People of Science: Charles Lyell

People of Science with Brian Cox - Richard Fortey (2019) by The Royal SocietyThe Royal Society

Portrait of Charles Lyell (1846) by Albert Newsam, John Jabez Edwin Mayall (after), and P.S. DuvallThe Royal Society

Solid foundations

Charles Lyell (1797-1875) is celebrated for his contribution to geological science and for improving public understanding of the forces which shaped the Earth. 

The Geological Lecture Room, Oxford: Dr. William Buckland Lecturing on February 15, 1823 (1823–30) by Charles Joseph Hullmandel|William Buckland|Nathaniel WhittockThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Born in Scotland, Lyell studied at Oxford where he attended the lectures of renowned geologist William Buckland FRS (1784-1856).

Strata in Sussex (1818/1822) by Mary Ann Mantell and Gideon Algernon Mantell (after)The Royal Society

Although Lyell took up the legal profession after his studies, in the early 1820s he toured England to observe geological phenomena.

He visited for instance the paleontologist and geologist Gideon Mantell (1790-1852) FRS who studied the strata of Sussex.

Title page of an address to the anniversary meeting of the Geological Society (1837) by Charles LyellThe Royal Society

Lyell also joined the Geological Society in 1819, which he served as Secretary from 1823 then President from 1835 to 1837.

This is his last address as President.

Royal Society Fellowship election certificate for Charles Lyell (1825-06-02) by The Royal SocietyThe Royal Society

In 1825, he was first considered for election to the Fellowship of the Royal Society, for his study of geology and mineralogy.

This date also coincides with his choice to embark on a scientific career and abandon his law practice.

Lyell was eventually elected Fellow of the Royal Society on February 2nd 1826, after his candidacy was discussed on ten previous occasions.

The list of members who supported his election includes some of the most important scientists in 19th century Britain:

'Father of the computer' Charles Babbage (1791-1871)...

... Mathematician Baden Powell (1796-1860), and many more.

Bird's eye view of Niagara fall and adjacent country, coloured geologically (1845) by Day & Hay (lithographers to the Queen), Robert Bakewell (after), and Charles LyellThe Royal Society

Geological contributions

Lyell contributed some of the most influential books to modern geology. Many where based on his field observations and recounted his scientific travels. Others were more theoretical and discussed the very fabric of the Earth, including how geology reflected climate change over time. 

Front cover of the first edition of Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (1832) by T. Bradley?The Royal Society

Charles Lyell published his first book, Principles of Geology in three volumes between 1830 and 1833.

The book aimed to demonstrate through observations and references to previous works that the geological shaping of the Earth which can still be observed today, has been a slow process over time.

James Hutton (About 1776) by Henry RaeburnScottish National Portrait Gallery

In the Principles of Geology, Lyell demonstrated the doctrine of uniformity, which proposed that geological processes affected the Earth in the past and continue to apply.

This theory had previously been proposed by James Hutton (1726-1797), the geologist portrayed here. Hutton's Theory of the Earth was published in 1795 and had been presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh ten years earlier.

Present state of the temple of Serapis at Puzzuoli (1832) by T. BradleyThe Royal Society

Interestingly, Lyell opted to illustrate the cover and frontispiece of Principles of Geology by highlighting how the natural processes can be observed on a man-made edifice: the Temple of Serapis near Naples.

People of Science with Brian Cox - Richard Fortey (2019) by The Royal SocietyThe Royal Society

View looking up the Val del Bove, Etna, as seen from above or from the crater of 1819 (1832) by T. Bradley? and P.L. Oudart?The Royal Society

Lyell thereafter set out to find features of the Earth where he could measure the rate of change over a very long time.

Mount Etna provided evidence of volcanic activity which had been reported historically since Roman times.

Plate 53, volcanic rock from Solfatara (1776) by Pietro Fabris (active 1740-1792)The Royal Society

The geology provided evidence of the cycle of eruptions on Etna, some indication of the age of the volcano and that of the Earth.

Bird's eye view of Niagara fall and adjacent country, coloured geologically (1845) by Day & Hay (lithographers to the Queen), Robert Bakewell (after), and Charles LyellThe Royal Society

Lyell also traveled through Canada and the United States.
In 1841 and 1842 he visited the Niagara falls and explained that the gorge was the result of erosion under the force of the water.

Title page of 'The Student's Elements of Geology' (1874) by Charles LyellThe Royal Society

Lyell was particularly attentive to public dissemination of geological knowledge and wrote a more didactic version of his Elements of Geology specifically designed for students and beginners.

Section of the strata passed through in sinking to the Hutton seam in the Haswell colliery (1844) by Charles Lyell and Michael FaradayThe Royal Society

Charles Lyell and Michael Faraday FRS (1791-1867), were also commissioned by the coroner to report on the causes of a disastrous mining incident at the Haswell colliery in the North of England which caused the death of 95 men and boys in 1844.

Their report set out to prevent further similar mining explosions, by advocating for better ventilation in the shafts and improving the geological and chemical education of miners.

Portrait of Charles Lyell (mid-1860s) by John Jabez Edwin MayallThe Royal Society

Scientific acclaim and public endorsement

Charles Lyell is recognised both for his scientific contribution and as a great populariser of the geological science. 

Front cover of the first edition of Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (1832) by T. Bradley?The Royal Society

Principles of Geology gained prompt scientific acclaim and remained a crucial source for geologists throughout the 19th century.

The title was also read by a wide public audience and reedited twelve times in 45 years.

Portrait of Charles Darwin (1912) by Mabel Beatrice Messer (1874-1950)The Royal Society

The book became a landmark for evolution and Charles Darwin noted its importance in On the Origin of Species:

"He who can read Sir Charles Lyell's grand work on the Principles of Geology, which the future historian will recognise as having produced a revolution in natural science, yet does not admit how incomprehensibly vast have been the past periods of time, may at once close this volume."

Copley medal received by Charles Lyell (1858) by The Royal SocietyThe Royal Society

In 1858, Lyell received the Copley medal of the Royal Society, for "his various researches and writings by which he has contributed to the advance of geology".

Portrait of Charles Lyell (circa. 1857) by Maull & PolyblankThe Royal Society

Lyell certainly left his mark on the study of geology and his contribution is now embedded in the topography by the various mountains, glaciers and rivers named after him.

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