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Sir Charles Lyell


1797 - 1875

Influential geologist. Born on the family estate at Kinnordy (Angus), the eldest son of a noted botanist. Lyell spent much of his childhood at their other home, Bartley Lodge in the New Forest of England becoming interested in natural history.

Lyell studied law at Oxford and practised for two years but, with a growing interest in geology, he was asked to contribute to a geological map of Scotland by surveying Angus (then Forfarshire). He read his first paper, "On a recent formation of freshwater limestone in Forfarshire", to the Geological Society in 1822. An enthusiast of fieldwork, Lyell travelled to Mount Etna in Italy and, with Sir Roderick Murchison, to France (1828). He was impressed by James Hutton's theory of uniformitarianism which suggested that landscapes evolve over millions of years and developed these ideas in his Principles of Geology (1830). Lyell put in place the intellectual framework which encouraged Charles Darwin to propose his theories for the evolution of living things. These ideas were explosively challenging at a time when the literal interpretation of creationism, and of a biblical flood which shaped the landscape, were universally accepted.

He became Professor of Geology at King's College (London) in 1831 and married Mary, daughter of social reformer Leonard Horner (1832). Lyell's Elements of Geology (1838) became a standard textbook and his Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man (1863) presented a balanced review of human evolution in the context of Darwin's theories. His books ran to several editions as Lyell updated them to keep pace with new developments. Lyell was the first to explain metamorphic rocks and proposed the division of the Tertiary period into distinct epochs. Having travelled to North America, he made important contributions to understanding its geology.

He was knighted at Balmoral by Queen Victoria in 1848 and created a baronet in 1864. Lyell is buried in Westminster Abbey.


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