1902 Encyclopedia > John Phillips

John Phillips
English geologist

JOHN PHILLIPS (1800-1874), one of the foremost of the early geologists of England, was born 25th December 1800 at Marden in Wiltshire. His father belonged to an old Welsh family, but settled in England as an officer of excise and married the sister of William Smith, the "Father of English Geology." Both parents dying when he was a child, Phillips passed into the care of his uncle. Before his tenth year he had attended four schools, until he entered the old school at Holt Spa, Wiltshire, where he remained for five years, gaining among other acquisitions that taste for classical learning which remained one of his distinguishing traits to the end. From school he went to the house of the Eev. B. Eichardson, an accomplished naturalist, in whose charge he remained a year, and from whom he obtained not only much knowledge but the strong bent towards the study of nature which thenceforth became the master-pursuit of his life. His uncle, " Strata Smith," at that time lived in London, where he exercised the profession of a civil and mining engineer, though a very large part of his time and earnings was given to the preparation of those maps of England and the English counties on which his fame now rests. In his zeal for geological pursuits Smith often neglected his proper professional work, until, as his nephew said, "he had thrown into the gulf of the Strata all his patrimony and all his little gains." Eventually he gave up his London house and wandered about the country, as the requirements of his maps led him. From the time that young Phillips joined his uncle in London he remained constantly with him, sharing in every piece of professional work, in the preparation of every book and map, and in every tour for fresh geological information. A youth so trained could not fail to become a geologist. In the spring of 1824 Smith went to York to deliver a course of lectures on geology, and his nephew accompanied him. This was the starting-point in Phillips's career. His extensive knowledge of natural science and especially of fossils was now turned to account. He accepted engagements in the principal Yorkshire towns to arrange their museums and give courses of lectures on the collections contained therein. York became his residence, where he obtained the situation of keeper of the Yorkshire Museum and secretary of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society. From that centre he extended his operations to other towns beyond the county; and in 1831 he included University College, London, in the sphere of his activity. In that year the British Association for the Advancement of Science was founded at York, and Phillips was one of the active minds who organized its machinery. He became the assistant general secretary, a post of great labour and proportionate usefulness, which he held for upwards of thirty years. In 1834 he accepted the professorship of geology at King's College, London, but retained his post at York, coming up to London every year to give a course of lectures there. This arrangement lasted for six years, until, in 1840, he resigned his charge of the York Museum and was appointed one of the staff of the Geological Survey of Great Britain under De la Beche. In this connexion he spent some time in studying the Palaeozoic fossils of Devon, Cornwall, and west Somerset, of which he published descriptions and illustrations. Thereafter he made a detailed survey of the region of the Malvern Hills, of which he prepared the elaborate account that appears in vol. ii. of the Memoirs of the Survey. His direct connexion with the National Survey was but of short duration, for in 1844 he accepted the professorship of geology in the university of Dublin. Nine years later, on the death of Strickland, who had acted as substitute for Dr Buckland in the readership of geology in the university of Oxford, Phillips succeeded to the post of deputy, and eventually, at the dean's death, became himself reader, a post singularly congenial to him, and which he held up to the time of his own death, which was almost tragic in its suddenness. He dined at All Souls' College on 23d April 1874, but in retiring slipped and fell headlong down a flight of stairs. Paralysis at once ensued, and he expired on the afternoon of the next day. In 1864 he had been elected president of the British Association.

Phillips was distinguished among his contemporaries for the sweetness and bright cheerfulness of his nature. He had great fluency as a speaker, and always spoke in so pleasant and interesting a manner as to make him a welcome and indeed indispensable interlocutor at the annual gatherings of the British Association. His social gifts were not less conspicuous than his attainments in science. But he was not a mere geologist. His sympathies went actively forth into the whole domain of science, and he himself contributed largely to astronomical literature as well as to meteorology.

From the time when he wrote his first paper in 1826 " On the Direction of the Diluvial Currents in Yorkshire" down to the last days of his life Phillips continued a constant contributor to the literature of his science. The pages of the Journal of the Geological Society, the Geological Magazine, and other publications of the day are full of valuable essays by him. He was also the author of numerous separate works, some of which had an extensive sale and were of great benefit in extending a sound knowledge of geology. Among these may be specially mentioned : Illustrations of the Geology of Yorkshire (1S35) ; A Treatise on Geology (1837 -39); Memoirs of William Smith, the Father of English Geology (1844); The Timers, Mountains, and Sea-Coast of Yorkshire (1853); Manual of Geology, Practical and Theoretical (1855) ; Life on the Earth: its Origin and Succession (1860); Vesuvius (1869); Geology of Oxford and the Thames Valley (1871). To these should be added his monographs in the Memoirs of the Geological Survey and the publications of the Palseontographical Society, and his geological sections and maps.

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