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Geikie, Archibald

Geikie, Archibald

(b. Edinburgh, Scotland, 28 December 1835; d. Haslemere, Surrey, England, 10 November 1924)


Geikie was the son of James Stuart Geikie, an Edinburgh businessman who was also a composer and music critic. His mother, Isabella Thom, was the daughter of a captain in the merchant marine. After three years at Black’s School he went in 1845, at the age of ten, to Edinburgh High School, where he remained for four years. The education there was almost entirely classical, which was fortunate for Geikie, who showed a remarkable quality of mind and a great zest for study, and took full advantage of it to lay the foundation for his outstanding achievements in the literary exposition of science. Holiday pursuits, mostly of a scientific nature, suddenly became concentrated on geology when, with some of his schoolmates, Geikie found fossils in the limestone quarries of Burdiehouse, a few miles south of Edinburgh. His father introduced him to some of the professors and savants of the city; of these Robert Chambers, the publisher, and John Fleming, the distinguished naturalist, were particularly helpful and encouraging. Geikie himself eagerly read every book on geology he could find-Hugh Miller’s Old Red Sandstone was his chief inspiration and rambled among the strata and old volcanic rocks of Edinburgh and its environs.

In 1850 Geikie started a banking career, but he found the legal work that this involved “unspeakably dull.” In 1851 he spent a holiday on the Isle of Arran and published an article, “Three Weeks in Arran by a Young Geologist,” in an Edinburgh newspaper. This secured an introduction to Hugh Miller, who befriended him. His chief benefactor was the writer and lecturer on chemistry, George Wilson. Wilson introduced Geikie to Alexander Macmillan, head of the publishing firm, who became Geikie’s intimate friend. Another eminent man to give Geikie encouragement was the geologist James David Forbes, a founder of the British Association.

In the summer of 1853 Andrew Ramsay, who held a responsible position in the Geological Survey of Great Britain, came to Scotland. Geikie was introduced to him and Ramsay held out hope that a place might sometime be found for him on the Survey. His banking career having been finally abandoned, it was decided that Geikie should meanwhile enter Edinburgh University. He matriculated in November 1854 as a student of classics and literature, and at the end of the session he had gained the reputation of being one of the best scholars of his year. He was then forced to leave the university owing to a financial crisis in the family. In 1855 he was recommended, by both Hugh Miller and Ramsay, to Sir Roderick Murchison, who had succeeded Sir Henry de la Beche as head of the Geological Survey. He was immediately appointed to that service as an assistant in the mapping of the Lothian counties. Between 1856 and 1859 Geikie was surveying on his own. In 1859 he visited London for the first time and was introduced into London learned circles, particularly by Leonard Horner and Charles Lyell.

During the next eight years Geikie vigorously carried out his official work in the field and also undertook highly significant researches in his holiday periods. In his spare time he wrote geological works and prepared papers for reading at the meetings of scientific societies. Geikie made several prolonged official excursions into various parts of Britain and traveled abroad to the Auvergne and to Norway. All the time he was thus widening and deepening his knowledge and experience. He was called on to deliver a course of lectures at the School of Mines in London and was also an examiner in the University of London. In 1861 he was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and he became a fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1865.

In 1867 Geikie was appointed director of the newly constituted Scottish branch of the Geological Survey; and for the next few years he was busy finishing his own personal mapping, superintending his staff, and making official and semiofficial visits abroad. He was taken seriously ill in the Lipari Islands in 1870, the same year Murchison founded a chair of geology at Edinburgh University and desired that Geikie be the first professor. After some difficulty in official circles, largely over the question of this post and that of the director of the Survey in Scotland being held by the same person, Geikie was appointed in 1871. In that year he married Alice Gabrielle Pignatel, whom he had met at Alexander Macmillan’s house. She was a descendant of the Pignatelli family, southern Italians who had migrated into France some generations before and had settled in Lyons as merchants. The couple moved into a house that Geikie had already bought for himself on Castle Hill in Edinburgh.

Geikie was able to combine his professorial duties, which lasted from November to March, with the winter work of the Survey directed from Edinburgh. He threw himself enthusiastically into the conduct of his classes and excursions, drawing the necessary diagrams himself and introducing the newest techniques. In the evenings he was kept busy with his literary work, particularly with the large biography of Murchison which he had undertaken (Murchison had died in the autumn of 1871 and was succeeded by Ramsay), the preliminary work on his great textbook, and preparing a memoir (on the Old Red Sandstone) to be read before the Royal Society of Edinburgh. With the Geological Survey his most important charge, his life during the 1870’s was fuller than ever. In the summer of 1879 he made a prolonged journey through the United States, meeting the geologists who had become famous for their explorations of the far west.

Ramsay, in failing health, retired as the head of the Geological Survey at the end of 1881, and Geikie was appointed to succeed him in this post, the highest in the profession. He and his family therefore moved to London. Reluctantly he had to relinquish his post as professor at Edinburgh, to which his brother James succeeded. Living in London enabled him to participate directly in the concerns of the learned scientific societies. In 1883 he was elected to the council of the Geological Society, which in 1881 had awarded him its Murchison Medal; and in 1885 he was elected to the council of the Royal Society, becoming its foreign secretary in 1889. In 1890 he was elected president of the Geological Society, and in 1891 he was knighted. Geikie was given the Geological Society’s highest award, the Wollaston Medal, in 1895; and in 1896 She received the Royal Society’s Royal Medal.

In 1901 Geikie, having reached the age of sixty-five, retired from the directorship of the Geological Survey and found relaxation and refreshment in turning to interests other than geological—largely English and classical literature. He was a member of the Classical Association from the time of its foundation in 1904 and in 1910 was elected its president—an extraordinary position to be held by a leading scientist. At the same time he continued to pursue his geological writing translating, and editing. He was called upon to preside for the second time over the Geological Society of London during the centenary celebrations in 1907 and was appointed its foreign secretary in 1908, an honor to which he was annually reelected until his death. In 1907 he was created Knight Commander of the Bath.

The most important and engrossing work that occupied Geikie during the years of his retirement was the conduct of the affairs of the Royal Society. In 1903 he became one of its two secretaries for five years and in 1908 was elected president, the only geologist ever so honored.

Geikie’s natural genius, combined with his prodigious capacity for hard and sustained work, is clearly and abundantly revealed in his published writings, which, beginning in 1849, extend over a period of seventy-five years. His first was a schoolboy translation of a piece by Ovid into English verse (inserted in Stevens’ History of the High School of Edinburgh), and the last was his autobiography, A Long Life’s Work. His main publications fall under the following classifications:

1. The geological treatises setting forth the results of research, published in the journals of learned societies. Examples are those, mentioned below, concerning ancient volcanism, the Old Red Sandstone, and glaciation.

2. His contributions to the official Geological Survey memoirs. These are somewhat scattered and mixed with the contributions of his colleagues, some being published long after most of his own work concerning them had been finished. He was the main author of the first edition of the memoir on the Edinburgh neighborhood (1861) and of the memoirs on Fife (1900, 1902). He also was the originator and planner of the great series of stratigraphical monographs (on the Pliocene, Cretaceous, Jurassic, and Scottish Lower Paleozoic) published during his directorship.

3. Books on special themes. Two are outstanding and are considered below: The Scenery of Scotland (l865) and Ancient Volcanoes (1897).

4. Textbooks. While pursuing his researches in particular areas and on particular subjects, Geikie kept before him the whole panorama of geological science and produced a series of incomparable textbooks. The first was a largely rewritten edition (1872) of Joseph Jukes’s Student’s Manual of Geology. Then came (1873) two very small “primers,” Physical Geography and Geology. They had an enormous success, immediate and continuing, and were translated into most European languages. Field Geology (1876), Class-book of Physical Geography (1877), and Classbook of Geology (1886) followed. All these works ran to many editions. In 1882 appeared the first edition of Text-book of Geology, which, in its successive editions of 1885, 1893, and 1903, served as a standard work which carried on the function of Lyell’s famous Principles of Geology. It was based on a long article contributed to the Encylopaedia Britannica 1879. A storehouse of geological facts, a mine for the extraction of clear definitions and explanations, an authoritative exposition of established principles, and, with its copious notes and references, a worldwide guide to the records of geological discovery, the twovolume edition of 1903 is still indispensable, notwithstanding all the new information and techniques that have been made available during the years since its publication.

5. Biographies of geologists, annotated editions and translations, and histories of geology. Geikie wrote several well-known biographical and historical books. The memoirs of Murchison (1875) and Ramsay (1895), enlivened by contemporary letters and diaries, illuminate the progress of geology during the middle decades of the nineteenth century. He had previously written the greater part of the life of Edward Forbes (begun by George Wilson), the eminent naturalist and geologist (1861), and had communicated an obituary memoir of James David Forbes to the Edinburgh Geological Society (1869). His Founders of Geology was, as first published in 1897, the text of six lectures delivered at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. It was recast and greatly enlarged for the second edition of 1905, which treats the history of geology as revealed in the lives and work of the masters, both British and foreign. This is still the only work on its subject. The autobiography, written in his old age, shows an undiminished power to instruct, charm, and entertain.

Geikie’s erudition was specially brought into play in the production of four works of editorship and commentary: (1) part of the third volume of Hutton’s Theory of the Earth of 1795, the manuscript of which was found in the library of the Geological Society of London (1899); (2) a new translation of Faujas de Saint-Fond’s Voyage en Angleterre, en Écosse et aux Îles Hébrides of 1797 (1907); (3) Charles Darwin as Geologist, a Cambridge University Rede lecture (1909); and (4) an appreciation of the work of John Michell, the eighteenth-century scientific savant who had been Woodwardian professor of geology at Cambridge (1918). These are all enriched with copious notes which illuminate the more obscure corners of the history of geology.

6. Belles-lettres. Geikie wrote innumerable essays and reviews—geological, geographical, biographical, autobiographical, literary, historical, and educational. Fortunately, many of these were reprinted to form the two books Geological Sketches at Home and Abroad (1882) and Landscape in History and Other Essays (1905).

7. Scottish Reminiscences (1904). This book stands rather apart from his other publications. Here more than anywhere else in his writing, Geikie’s wit and humor and powers as a raconteur are allowed full play.

Geikie’s fame as a geologist rests very largely on his work in the field of volcanic action in past geological times. He was born among the crags that mark the sites of some of these old volcanoes (of Carboniferous age) and was led in boyhood to interest himself in their structure and history. Little had been done before on these rocks beyond the recognition of their volcanic nature and the description of some details of local structure (chiefly by Charles Maclaren in 1839). As a result of his survey of the Lothians (1855–1859), Geikie was able to recognize a long series of eruptions through Devonian (Old Red Sandstone) and Carboniferous times. He summarized these results in a paper read before the British Association at Aberdeen (1859), which was expanded to form one read before the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1861. In 1860 Geikie began his survey of the county of Fife. He tells us that he learned more here than he did anywhere else regarding the details of volcanic action as preserved in the earth’s crust. The results were not published in official memoirs until much later: 1900 and 1902. His enthusiasm for this vast subject increased as his official work and holiday excursions took him to other parts of Scotland and the British Isles and to central France. He read his first paper on the Tertiary volcanic rocks of Scotland to the Royal Society of Edinburgh early in 1867. Later in 1867, in his presidential address to the Geological Section of the British Association at Dundee, on the history of volcanic action in the British Isles, Geikie made the first attempt to group in chronological order the sequence of eruptions in this westernmost part of Europe. His visits to the Eifel district of Germany in 1868 and to Naples and the Lipari Islands in 1870 extended his personal knowledge of recent, or comparatively recent, volcanic activity.

In 1879 the Royal Society of Edinburgh published a large memoir describing the volcanic history of the Carboniferous period in the basin of the Firth of Forth, containing in condensed form the results of Geikie’s researches in that region during nearly a quarter of a century. In 1888 the same society published an even longer memoir, on the history of volcanic action during the Tertiary period in the British Isles. Geikie’s journey in 1879 to western America, where Richthofen had shown the great volcanic plains to be due to massive fissure eruptions, caused him to advocate a similar origin for the volcanic rocks forming the plateaus of Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Faeroe Islands, and Iceland.

Geikie’s presidential addresses to the Geological Society of London in 1891 and 1892 gave accounts of the history of volcanic action in the British Isles, and in 1896 this society published an extensive paper on the Tertiary basalt plateaus of northwestern Europe in which the results of the latest exploration were described.

Finally, in 1897 there appeared, in two large volumes, Geikie’s masterpiece, The Ancient Volcanoes of Great Britain. Here we have a complete and detailed exposition of the essentials of igneous geology (other than the deeply plutonic). It is illustrated with a wealth of examples, described in word, diagram, and picture. As in all Geikie’s writings, the subject is given depth by constant reference to the history of investigation. Exhaustive as this was of the knowledge of the time, Geikie himself was the foremost in realizing that its publication, far from closing the subject, opened up still wider horizons; for in 1895, two years before its appearance, he had launched a new campaign by the Geological Survey into the territory of the Tertiary volcanoes of Scotland by sending Alfred Harker to Skye. This campaign produced spectacular results during the next thirty years.

Apart from his work on the igneous rocks associated with the Old Red Sandstone strata, Geikie did important work on these strata themselves. He was the first to recognize a widespread unconformity throughout Scotland between an upper and a lower group (1860). His most important paper was that published by the Royal Society of Edinburgh on the Old Red Sandstone of Scotland, particularly on that of the northern region (1878). Further accounts were projected but did not materialize. In this paper he suggested that the Old Red Sandstone was deposited in separate lake basins, to which he gave names, the chief ones in Scotland being “Lake Orcadie” in the north and “Lake Caledonia” in the Central Valley. In each of these basins he considered the upper divisions to be equivalent in time; the same was true of the lower divisions. These large questions on which Geikie expressed his views are still not settled. It is considered that the general nature of the deposits certainly indicates a “Continental” origin, but probably not entirely a lacustrine one. The conception of separate basins of deposition is, however, taken to be valid, The general opinion now, based chiefly on the evidence of the fossil fish faunas, is that a tripartite time classification of the system is appropriate, at least in Scotland, a suggestion that had been put forward by Murchison in 1859. The lower division in “Orcadie” is mainly, if not entirely, Middle Old Red Sandstone, while the lower division in “Caledonia” is Lower Old Red Sandstone.

During his directorship of the Geological Survey, Geikie’s most important operation was his direction of a vigorous, and large-scale exploration of the extreme northwestern Highlands of Scotland. It had become realized that here lay a key to the unlocking of a knowledge of the structure and geological history of Scotland, but very different interpretations of what was to be seen on the ground had been put forward by some of the foremost geologists of the day. The official attack on the problem began in 1883 and lasted for about ten years. An interim report was given in 1888, and the complete description was finally published in the great Survey memoir of 1907. This memoir contains a detailed accout of the history of research and ideas (with full documentation), particularly of the period before the Survey took over. Flett (1937) and Bailey (1952) provide commentaries, but each is rather disconnected.

Murchison, during the period of his directorship, had made geological excursions into the region, accompanied at one time (1859) by Ramsay and at another, during his most prolonged excursion (1860), by Geikie. Murchison had no doubt of the correctness of an interpretation which he expounded in full in 1861—essentially it was that there was an undisturbed upward succession of formations—and both Ramsay and Geikie agreed with this interpretation. Others, particularly James Nicol, Charles Callaway, and Charles Lapworth, had detected the great dislocations along what later came to be called the Moine thrust belt. Geikie sent his team onto the ground (1883) on the assumption that the Murchisonian interpretation would be found to be the correct one, and he proclaimed this assumption in his official report for that year. But the surveyors soon found that this view could not be sustained and that the interpretations given by Nicol, Callaway, and Lapworth were, on the main point at issue, correct. Geikie at once visited the ground, with every disposition to support Murchison’s view, but he became entirely convinced that his surveyors were right. He immediately announced the important news in an article written by himself and his two chief surveyors, Benjamin Peach and John Horne, which was published in Nature in November 1884. His report for that year, published in 1885, contained the official announcement of the firm establishment as a known fact of what is perhaps the most striking geological feature in the structure of Britain, as well as a frank admission of his previous adherence to what had proved to be an erroneous assumption.

During the years 1861–1865, Geikie became, as he put it, “rather obsessed with glacial problems.” The existence of a former “ice age” during which glacial conditions had been much more widespread than at the present time had been realized during the 1830’s by geologists in the Alpine region; foremost among them was Louis Agassiz, whose chief publication appeared in 1840. It was shown that the Alpine glaciers had extended far beyond their present limits. At the same time the superficial deposits of stony clay, which in Britain had hither to been generally called “diluvium” in the vague belief that they were relics of a universal flood, were being accounted for on the supposition that they had been transported and dropped by floating ice while the land was submerged beneath the sea. In the latter part of 1840, when Agassiz came to Scotland, he recognized the clear signs of the previous existence of land glaciers and succeeded at once in convincing such leading British geologists as William Buckland and Charles Lyell. All three gave their views to the Geological Society in November 1840. But the floating ice theory persisted and was the favored theory when three geologists— T. F. Jamieson, Andrew Ramsay, and Geikie—became independently interested in the matter; and each in his own way showed that it was untenable. Geikie investigated the deposits all over the southern counties of Scotland and gave a full description and discussion in a paper published by the Geological Society of Glasgow in 1863. At about this time it was decided that these superficial deposits (the “drifts”) should be officially mapped. They had hither to been regarded only as a nuisance obscuring the underlying rocks; now it was realized that they were not only of great interest in themselves but that the facts of their distribution were of great practical importance to agriculture. To carry out the mapping in Scotland a few new recruits were required, and among those appointed was Archibald’s younger brother, James. Archibald Geikie had to initiate the new men into the mapping of the drifts, but after this had been done he abandoned his glacial work; it was taken up by his brother, who became one of the foremost authorities on this branch of geology. On his trip to arctic Norway in 1865 he, as he tells us, “caught the ice, as it were, in the very act of doing the work of which I had hitherto only seen the ancient results.”

Geikie had an abiding interest in that earth science now called geomorphology, the study of landforms, but this interest was greatest during the early 1860’s, when he was also especially interested in glacial geology To some extent these two interests overlapped. In both fields there had been much doubt and argument during the preceding few decades, and in both it was Geikie who was among the foremost in settling the matter. In 1860 he made his tour with Murchison to the northwest Highlands of Scotland (primarily to study structure), and in 1861 he visited the Auvergne district of France (primarily to study volcanicity). On both these tours he was greatly impressed with the effects of erosion by weathering agents and the action of rivers (and, long ago, of ice in Scotland). The thesis he established was that the present relief of the land surface is the result of the subaerial erosion (“denudation”) of a more or less even or gently curved surface which had been uplifted from beneath the sea. The sculpturing of the land is chiefly the result of the differential erosion of hard and soft rocks. This was in contrast with the thesis that valleys and hills and escarpments are due to the marine dissection of a land mass rising from beneath the sea. The subaerial erosion theory still left uncertain when the land surface was uplifted and what its height and form had been: these uncertainties remain today. Geikie’s conclusions were given in his book The Scenery of Scotland, first published in 1865, which combines the virtues of a thoroughly scientific treatise with those of a popular account.


I. Original Works. Among Geikie’s more important writings are The Geology of the Neighbourhood of Edinburgh, Memoirs of the Geological Survey of Great Britain (London, 1861); “On the Chronology of the Trap Rocks of Scotland,” in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 22 (1861), 633–653; “On the Phenomena of the Glacial Drift of Scotland,” in Transactions of the Geological Society of Glasgow, I (1863).1–190; The Scenery of Scotland (London, 1865); Geology, in the series Science Primers London, 1873); Life of Sir Roderick Murchison (London 1875);. Outlines of Field Geology (London, 1876); “On the Old Red Sandstone of Western Europe,” in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 28 (1878), 345–452; “On the Carboniferous Volcanic Rocks of the Basin of the Firth of Forth,” ibid., 29 ;(1879), 437–518;Geological Sketches at Home and Abroad (London, 1882); Text-book of Geology (London, 1882; 4th ed., 1903); “The History of Volcanic Action During the Tertiary Period in the British Isles.” in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 35 (1888), 23–184; “The History of Volcanic Action in the British Isles,” printed as “Proceedings. Anniversary Address of the President,” in Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 47 (1891), 63–122, and 48 : (1892), 60–179; Memoir of Sir Andrew Crombie Ramsay (London, 1895); “The Tertiary Basalt-Plateaux of North-western Europe,” in Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London,52 (1896), 311–406: The Ancient Volcanoes of Great Britain (London, 1897); The Geology of Fife, Memoirs of the Geological Survey of Great Britain (London. 1902); Scottish Reminiscences (Glasgow, 1904); The Founders of Geology (London, 1905); and A Long Life’s Work: An Autobiography (London, 1924).

II. Secondary Literature. On Geikie or his work, see E. B. Bailey, Geological Survey of Great Britain (London, 1952), passim; E. B. Bailey and D. Tait, Edinburgh’s Place in Scientific Progress (Edinburgh, 1921), pp. 89–91; R. J. Chorley et al., “The History of the Study of Landforms (London, 1964), passim; “Eminent Living Geologists: Sir Archibald Geikie,” in Geological Magazine, 27 (1890), 49–51; J. S. Flett, The First Hundred Years of the Geological Survey of Great Britain (London, 1937), passim; “A Century Of Geology, 1807–1907: The Geological Society of London,” in Geological Magazine, 44 (1907), 1–3: B. N. Peach and J. Horne, “The Scientific Career of Sir Archibald Geikie,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 45 (1926).346–361; H. H. Thomas, in Dictionary of National Biography, 1922–1930 (Oxford, 1937), pp. 332–334; and H. B. Woodward, The History of the Geological Society of London (London, 1908), Passim.

Obituary notices include J. R. B and J. H., in Proceedings of the Royal Society,3A (1926), xxiv-xxxix; and 99B (1926), i-xvi; H. D., in Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, 36 (1925), 191–192; and A. S., in Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 81 (1925), “Proceedings,” Iii-Ix.

John Challinor

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Geikie, Archibald

Geikie, Archibald (1835–1924) Director of the British Geological Survey from 1881 to 1901, Geikie made studies of glacial and fluvial erosion, and attempted to calculate the age of the Earth from rates of denudation. This led to conflict with Kelvin. Geikie was also one of the first historians of geology, stressing in his Founders of Geology (1897, 1905) the importance of the work of his fellow Scotsman Hutton.

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