The Father of English Geology

Modern geologists look at layers of rock to study the age and history of the earth.  William Smith, an English surveyor was the first to realize these layers were predictable and map them.  In 1815 he created the first-ever nationwide geological map, showing the different rock strata across all of England, Wales, and parts of Scotland.  But Smith’s work was ignored by English scientific society.  His works were plagiarized and Smith was driven into bankruptcy.  Towards the end of his life, he was finally awarded the recognition he deserved.  Smith is now known as the “Father of English Geology.”

Smith’s map plots the location of major rock strata across Britain.  He indicates these strata with different colors, showing how they form and change across the country.  This map is the basis for all subsequent British geological maps, and is relatively accurate even when compared to maps produced with modern geological analysis methods.  Click here or on the picture above to see the full map.  Click here to see a detail of the map’s legend, and here to see a detail of the strata explanation. 

Smith began his career as a surveyor, and soon found work with the Somerset Coal Company helping dig and find locations for mines.  As he helped survey mine after mine, Smith began to realize that the different rocks he saw were repeated in the same patterns across wide stretches of land.  Moreover, he discovered that he could identify these strata by the fossils he found embedded in them, since each layer seemed to have different fossils:

. . . each stratum contained organized fossils peculiar to itself, and might, in cases otherwise doubtful, be recognised and discriminated from others like it, but in a different part of the series, by examination of them.

This means of dating rock is called the Principle of Faunal Succession, and is still a key tool for geologists today.

Smith collected geologic data from around Britain and compiled them into a series of maps showing how the strata of rock were laid out across the island.  The map above was one of his most significant–the first nationwide geological map of England ever produced.  Smith’s work as a mining surveyor influenced his work–the map shows the locations of significant coal, lead, copper, tin, salt, and alum deposits and mines.

Smith began publishing his maps and diagrams of the fossils he used to date them.  But Smith’s education was very humble by the standards of the contemporary scientific community.  As such, his work was ignored by many of England’s most prominent thinkers.  What interest there was in his work was eroded by plagiarizers, who sold Smith’s maps and diagrams for less than he was asking.  Unemployed and bankrupt, Smith was sent to debtors’ prison, his works ignored and forgotten.

After his release, with his home and property seized to pay his debts, Smith worked again as a surveyor until, slowly, scientists began to recognize the value of his work.  In 1831, over 15 years since the publication of the map above, Smith was recognized by the Geological Society of London and awarded the first annual Wollaston Medal, still awarded today by the Society for contributions to the field of geology.

The award was presented by Adam Sedgwick, a prominent English geologist with many of his own contributions to the field.  Sedgwick described Smith’s contributions to geology:

If, in the pride of our present strength, we were disposed to forget our origin, our very speech betrays us: for we use the language which he taught us in the infancy of our science. If we, by our united efforts, are chiselling the ornaments and slowly raising up the pinnacles of one of the temples of nature, it was he that gave the plan, and laid the foundations, and erected a portion of the solid walls, by the unassisted labour of his hands.

Sedgwick called Smith “the Father of English Geology”–an honor he is still known by today. 

Finally recognized by his peers, Smith was also awarded an honorary Doctorate of Law by Trinity College, and served as a commissioner to select the stone for the construction of the Palace of Westminster.  A crater on Mars is named after him.  And in 1977, the Geological Society established another award–the William Smith Medal–“awarded for excellence in contributions to applied and economic aspects of the science.” 

A detailed catalog of Smith’s works, viewable online, is available here from the Oxford Digital Library.  The quotes and some other information for this post came from this excellent biography of Smith from the UC Berkeley Museum of Paleontology.


1 Response to “The Father of English Geology”

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