fellow of the College in 1810. He had a health breakdown in 1813, attributed to overwork, and afterwards suffered intermittently from poor health but nevertheless retained a great capacity for hard work.  He spent several months in 1816 travelling on the continent and was ordained in 1817.

Sedgwick as a Geologist

In 1818  Sedgwick was elected Woodwardian Professor of Geology at Cambridge and he held the chair up to his death in January 1873. Although he had attended a course of lectures in mineralogy he had read little geology but as Woodwardian Professor he was not actually under any obligation to give lectures! He was, however, determined to take the post seriously; accordingly, before giving his first course of lectures in 1819, he became a Fellow of the Geological Society and took instruction from the distinguished naturalist, comparative anatomist and palaeontologist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832); he also did some field work in the Isle of Wight with John Stevens Henslow (1796-1861), a Cambridge contemporary who later as Professor of Botany recommended Charles Darwin’s appointment to HMS Beagle after having declined the offer himself. From the beginning Sedgwick set out to collect geological specimens for the university’s small Woodwardian Museum by embarking on systematic tours with experienced geologists in the British Isles and in continental Europe during which he became an accomplished field geologist. He read his earliest paper (discussing the geological structure of the ancient rocks of Devon and Cornwall) to the Cambridge Philosophical Society which he, Henslow and others had founded in 1819. In the 1820s he also worked in various parts of the north of England (including east Yorkshire where he lost the sight of an eye hammering a Lias nodule at Robin Hood’s Bay), and in 1827 he visited NW Scotland  with Roderick (later Sir Roderick) Impey Murchison (1792-1871) – the start of a number of fruitful collaborations. In the Geological Society’s Transactions he published an important paper on the Magnesian Limestone and New Red Sandstone of northern England and discussed their correlation with equivalents in Germany (Sedgwick 1829). His reputation grew and he became president of the Geological Society from 1829 to 1831. As president in 1831 he conferred the Society’s Wollaston Medal on William Smith (1769-1839) whom he memorably called “the father of English geology”.

Sedgwick’s most important work was still to come. Using characteristic fossils to correlate strata in different areas, Smith and his immediate followers had by the mid-1820s broadly established the stratigraphic order of the rocks of England, Wales and southern Scotland down to the Carboniferous and the underlying Old Red Sandstone (ORS). But below the base of the ORS the picture was confused: fossils were few and large areas of rock were folded and contorted. Sedgwick and Murchison, both independently and in collaboration, responded to the obvious challenge. For two decades from the late 1820s Sedgwick worked successively in the Lake District (where he enjoyed a friendship with William Wordsworth (1770-1850)), in Wales, and in the southern uplands of Scotland. Distinguishing clearly for the first time  between stratification, jointing, and slaty cleavage he worked out the stratigraphic order in many of the complex geological structures of those areas. In the early 1830s he and Murchison were both in Wales. Murchison worked progressively north and west from the Welsh borders: from a point between Brecon and Builth, where he was fortunate to find ORS passing conformably downwards into fossiliferous strata, he systematically established the fossil-based Silurian System and published a book with that name in 1839; (the second 1854 edition was called Siluria).  Meanwhile Sedgwick worked in the more difficult fossil-poor and rugged terrain of North Wales where he established the Cambrian System largely from structural interpretation, although he did find some Cambrian fossils. (While working in Wales in 1831 he introduced Charles Darwin, who had attended his lectures in Cambridge, to field geology).

In the mid-1830s Sedgwick and Murchison temporarily switched their attention to folded sub-Carboniferous rocks in SW England suspected to be of similar age to those they were working on in Wales. Associated problematic coal plants had been identified there by Henry (later Sir Henry) De la Beche (1796-1855), the first Director of the Geological Survey from 1835. Sedgwick and Murchison (1839) sorted out the stratigraphic problems and established a new Palaeozoic System below the Carboniferous but above the Silurian: this was the Devonian of which the ORS was a terrestrial facies.

Back in Wales friction developed between Sedgwick and Murchison in the 1840s and became an open quarrel in papers read to the Geological Society (Sedgwick 1852, Murchison 1852). Essentially it concerned the question of whether certain strata should be classified as Lower Silurian or Upper Cambrian and the two rivals were proprietorial about this. The geological community tended to favour the enlarged Silurian System of Murchison who had meticulously constructed a fossil-based stratigraphy (although not without some mistakes as it later appeared) whereas Sedgwick was slow in getting his fossils identified and his stratigraphy was based more on structural and lithological criteria. Following the death of De la Beche in 1855, Murchison (incidentally with Sedgwick’s support) became the Director-General of the Survey which dropped the term Cambrian completely from its nomenclature. It was, however, Sedgwick who first arranged successive groups of strata in North Wales from the Bala Series down into the Harlech anticline. In 1879, after the deaths of both Sedgwick and Murchison, Charles Lapworth (1842-1920) proposed the creation of a new System, the Ordovician, for the strata from the base of the Lower Arenig up to the base of the Llandovery: this solution was adopted by the Geological Survey in 1902 under Sir Jethro Teall (1849-1924) and the tripartite division of the Lower Palaeozoic into Cambrian/Ordovician/Silurian has remained in general use, though with the Tremadoc also now as part of the Ordovician  (See Table).

A Simplified Stratigraphy of the Palaeozoic

A Simplified Stratigraphy of the Palaeozoic

Sedgwick, the British Association, and Science Education

Sedgwick communicated a number of his research results in the first instance to annual meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (British Association, BAAS or BA), now the British Science Association. Although he was absent from the inaugural meeting at York in 1831 he was one of the founder members and in 1833 was president at the third meeting in Cambridge. On several occasions Sedgwick was president of Section C (Geology) – the largest of its original four sections.

Another founder member of the BA, and president at Oxford in 1832, was William Buckland FRS (1784-1856), a Fellow of Corpus Christi College and university Reader in Geology. He had also been associated with the foundation of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society (YPS) in 1822 following the discovery the previous year of Kirkdale Cave near Kirkbymoorside in the Vale of Pickering. Buckland investigated the cave in 1822 and published an account in Reliquiae Diluvianae; or, Observations on the Organic Remains Contained in Caves, Fissures, and Diluvial Gravel, and on other Geological Phenomena, Attesting the Action of an Universal Deluge (1823). The title reveals Buckland as a diluvianist, a believer then in the attribution of various observable geological phenomena in Britain (later recognized as of glacial origin) to the biblical Deluge in Genesis. But  Buckland renounced diluvianism in Geology and Mineralogy considered with reference to Natural Theology (2 volumes 1836), a Bridgewater Treatise “On the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation”, the geological one of eight provided for in the will of the 8th earl of Bridgewater that he had been commissioned to write in 1832. In it Buckland openly admitted the futility of trying to reconcile Genesis and geology. He also accepted the considerable antiquity of the Earth in contrast to a few millennia believed by scriptural geologists. These views were largely followed by the founders of the BA who accepted that science and theology were mutually autonomous.  (As well as Buckland and Sedgwick six other founders of the BA, including the Dean of Ely, were Anglican clerics with mathematical or scientific backgrounds; Sedgwick had renounced diluvialism in 1831). But such views were still by no means universal.

At the second meeting of the BA in York in 1844 the Dean of York, Sir William Cockburn (1773-1858), a critic of Buckland and the BA, addressed the Geology Section at a crowded meeting in the Hospitium. Cockburn, Cambridge-educated and 12th wrangler in 1795, was one of the original vice-presidents of the YPS and still a member in 1844. He was a vocal scriptural geologist and his published written attacks included: A letter to Professor Buckland concerning the origin of the world (1838) and A Remonstrance addressed to his grace the Duke of Northumberland on the dangers of Peripatetic Philosophy (1838) – the Duke was the president of the BA at its meeting in Newcastle that year. Cockburn’s talk was entitled “Critical Remarks on certain passages in Dr Buckland’s Bridgewater Treatise”; in it he repeated his objections to Buckland’s account of earth history and presented his own theory, later elaborated in A New System of Geology: dedicated to Professor Sedgwick (1849), which he claimed accorded precisely with the account given by Moses. Buckland had been unable to be at the York meeting but Sedgwick replied at length.

Sedgwick in 1867

Sedgwick in 1867 [2]

Sedgwick defended Buckland’s Treatise as a fair statement of geological knowledge that substantially represented facts and criticized the Dean’s misunderstandings but first expanded on the character of the British Association and scientific method; he was reported to have said at one point  “that the discussion of broad theoretical questions and cosmogonies, like those now brought before us, is utterly unfit for the present meeting”. The Dean returned to the attack in a sermon in York Minster the following Sunday, and published The Bible defended against the British Association (5 editions 1844-1845) containing his BA speech and a Letter to the Inhabitants of York. The Sedgwick-Cockburn  confrontation which received national publicity had two interesting sequels: immediately, in the highly charged atmosphere in York, the “railway king” George Hudson on behalf of the City withdrew invitations to prominent members of the BA to attend a civic dinner saying “we’ve decided for Moses and the Dean”: and, in 1845, Buckland was appointed Dean of Westminster on the recommendation of the Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, Cockburn’s brother-in-law! Sedgwick’s stand has been regarded as a key moment in the battle over relations between scripture and science though he was a strong opponent of evolution (but he remained friendly with Charles Darwin after the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859).

As president on his home ground at the Cambridge meeting of the BA in 1833 Sedgwick advocated science education for the working classes. He himself gave popular lectures throughout the country. He was also active in university politics and administration, and was appointed senior proctor in 1827. He supported university reform including introduction of the natural science tripos and abolition of religious tests. In 1847 he was appointed secretary to Prince Albert on his becoming university chancellor, and sat on the royal commission on the reform of the university (1850-1852).

Ecclesiastical Career

Although ordained, as was customary for Fellows of Cambridge Colleges, Sedgwick was more interested in pursuing an academic rather than an ecclesiastical career. In 1831 he was offered, but declined, the valuable living of East Farleigh in Kent but accepted the living of Shudy Camps about 12 miles SE of Cambridge  (1832-1833) which was within the gift of Trinity College. From 1834 he was a canon of Norwich, which only involved him in being away from Cambridge for two months each year, but declined the offer of the deanery of Peterborough in 1853 continuing to hold the Woodwardian chair of geology up to his death.   Honours and Memorials

Sedgwick was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1830 and was awarded its Copley Medal in 1863, although for his opposition to evolution! From the Geological Society he received its premier Wollaston Medal in 1833. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge conferred honorary doctorates upon him, DCL (1860) and LLD  (1866) respectively.   The University of Cambridge also has two memorials to Sedgwick: the purpose-built Sedgwick Museum opened in 1904 replacing the earlier Woodwardian Museum that was largely built up by Sedgwick; and a postgraduate Sedgwick Prize, awarded periodically (now every second year) for an essay on a set geological topic.

Sedgewick memorial in Dent

Sedgewick memorial in Dent

To commemorate the bicentenary of Sedgwick’s birth a Sedgwick Geological Trail along about 600 m of the River Clough in Garsdale, with signboards at intervals, was set up by the Yorkshire Dales National Park in collaboration with some other organizations including the Sedgwick Museum; the start for the 1.5 km walk is in the car park at [NY 695 912]. A National Park trail guide describes the traverse across the Dent Fault with upthrust Lake District Silurian rocks to the west against Pennine Carboniferous rocks to the east first investigated by Sedgwick.

In Dent itself, to which Sedgwick frequently returned throughout his life, there is a memorial fountain in Shap Granite in the High Street.

To find out more:

Bailey, Edward (1952), The Geological Survey. London : Thomas Murby.   Geikie, Archibald (2nd Edition 1905). The Founders of Geology. New York: Dover Publications (1962 reprint).

Kendall,  P. F. and Wroot,  H. E., 1924. The Geology of Yorkshire. Vienna: Printed for the authors.

Murchison,  R. I. (1852). On the meaning of the term “Silurian System”  as adopted by geologists in various countries during the last ten years. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society London 3, 173-184. [A response to Sedgwick (1852)].

Orange,  A. D. (1973). Philosophers and Provincials. York: Yorkshire Philosophical Society.

Robson,  Douglas A. (1986). Pioneers of Geology. Newcastle upon Tyne: Natural History Society of Northumbria.

Secord, J. A. (2004). Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873). In Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 49, 647-649. Oxford: University Press.

Sedgwick, A. (1829). On the geological relations and internal structure of the Magnesian Limestone and the lower portions of the New Red Sandstone series in their range through Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Yorkshire and Durham, to the southern extremity of Northumberland. Transactions of the Geological Society of London (2) 3, 37-124.

Sedgwick, A. (1852). On the classification and nomenclature of the Lower Palaeozoic rocks of England and Wales. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London 3, 136-138.

Sedgwick, A. and Murchison, R. I. (1839). On the classification of the older rocks of Devonshire and Cornwall. Proc. geol. Soc. Lond. 3, 121-123.

Web Sites (all accessed in April 2013). A selection from many examined:

Adam Sedgwick in Wikipedia   Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography 2008.  Entry on Adam Sedgwick: Sedgwick.aspx    For other scientists (including Buckland and Murchison) by selection:

Founders of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (act.1830-1836) by Jack Morrell.  Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

The Great Devonian Controversy: The Shaping of Scientific Knowledge among Gentlemen Specialists by Martin J. S. Rudwick

Sedgwick, Adam by Thomas George Bonney in Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 51.,_Adam_(DNB00)

Image credits: [1] and [2] Sourced from Wikimedia Commons; [3] Copyright Richard Carter, reproduced with thanks.