1902 Encyclopedia > Sir Roderick Impey Murchison

Sir Roderick Impey Murchison
Scottish geologist
(1792-1871)




SIR RODERICK IMPEY MURCHISON (1792-1871), geologist, was descended from a small clan or sept which for many generations lived in the west of Ross-shire, furnishing factors for some of the greater lairds, occupants of farms among the western sea-lochs, and even occasionally a parish minister. His father, educated as a medical man, acquired a competent fortune in India, and while still in the prime of life returned to Scotland, where, marrying _one of the Mackenzies of Fairburn, he purchased the estate of Tarradale in eastern Ross and settled for a few years as a resident Highland landlord. At Tarradale his eldest son, the subject of this notice, was born on 19th February 1792. Young Murchison left the Highlands when only three years old, and at the age of seven was sent to the grammar school of Durham, where during six years he received the only connected general education he ever obtained. He was then placed at the military college, Great Marlow, to be trained for the army. With some difficulty he succeeded in passing the not very stringent examinations of the time, and at the age of fifteen was gazetted ensign in the 36th regiment. A year later (1808) he landed with Wellesley in Galicia, and was present at the actions of Rorica and Vimiera. Subsequently under Sir John Moore he took part in the retreat to Corunna and the final battle there. These six months of active service formed the only part of his military career in which he was exposed to the hardships and dangers of actual warfare. The defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo seeming to close the prospect of advancement in the military profession, Murchison, after eight years of service, quitted the army, and married the daughter of General Hugonin, of Nursted House, Hampshire. With her he then spent rather more than two years on the Continent, particularly in Italy, where her cultivated tastes were of signal influence in guiding his pursuits. He threw himself with all the enthusiasm of his character into the study of art and antiquities, and for the first time in his life tasted the pleasures of truly intellectual pursuits.

Returning to England in 1818, he sold his paternal property in Ross-shire and settled in England, where, finding art studies no longer practicable, he took heart and soul to field-sports. He soon became one of the greatest fox-hunters in the northern counties; but at last, getting weary of such pursuits and meeting Sir Humphrey Davy, who urged him to turn his energy to science, he was induced to attend lectures at the Royal Institution. This change in the current of his occupations was much helped by the sympathy of his wife, who, besides her artistic acquirements, took much interest in some branches of natural history. Eager and enthusiastic in whatever he undertook, he was soon fascinated by the young science of geology, and threw himself heartily into its prosecution. He joined the Geological Society of London and soon showed himself one of its most active members, having as his colleagues there such men as Sedgwick, Lyell, Buckland, Herschel, Whewell, and Babbage. Exploring with his wife the geology of the south of England, he devoted special attention to the rocks of the north-west of Sussex and the adjoining parts of Hants and Surrey, on which he wrote his first scientific paper, read to the Society towards the close of 1825. From that early period on to the end of his long life his industry and enthusiasm remained pre-eminent. Though he had reached the age of thirty-two before he took any interest in science, he developed his taste and increased his knowledge so rapidly by unwearied diligence that in the first three years of his scientific career he had explored large parts of England and Scotland, had obtained materials for three important memoirs, as well as for two more written in conjunction with Sedgwick, and from the position of a mere beginner had risen to be a prominent member of the Geological Society and one of its two secretaries.

Turning his attention for a little to Continental geology, he explored with Lyell the volcanic region of Auvergne, parts of southern France, northern Italy, Tyrol, and Switzerland. A little later, with Sedgwick as his companion, he attacked the difficult problem of the geological structure of the Alps, and their joint paper giving the results of their study will always be regarded as one of the classics in the literature of Alpine geology.

It was in the year 1831 that Murchison found the field in which the chief work of his life was to be accomplished. Acting on a suggestion made to him by Buckland he betook himself to the borders of Wales, with the view of endeavouring to discover whether the greywacke rocks underlying the Old Red Sandstone could be grouped /into a definite order of succession, as the Secondary rocks _of England had been made to tell their story by William Smith. For several years he continued to work vigorously in that region. The result was the establishment of the Silurian system,—a definite section of the geological record, bringing into notice for the first time a remarkable series of formations, each replete with distinctive organic remains older than and very different from those of the other locks of England. The full import of his discoveries was riot at first perceived; but as years passed on the types of oexistence brought to light by him from the rocks of the border counties of England and Wales were ascertained to belong to a geological period of which there are recognizable traces in almost all parts of the globe. Thus the term " Silurian," derived from the name of the old British tribe Silures, soon passed into the familiar vocabulary of .geologists in every country.





The establishment of the Silurian system was followed by that of the Devonian system, an investigation in which _Sedgwick and Murchison were fellow-labourers, both in the south-west of England and in the Bhinelands. Soon afterwards Murchison projected an important geological campaign in Russia with the view of extending to that part _of the Continent the classification he had succeeded in _elaborating for the older rocks of western Europe. He owas accompanied by De Verneuil and Keyserling, in conjunction with whom he produced a magnificent work on Russia and the Ural Mountains. The publication of this monograph in 1845 completes the first and most active .half of Murchison's scientific career.

In 1846 he was knighted, and later in the same year lie presided over the meeting of the British Association at Southampton. During the later years of his life a large part of his time was devoted to the affairs of the Royal Geographical Society, of which he became president. So oconstant and active were his exertions on behalf of geographical exploration that to a large section of the contemporary public he was known rather as a geographer than as a geologist. He particularly identified himself with the fortunes of David Livingstone in Africa, and did much to raise and keep alive the sympathy of his fellow-countrymen in the fate of that great explorer. The chief geological investigation of the last decade of his life was devoted to the Highlands of Scotland, where he succeeded in showing that the vast masses of crystalline .schists, previously supposed to be part of what used to be termed the Primitive formations, were really not older than the Silurian period, for that underneath them lay beds of limestone and quartzite containing Lower Silurian fossils. By this important discovery he not only changed at once the accepted views of the structure of half a kingdom but furnished a gigantic example of regional metamorphism, the true significance of which in regard to theories of metamorphism is not yet adequately appreciated.

In the year 1855 Murchison was appointed director-general of the geological survey and director of the Royal .School of Mines and Geological Museum, Jermyn Street, London, in succession to Sir Henry de la Beche, who had been the first to hold these offices. Official routine now ooccupied much of his time, but he found opportunity for the Highland researches just alluded to, and also for preparing successive editions of his work Siluria, which was meant to present the main features of the original Silurian System together with a digest of subsequent discoveries, particularly of those which showed the extension of the Silurian classification into other countries. His official position gave him still further opportunity for the exercise of those social functions for which he had always been distinguished, and which a considerable fortune inherited from near relatives on his mother's side enabled him to display on a greater scale. His house was one of the great centres where science, art, literature, politics, and social eminence were brought together in friendly intercourse. In 1863 he was made a K.C.B., and three years later was raised to the dignity of a baronet. The learned societies of his own country bestowed their highest rewards upon him : the Royal Society gave him the Copley medal, the Geological Society its Wollaston medal, and the Royal Society of Edinburgh its Brisbane medal. There was hardly a foreign scientific society of note which had not his name enrolled among its honorary members. The French Academy of Sciences awarded to him the Prix Cuvier, and elected him one of its eight foreign members in succession to Faraday.

One of the closing public acts of Murchison's life was the founding of a chair of geology and mineralogy in the university of Edinburgh, for which he gave the sum of £6000, an annual sum of £200 being likewise provided by a vote in parliament for the endowment of the professorship. While the negotiations with the Government in regard to this subject were still in progress, Murchison was seized with a paralytic affection on 21st November 1870. At first his life was in danger, but he eventually rallied, and was able to see his friends, read, and take interest in current affairs until the early autumn of the following year, when his malady began to make rapid progress. At last after a brief attack of bronchitis he died on 22d October 1871.

The chief work for which Murchison will always hold a high place in the annals of geology is the investigation of the older Palaeozoic rocks, which culminated in the establishment and subsequent development of the Silurian system of formations. He added a new chapter to geological history, and one of peculiar interest, because it contains the story of almost the earliest appearance of living things upon this planet. From the year 1825, when his first paper was read, down to the year of his death he continued to augment the literature of his favourite science with papers and memoirs. These, upwards of 150 in number, were published in the transactions of scientific societies at home and abroad. His Silurian System, Mussia and the Ural Mountains, and Siluria were the most voluminous and important of his independent works. As a careful original observer, a sympathetic and liberal friend of scientific progress, and a man of wealth and good social position Murchison enjoyed a peculiar eminence among the scientific men of his day, and occupied a place which none of his surviving compeers could wholly fill. See Murchison's Life by A. Geikie, 1875. (A. GE.)






The above article was written by: Archibald Geikie, LL.D.



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