The Making of the Geological Society of London


Cherry L.E. Lewis and Simon J. Knell (eds). The Making of the Geological Society of London, Special Publication 317 (London, Geological Society, 2009).


Full access to linked chapter below. Partial preview of whole book on Google Books.


Founded in 1807, the Geological Society of London became the world’s first learned society devoted to the Earth sciences. In celebration of the Society’s 200-year history, this book commemorates the lives of the Society’s 13 founders and sets geology in its national and European context at the turn of the nineteenth century. In Britain, geology was emerging as a subject in its own right from three closely related disciplines — chemistry, mineralogy and medicine — disciplines that reflect the principal professions and interests of the founders. The tremendous energy and cooperation of these 13 men, about whom little was previously known, quickly mobilized like-minded men around the country and fuelled the nation’s passion for geology; an enthusiasm that soon spread to America and Australia. Two previously unpublished works from this period, essential to understanding the founding of the Society, are reproduced here for the first time. The book closes with a review of the Society’s 2007 Bicentenary celebrations.


Simon Knell: The road to Smith: how the Geological Society came to possess English geology [to view an accepted manuscript version of this paper that can adapt to your device, click here]

The modern image of the Geological Society owes much to William Smith whom the Society used, in 1831, to claim ascendency over European rivals. At its birth, however, the Society pursued a science adopted from the Continent, which privileged field data and saw mineralogy and chemistry as the sciences of the Earth. The Society’s birth mobilized the nation; its co-operative, mobile, investigative, subtly theoretical and didactic vigour materialized in the production of Greenough’s geological map of England. Yet Smith’s geology spread virus-like, converting the membership in various ways, some acknowledging Smith, others denying him. In possession of Smith’s geology, and impressed by his publications, the Society men emerged from a philosophical wilderness, only to break out in a competitive fever to write an Elements of Geology. The Society’s great supporter, John Farey, broke free, disillusioned and determined to destroy Greenough. Nevertheless, Greenough pushed forward with his map, competing directly with Smith and intent on surpassing him. However, following the development of a powerbase for his geology in Yorkshire, Smith rode into London to be crowned the father of a peculiarly English science. Smith’s map now became the national icon of English geology, less than a decade after the Society had rendered it obsolete. Next to it, Greenough’s map – the Society’s ‘glory’ – symbolized the Society’s co-operative spirit and political acumen, attributes no less important to the science’s advance.

The Founders
Cherry Lewis: Doctoring geology: the medical origins of the Geological Society

Four of the Geological Society’s 13 founders were medical men: William Babington, James Parkinson, James Franck and James Laird, the Society’s first Secretary. All were physicians and mineralogists except Parkinson, an apothecary surgeon and fossilist. At least 20 percent of the Society’s early members were also medical practitioners whose prime interest was mineralogy. The subject was taught as part of medical training, required as it was in the fabrication of medicines, thus medical men were drawn into mineralogy and on into geology. In 1805 a number of medical practitioners broke away from the constraints of their parent body, the Medical Society of London, to form the Medical and Chirurgical Society, which became a role model for the young Geological Society when challenged by its parent body, the Royal Society. Driven by wealthy mineral collectors and patrons of science like Charles Greville, one reason – perhaps the reason – for founding the Society was to map the mineralogical history of Britain. Towards this endeavour, Babington’s expertise in mineralogy brought people together, Laird organized them and Parkinson was invited because he was not a mineralogist. Franck was unable to participate significantly, being away at war for much of the time. The contribution made to the founding of the Geological Society by each of the medical founders is examined, and a biographical sketch of each man reveals the close relationship between medicine and the emergence of this new science of geology.

David Knight: Chemists get down to Earth

Four of the Founding Fathers of the Geological Society, Arthur Aikin, Richard Knight, William Hasledine Pepys and Humphry Davy, were chemists, coming to geology through mineralogy. The nature and status of chemistry in 1807 helps us to see why, and we note that chemists were down to earth and empirical minded in contrast to the speculative geologists of the eighteenth century. These four, a closely linked and coherent group, made various and important contributions to the scientific world in London generally, and to the Geological Society in particular. Nevertheless, Davy had very different expectations of the Society from the others: he wanted a dining club under the aegis of the Royal Society (of which he was Secretary), but they (successfully) sought a formal and separate body in which papers would be read and published. By the time of Davy’s death in 1829, the Society was chartered and flourishing; and the rise of palaeontology had made chemistry much less central to geology.

Gordon Herries Davies: Jacques-Louis, Comte de Bournon 

Jacques-Louis, Comte de Bournon was a French soldier and mineralogist who, following the French Revolution, took refuge in England. There he was elected to the Royal Society and became a leading figure within the scientific circle of the metropolis. He conducted masterclasses in mineralogy and in 1807 he was one of the founders of the Geological Society. He remained a leading light of that Society until his return to France at the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. His final years he passed as the Director-General of the Royal Mineral Cabinet.

Martina Kölbl-Ebert: George Bellas Greenough’s ‘Theory of the Earth’ and its impact on the early Geological Society

George Bellas Greenough, co-founder and first President of the Geological Society of London, became interested in geology when he went to study law in Göttingen. There he attended lectures given by Professor Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, an admirer of Jean-André de Luc, who greatly influenced Greenough’s geological ideas. Greenough himself was not an original researcher, but saw his scientific task as a most diligent gatherer of information and as a critical and – as he felt – impartial reviewer of his fellows’ research. In 1819 he published a book entitled A Critical Examination of the First Principles of Geology in a Series of Essays. In this book, as well as in many of his numerous private notes, he struggled with the question of how to develop a proper scientific method for the new science of geology, striving for firm principles and definitions as a basis for geological observations. Although he despised theorizing on general principles, especially when it concerned those whom he called the Huttonians or Plutonists, he himself was not free of a theoretical concept in which he judged the validity of data. This bias sometimes became a drag on scientific ‘progress’ because his preoccupation with his own Theory led him to dismiss important developments such as William Smith’s biostratigraphy when they did not fall within his horizon of interest. Thus Greenough, and with him the new Society, was slow to recognize their importance and value.

Hugh Torrens: Dissenting science: the Quakers among the Founding Fathers

Only three of the 13 founding members of the Geological Society of London were Quakers: William Allen and the brothers Richard and William Phillips. As dissenters, they sought to play a significant part in this new scientific development because they were in many ways excluded from English civil society. Such exclusion had encouraged their entry into trade and commerce, and they saw science as a means of improving the world and their place in it. Their great agitation against slavery, at its height just as the Geological Society of London was founded, significantly enhanced their coherence as a group. One of the first fruits of their interest in science was the Askesian Society, founded in 1796 by Allen and William Phillips, among others. With over half of its membership made up of Quakers, the Askesian was amongst the earlier of the London scientific societies. From its membership, in 1799, grew the British Mineralogical Society, which planned, by survey and analysis, to produce a mineral history of Britain. With Allen, and soon both Phillips brothers, involved in manufacture, analysis and lecturing in the field of chemistry, these interests inevitably led them to want to better understand, and use, mineral resources and to contribute to the founding of the Geological Society.

The Status of Geology
Martin Rudwick: The early Geological Society in its international context

The Geological Society was the world’s first formal learned society to be devoted to the earth sciences, but these sciences were already flourishing in other social forms. In Continental Europe, state-supported ‘academies of sciences’, natural history museums, mining schools and universities all supported many ‘savants’, who would now be classed as professionals. In Britain and Ireland, in contrast, mineral surveyors and managers of mines worked entirely in the private sector. Throughout Europe, however, all such professionals relied on an infrastructure of ‘amateur’ observers and collectors (often very far from ‘amateurish’), including groups of lower social status such as miners and quarrymen, to provide local information and specimens. The leading figures regarded themselves as belonging, despite the wars, to an informal and cosmopolitan network of savants; they used the international language of French to communicate across national boundaries, and treated Paris as the centre of their intellectual world. The Geological Society modelled itself first on other informal scientific clubs and then on the botanical Linnean Society. It chose to model its periodical on the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactionsrather than the more utilitarian Journal des Mines edited in Paris. It considered adopting the well-established epithet ‘mineralogical’, but chose instead the rather novel and previously contentious word ‘geological’, in order to signal its intended focus on careful outdoor fieldwork rather than indoor work with specimens. At the same time it rejected the speculative ambitions of the genre of ‘theory of the Earth’ in favour of an ostentatious focus on supposedly atheoretical ‘facts’.

Philippe Taquet: Geology beyond the Channel: the beginnings of geohistory in early nineteenth-century France

As Martin Rudwick has emphatically underlined, the beginning of the nineteenth century was marked in France by an intense intellectual awakening that allowed, in the scope of Earth Sciences, new applications of research. Indeed, the joint study of rocks and their associated fossils was made in France in its earliest years by pioneers, afterwards amplified by the endowed work of Georges Cuvier and Alexandre Brongniart on the ‘Géographie minéralogique des environs de Paris’. But the integration of the study of fossils into a new geognostic practice was made possible by the combination of a number of favourable circumstances: the presence in France of such new institutions as the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle and the Ecole des Mines where ambitious and rigorous scientific programmes, backed by a determined political power, were brought together. In these institutions young talented naturalists within premises entirely devoted to research and teaching, coupled with the presence of very diverse collections of natural history, the recruitment of competent staff and significant financial support, led to spectacular results. These studies did, of course, contribute to the rise of geology in France, but they also brought celebrity to their authors, increased the prestige of the institutions and of the authorities in place.

Martin Guntau: The rise of geology as a science in Germany around 1800

Special attention was paid to geology and mineralogy in the German countries around 1800. Following the final decades of the eighteenth century, during which an essential understanding of the natural history of the Earth was gained, geology developed into an independent science. Mining was dependent on geological findings, which in turn promoted geology. This process was driven by lecturers in the mining academies founded at that time, mining civil servants, university professors and also by private scholars. In this process, the Mining Academy of Freiberg, at which German and foreign students took their degrees, was of great importance. Abraham Gottlob Werner worked there as a lecturer who combined geological findings – based on his theory of Neptunism – into one systematic doctrine, imparting his ideas to many students over decades. These students became successful mining and metallurgy officials in the first years of the nineteenth century, and professors of geology and mineralogy at universities in Germany and abroad. During the same period, Leopold von Buch and Alexander von Humboldt contributed to the consolidation of geology as a natural science in Germany. Leopold von Buch had not only recognized the task of developing historical geology; he himself made important contributions to the stratigraphy of the Mesozoic and to palaeontology. The term ‘guide fossil’ was established by him. His coloured geological map of Western and Central Europe, published in 1826 and with five editions up to 1843, met with great approval.

Gian Battista Vai: Light and shadow: the status of Italian geology around 1807

The stratigraphical approach and geological mapping of William Smith in England and Georges Cuvier in France gave birth to modern geology. However, before 1815 neither used the word ‘geology’, a term first coined by Ulisse Aldrovandi in 1603. At the turn of the nineteenth century most leading geoscientists were based in France and Germany, but those in Britain were poised to take over the lead. After three centuries of dominance in science and geology, was Italian geology in decline? A review of the works of Italian geologists and the role these played in disseminating Italian geological research has been undertaken to examine this question. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars shocked the Italian states, disrupted the economic order and discontinued the progress of science. Nevertheless, from 1759 to 1859 over 40 classic papers in geology were published in Italy. Among them, Gian Battista Brocchi’s Conchiologia Fossile is the most renowned for having inspired Charles Lyell’s work. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century Italian geoscientists made up the majority of foreign members of both the French and English geological societies. The Italian Geological Society was not formed until 1881. This was largely due to the earlier political fragmentation of Italy into many small states.

Victor Khain and Irena Malakhova: Scientific institutions and the beginnings of geology in Russia

There were three major scientific centres in Russia at the turn of the nineteenth century: the Imperial St Petersburg Academy of Sciences; the Mining Department with its attached Mining School; and the Moscow University. Geology was only then emerging in Russia, where it was mainly focused on mineral prospecting and imported European concepts. However, Alexander I initiated major reforms of science and education, founding new universities in which geological education in Russia found a foothold. The first scientific societies – the Moscow Society of Naturalists and the Mineralogical Society – also played an active role in the consolidation of Russian geology.

Julie Newell: A story of things yet-to-be: the status of geology in the United States in 1807

In the 1780s observations of geological phenomena by American authors appeared in American publications. Europeans had also begun to explore the American geological landscape, notably the immigrant William Maclure. But an American geological community had not yet formed by 1807. Much of this apparent ‘delay’ in the development of the geological sciences in the United States resulted from the cultural and political realities of the new nation. In a new and democratic–egalitarian society, it took time to negotiate the nature of the appropriate public support for the practice of science. Individuals with the resources to provide private patronage for scientific undertakings were exceedingly few. The educational institutions that would ultimately be a major factor in the transmission and extension of geological knowledge were only then beginning to multiply and grow. In 1807 Benjamin Silliman completed his first year of science instruction at Yale, but offered only chemistry and mineralogy. Geology would wait several more years. Other institutions and individuals critical to the future of geology in the United States were ‘born’ in 1807 – including the United States Coast Survey, and Louis Agassiz and David Dale Owen. Roughly another decade would pass before a ‘geological community’ would emerge in the United States.

The Nature of Geology
Edward Rose: Military men: Napoleonic warfare and early members of the Geological Society

At the time the Geological Society was founded in 1807, Europe had entered the latter half of some 23 years of near-continuous warfare, in which the overall scale and intensity were wholly new. Wars from 1792 to 1815 affected the careers of many well-known geologists in France, Germany and the United Kingdom. Influential early members of the Society included a significant number of men with periods of military service or education, or militarily-funded employment: four of its 11 primary founders, Jacques-Louis, Comte de Bournon, James Franck, George Bellas Greenough and Richard Phillips, as well as six of its first 23 Presidents – Greenough, Henry Grey Bennet, John MacCulloch, Roderick Impey Murchison, Henry Thomas De la Beche and Joseph Ellison Portlock. Several councillors, such as Thomas Frederick Colby and John William Pringle, and three of its first five executives – William Lonsdale, David Thomas Ansted and T. Rupert Jones – also had military affiliations. Largely as a consequence of Napoleonic warfare, from 1814 to 1845 national geological mapping in Britain was supported by military funding, and between 1819 and the end of the century geology was a subject taught at various times in all military training establishments within Britain.

Leucha Veneer: Practical geology and the early Geological Society

At the time the Geological Society was founded in 1807, Europe had entered the latter half of some 23 years of near-continuous warfare, in which the overall scale and intensity were wholly new. Wars from 1792 to 1815 affected the careers of many well-known geologists in France, Germany and the United Kingdom. Influential early members of the Society included a significant number of men with periods of military service or education, or militarily-funded employment: four of its 11 primary founders, Jacques-Louis, Comte de Bournon, James Franck, George Bellas Greenough and Richard Phillips, as well as six of its first 23 Presidents – Greenough, Henry Grey Bennet, John MacCulloch, Roderick Impey Murchison, Henry Thomas De la Beche and Joseph Ellison Portlock. Several councillors, such as Thomas Frederick Colby and John William Pringle, and three of its first five executives – William Lonsdale, David Thomas Ansted and T. Rupert Jones – also had military affiliations. Largely as a consequence of Napoleonic warfare, from 1814 to 1845 national geological mapping in Britain was supported by military funding, and between 1819 and the end of the century geology was a subject taught at various times in all military training establishments within Britain.

Alan Bowden: Geology at the crossroads: aspects of the geological career of Dr John MacCulloch

Dr John MacCulloch MD was a pioneer of geological cartography. Prior to his surveys there had been few attempts to map and survey Scotland. Of these few, only the student efforts of Louis-Albert Necker de Saussure and the published map of Aimé Boué have attempted to show the whole country. MacCulloch’s geological map of Scotland, published posthumously in 1836, remains one of the great cartographic milestones in the history of geology. Earlier, MacCulloch was the first government-appointed geologist through his work on the Board of Ordnance whilst carrying out the Millstone, Meridian and Mountain surveys. MacCulloch’s work often generated controversy after 1820 when others began to take an interest in Scottish geology. MacCulloch was an active member of the Geological Society and was quickly recognized as a geologist of rare ability and influence, and was appointed to several committees. He was made Vice-President in 1815 and became its fourth President in 1816. From 1820 his influence and activity in the Society began to wane as the demands of his Survey work and ill health began to take their toll. He finally resigned from the Society in 1832.

John Smallwood: John Playfair on Schiehallion, 1801–1811

John Playfair first visited the Scottish mountain, Schiehallion, during Nevil Maskelyne’s 1774 plumbline deflection experiment, which was conducted to measure the density of the Earth. The mathematician Charles Hutton analysed the survey data from the experiment, reporting the mean Earth specific gravity as 4.5 in 1778. Playfair undertook a lithological mapping exercise in 1801, to improve the accuracy of Hutton’s estimate, and reported a range of 4.56–4.87 in 1811. The computation of the gravitational effect of topography with variable subsurface density effectively made him the creator of the first geophysical model. As such, not only was Playfair’s Schiehallion contribution pioneering in itself, but it was representative of his more significant works in both mathematics and geology, in that he built on existing benchmark work with novel and valuable additions of his own. Although Playfair’s map of the extent of the Schiehallion quartzite was quite accurate, the Society’s fourth President, John MacCulloch, having visited Schiehallion, was dismissive of Playfair’s representation of the subsurface density variation. MacCulloch spent several years searching Scotland for a more favourable site for a plumbline experiment, travels that allowed him to compile the data for his 1836 geological map of Scotland.

Noah Heringman: Picturesque ruin and geological antiquity: Thomas Webster and Sir Henry Englefield on the Isle of Wight

Thomas Webster published his earliest geological observations by commission in Sir Henry Englefield’s Description of the Isle of Wight(1816), a work concerned as much with historic architecture and picturesque landscape as with geology. This paper shows how Englefield’s broad three-part agenda fostered the development of Webster’s specifically geological competence and sensibility. As a professional draftsman and architect, Webster was especially well equipped to translate Englefield’s architectural and picturesque idiom into a more geological register. Their collaboration also illustrates how well the style and content of local history – a traditional literary and learned genre – could be applied to geology. For Webster in particular, the image of ruins was essential for representing the historicity of geological phenomena. This paper adduces close readings of numerous passages from Englefield and Webster’s work to show how strongly the traditional language and research questions of antiquarianism continued to shape geology even as it became a professional specialization.

Patrick Boylan: The Geological Society and its official recognition, 1824–1828

Under the 1824–1826 presidency of William Buckland, the still young Geological Society negotiated with the Government a very important advance in terms of the official recognition of the Society and the emerging science of geology that the Society represented, by obtaining a prestigious new legal status in the form of a Royal Charter of Incorporation. Then, under William Fitton’s presidency, in 1828 the government granted the Society rent-free accommodation for both its meetings and its rapidly growing library and museum in the government offices in Somerset House, London. The objectives behind these two related moves are considered, although it is unfortunate that little of the detailed background documentation to these developments seem to have been preserved within either Society or government records. A brief account of what might have been – the possibility of seeking a Coat of Arms for the newly Chartered Society – concludes the story.

Ralph O’Connor: Facts and fancies: the Geological Society of London and the wider public, 1807–1837

The leading lights of the Geological Society announced the birth of a newly scientific form of Earth science by claiming to dissociate geology from the grand theories, theological controversialism and flights of fancy that they felt had dominated eighteenth-century practice. For these gentlemen, geology was to comprise strict empirical induction. They cultivated a historical myth according to which their predecessors had been hopelessly romantic theory-mongers with overactive imaginations, while they themselves were sensible, sober men of science.

But if this was so, how did geology succeed in winning such an enormous middle- and upper-class public by the late 1830s? Public support required public interest, and public interest in this period was most easily stirred by the romantic, the speculative and the poetical. Older theories of the Earth remained popular for this very reason, as did biblically literalist reconstructions of Earth history. The challenge for the new school of geology was to dissociate Earth science from the content and methodology of such theories while retaining their accompanying sense of excitement, wonder and pleasure. This paper explores how members and allies of the Geological Society negotiated (or ignored) their own suspicions about the deceptive power of the ‘imagination’ when promoting geology as a science worth the public’s attention.

David Branagan: The Geological Society on the other side of the world

From its earliest years the Geological Society of London attracted the attention of scientifically- and technically-minded men in Australia and New Zealand. Members ‘at home’ in Britain were also eager for geological information about the antipodes. The publications of the Society acted as a major source of information about the geology of these southern lands, from vertebrate palaeontology and modern glaciation at sea level to ancient glaciations and mineralization (particularly of gold). At least 360 members were active in Australasia in the nineteenth century. Strong antipodean Society membership continued through the twentieth century. What is noteworthy is the number of mining figures, of varying scientific competence, who boasted of their membership. There were significant contributions to the Society’s journals on Australasian geology from the 1820s to the early 1900s. Many topographic features on the maps of both Australia and New Zealand are named for Members and Fellows of the Geological Society. The lists of elected and ‘would-be’ antipodean members include a few enigmatic examples of chicanery, fraud and disappearance.

Cynthia Burek: The first female Fellows and the status of women in the Geological Society of London 

Women were first permitted to become Fellows of the Geological Society of London in 1919. Eight joined in May of that year and then in June a further two were admitted. By February 1922 there were 21 female Fellows. The Geological Society had opened its doors to women and, after an initial rush, there was a slow trickle. However, there were a number of highly regarded female geologists before this time, and several of them received grants, medals and, indeed, submitted papers, although they were not always permitted to read these themselves. Some of the first female Fellows have disappeared without trace, but the contributions of others are significant. As well as being educationalists, they were expert in many different areas of geology, with palaeontology and stratigraphy featuring strongly. Few, however, stayed on in this male-dominated arena once they married and had children. It seems there was no common reason for these women to seek membership of the Geological Society, other than their love of geology, but membership brought them recognition and status. They led the way as role models for future female Fellows and were the first of many women to play a significant role in the Geological Society’s history.

The Bicentenary

A year to remember, T Nield 
Walk with the Founding Fathers, M J S Rudwick 
Dining with the Founding Fathers: a personal view, R T J Moody 


Appendix I: Geological Inquiries (1808) 
Appendix II: Preface to Comte de Bournon’s Complete Treatise of Carbonated Lime and Aragonite (1808)