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Jameson, Robert

Jameson, Robert

(b. Leith, Scotland, 11 july 1774; d. Edinburgh, Scotland, 19 April 1854)

geology, natural history.

Jameson was the third son of Thomas Jameson, a prosperous soap manufacturer, and the former Catherine Paton, daughter of a brewer. At school he showed a preference for natural history, frequently playing truant to follow his hobby and collect insects and shells. He wished to follow a maritime career but was persuaded by his father to accept an apprenticeship to a Leith surgeon, John Cheyne. He also attended classes in medicine, botany, chemistry, and natural history at Edinburgh University. The professor of natural history was John Walker, who lectured on geology and mineralogy as well as on botany, zoology, and meteorology. Jameson’s enthusiasm for these subjects led to his becoming a favorite pupil, and he was soon given charge of the university museum. Edinburgh was at this time a center of geological thought, and geology and mineralogy soon became his principal interest; in consequence he gave up his post as assistant to Cheyne.

In 1793 Jameson went to London for two months, meeting prominent naturalists, visiting museums, and making lengthy notes on all he saw. The following year he spent three months in the Shetland Islands and was “zealously occupied in exploring their geology, mineralogy, zoology and botany.” In 1795 he was elected to the Royal Medical Society, a student organization in Edinburgh, and a year later he read to the Society two papers on current geological topics;“Is the Volcanic Opinion of the formation of Basaltes Founded on Truth?” and “Is the Huttonian Theory of the Earth Consistent With Fact ?” In these papers he enumerated his reasons for replying in the negative to both quieries, quoting Kirwan and Werner as authorities as well as describing his own observations in the Edinburgh district and the Shetlands. Jameson had probably already received direct information about Werner’s theories from two students, E. F. da Camera de Bethencourt, a Portuguese, and A. Deriabin, a Russian. They had been at the bergakademie at Freiberg, Saxony, in 1792-1793, and subsequently visited Edinburgh and became Jameson’s friends.

In 1797 Jameson went to Ireland and met Kirwan; before he returned to Edinburgh he spent some time on the island of Arran. In 1798 his first book, published at Edinburgh, was An Outline of the Mineralogy of the Shetland Islands, and of the Island of Arran. He spent the summer of 1798 exploring the Hebrides and the Western Isles, and in 1799 he investigated the Orkneys and revisited Arran. As a result of these journeys he issued a much larger two-volume work, Mineralogy of the Scottish Isles (Edinburgh, 1800).

For at least five years Jameson had been advocating the theories of Werner, and in September 1800 he went to the Bergakademie to study under the master himself. He stayed over a year, returning to Scotland early in 1802. Later that year, after reading Playfair’s Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory, he wrote several articles, published in Nicholson’s Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, and the Arts, which expounded the Wernerian view of granite and basalt.

John Walker had been nearly blind and very ill for some years. In 1801 both Kirwan and the mineralogist Charles Hatchett had written to Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society, indicating Jameson’s qualifications for the Regius chair of natural history at Edinburgh should it become vacant. With this support, it is not surprising that soon after Walker’s death on 31 December 1803, Jameson was elected to the chair, which he occupied with great distinction for fifty years.

In 1804 Jameson published at Edinburgh the first volume of his System of Mineralogy; in 1805 the second volume appeared there, as did A Treatise on the External Characters of Minerals and A Mineralogical Description of the Country of Dumfries. The third volume of the System, issued in 1808 and subtitled Elements of Geognosy, contains the first detailed account in English of Werner’s geognostic theories and his classification of the rock strata.

By this time Jameson was the acknowledged leader of the Scottish Wernerians, or Neptunits; and in 1808 he and eight other scientists and laymen interested in natural history founded the Wernerian Natural History Society, which attracted many members and remained in existence for nearly fifty years, with Jameson president until his death. During this period eight volumes of memoirs were published, to which Jameson contributed over a dozen papers on geological and mineralogical topics, as well as a few on botany and zoology.

In 1819 Jameson and David Brewster founded the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, and from 1824 to 1854 Jameson was sole editor. The Journal was highly esteemed, and many leading men of science contributed to it. Jameson also edited and provided notes for translations of Cuvier’ Essay on the Theory of the Earth and Buch’s Travels Through Norway and Lapland (London, 1813), and for an Edinburgh edition of Wilson and Bonaparte’s American Ornithology, as well as other works.

Jameson took every opportunity to increase the university museum collections, which were very small when he became professor. During his fifty year’s tenure, he instigated many direct purchases of collections by the university, and also successfully urged his former students journeying abroad to bring back specimens. By 1852 there were over 74,000 zoological and geological specimens, and in Great Britain the natural history collection was second only to that of the British Museum. Shortly after Jameson’s death it was transferred by the university to the crown and became part of what is now the Royal Scottish Museum.

Although Jameson made no considerable direct contributions to geology, either in theory or in fieldwork, many of his field observations are still of interest. But his interpretations of various rock junctions in terms of Wernerian concepts present a strangely unreal picture to a modern geologist, just as the modern chemist finds it difficult to understand the chemical ideas of the phlogistic period. Never-theless, Jameson earned a place in the history of geology by his influence on the progress of geology and of natural history in general, both through his teaching and through the manner in which he undoubtedly inspired a large number of naturalists and naturalist travelers. His lectures may have been dull, but Robert Christison, a student in 1816, wrote:

The lectures were numerously attended in spite of a dry manner, and although attendance on Natural History was not enforced for any University honour or for any profession, the popularity of his earnestness as a lecturer, his enthusiasm as an investigator, and the great museum he had collected for illustrating his teaching were together the cause of his success (The Life of Sir Robert Christison [London-Edinburgh, 1885-1886]).

Edward Forbes, his successor in the chair of natural history and one of Jameson’s most distinguished pupils, stated:

A large share of the best naturalists of the day received their first instruction. . .”from Professor Jameson. Not even his own famous master, the eloquent and illustrious Werner, could equal him in this genesis of investigators (G. Wilson and A. Geikie, Memoir of Edward Forbes, F.R.S.[Cambridge-London, 1861], p.554).

In this connection it should be noted that whereas the small mining school at Freiberg admitted only some twenty new students a year, during 1800-1820 there were over 1,500 students annually at Edinburgh; and between fifty and one hundred attended Jameson‘s classes each year. Hence in the first two decades of the century far more students instructed in Wernerian doctrines must have emerged from the portals of Edinburgh University than from the Bergakademie.

It seems fairly certain that Jameson gradually gave up the more controversial parts of Werner’s teaching in the decade following the latter’s death in 1817 Jameson’s own former students, in particular Ami Boué, writing for the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, must have done much to convince him that Werner’s belief that basalts were of aqueous origin was no longer tenable. In 1826, for example, in an article on countries discovered by J. C. Ross and W. E. Parry (Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, 16 , 105), Jameson mentions “secondary trap-rocks, such as basalts”as “intimations of older volcanic action.”A note” On Primitive Rocks”which appeared in the first four editions of Cuvier’s Essay and described granite“as far as we know at present”as the oldest and firstformed of all primitive rocks, was replaced in the fifth edition (1872) by a long extract from a memoir by Mitscherlich discussing the igneous origin of mountains. There are other indications of Jameson’s progressive acceptance of new ideas. His early interest in glacial phenomena has been described by G. L. Davies (The Earth in Decay [London, 1969]), quoting papers printed by Jameson in the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal in 1827 and 1836-1839.


I. Original Works. Jameson’s early essay “Is the Huttonian Theory of the Earth Consistent With Fact?” was printed in Dissertations by Eminent Members of the Royal Medical Society (Edinburgh, 1892), pp.32-39). Most of Jameson’s books have been mentioned above. Unless otherwise indicated, the following works were all published at Edinburgh. A 2nd ed. of System of Mineralogy, 3 vols., but without the Elements of Geognosy (the original vol. III), appeared in 1816. A 3rd ed. in 1820 was completely revised and based on a differnet system of classification which owed much to F. Mohs. A Treatise on the External Characters of Minerals (1805) appeared in a 2nd ed., considerably enlarged, in 1816, with the title A Treatise on the External, Chemical, and Physical Characters of Minerals;there was a 3rd ed. in 1817. In 1821 Jameson published another work, Manual of Mineralogy, containing a long section entitled “Description and Arrangement of Mountain Rocks”; this included some of the material found in Elements of Geognosy.

Cuvier’s Discours sur les révolutions de la surface du globe, translated by R. Kerr into English as Essay on the Theoryof the Earth, includes Jameson’s “Appendix Containing Mineralogical Notes and an Account of Cuvier’s Discoveries.” This appeared first in 1813; and subsequent eds., in which the notes were enlarged, came out in 1815, 1817, and 1822. The 3rd ed. also appeared with a New York imprint in 1818, and this had a long additional section by Samuel L. Mitchill, “Observations on the Geology of North America.” The 5th ed. of the Essay (Edinburgh-London, 1827) was a much larger work, translated from a new and revised ed. by Cuvier; the notes by Jameson are considerably revised. Since Kerr died in 1813, the new translation may have been prepared by Jameson himself.

A list of Jameson’s scientific papers is given in Royal Society, Catalogue of Scientific Papers (1800-1863), 3 (1869), 531-532.

The library of Edinburgh University has a collection of Jameson’s MSS and lecture notes.

II. Secondary Literature. A biographical memoir by Jameson’s nephew Laurence Jameson, in Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, 57 (1854), 1-49, provides the fullest contemporary account. Further information can be found in V. A. Eyles, “Robert Jameson and the Royal Scottish Museum,” in Discovery (Apr. 1954), pp. 155-162; and J. Ritchie, “A Double Centenary. Robert Jameson and Edward Forbes,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 66B (1956), 29-58. An account of his ancestors and relations is given by Jessie M. Sweet in “Robert Jameson and Shetland; A Family History, “in Scottish Genealogist, 16 (1969), 1-18;the same author has published excerpts from Jameson’s MS journals; “Robert Jameson in London, 1793, “in Annals of Science, 19 (1963), 81-116;and “Robert Jameson’s Irish Journal, 1797,” ibid., 23 (1967), 97-126. His earliest papers are discussed in J. M. Sweet and C. D. Waterston, “Robert Jameson’s Approach to the Wernerian Theory of the Earth, 1796,” ibid., 81-95; and the Wernerian Natural History Society in Edinburgh has been described by J. M. Sweet in “Abraham Gottlob Werner Gedenkschrift,” Freiberger Forschungshefte, 223C (1967), 205-218. Interesting side-lights on Jameson’S teaching can be found in Scottish Universities Commission of 1826 and 1830, Evidence, I (London, 1837), 613-617, 632-617, and passim.

There are various portraits of Jameson, some reproduced by Ritchie (1956) and Sweet (1963, 1967); a fine bust, executed when Jameson was seventy-one, is in the library of Edinburgh University.

Joan M. Eyles

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Jameson, Robert

Jameson, Robert (1774–1854) Professor of Natural History at the University of Edinburgh, who studied with Werner and actively promoted Wernerian theories to his own students and in the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal. He translated Cuvier's Discours préliminaire into English (1813), adding Wernerian interpretations.

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"Jameson, Robert." A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. . 28 Mar. 2017 <>.

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