(b. Cargill, Perthshire, Scotland, 2 January 1821; d. Perth, Scotland, 15 December 1890)
Croll’s father, David Croil, was a poor stonemason and crofter who at the age of thirty-seven married Janet Ellis. James, their second son, was too poor to afford the university education he craved; therefore he became first a journeyman millwright, then a house joiner, until an injury forced him to give up manual work. A devout Congregationalist and teetotaler, he gave up smoking following his marriage in 1848 to Isabella Macdonald of Forres. Throughout a varied but universally unsuccessful business career, Croll studied theology and metaphysics, publishing in 1857 The Philosophy of Theism. Giving up business in 1858, he wrote for a Glasgow temperance weekly before he found a post as caretaker of Anderson’s College and Museum in 1859. Leaving the work to his crippled younger brother David, whom he supported, Croll began to publish papers in chemistry and physics.
A paper in Philosophical Magazine (1864), in which he suggested that a change in the eccentricity of the earth’s orbit had been responsible for the drastic changes in climate associated with glaciation, brought Croll to the notice of the leaders of British science, with some of whom (like Tyndall and Carey Foster) he began a vigorous correspondence. This led to the post of resident geologist in the newly opened Edinburgh office of the Geological Survey, Where Croll remained from 1867 until his retirement in 1880. Here he continued his speculations about the causes of climatic change, publishing papers later brought together in Climate and Time (1875). Two more books on related topics, Discussions on Climate and Cosmology (1885) and Stellar Evolution and Its Relations to Geological Time (1889), appeared after he retired. The latter represents a shift of interest from the physical causes of climatic change to evolution. His final work, The Philosophical Basis of Evolution (1890), appeared just before he died.
Croll claimed to have suffered all his life from ill health due to heart disease and strokes; but only the mild stroke in 1880 that led to his retirement and the heart disease that began in 1886 and led to his death seem to have been organic. He was a fellow of the Royal Society (1876), an LL.D. of the University of St. Andrews (1876), and the recipient of three awards from the Geological Society of London.
Although Croll made some modest contributions to the study of glaciation in Scotland, his chief importance was as a controversialist. In his three scientific books and many papers he never let his lack of training in mathematics and physics keep him from propounding the broadest climatological and cosmological theories and defending them against the mathematically adept, such as George Darwin. A clear and logical thinker whose prodigious reading kept him abreast of the latest observations, Croll had a purely verbal grasp of major scientific issues that drew the admiration of Lord Kelvin, among others. The most important of the many scientific controversies in which he engaged was that on the cause of ocean currents, in which he backed wind stress against the thermohaline, or density, theory of W. B. Carpenter. This argument generated more heat than light, since neither protagonist had the methods or the data to resolve it. Croll’s contributions to science are confined to his own time: he stimulated others to develop both better evidence and more quantitative theories, and as a convinced Christian he helped make acceptable the geological ideas that followed from the theory of organic evolution.
Croll’s books are The Philosophy of Theism (London, 1857); Climate and Time (London, 1875; repr. New York, 1875; Edinburgh, 1885); Discussions on Climate and Cosmology (Edinburgh, 1885; repr. New York, 1886); Stellar Evolution and Its Relations to Geological Time (London, 1889); and The Philosophical Basis of Evolution (London, 1890). His papers include “On the Physical Cause of the Change of Climate During Geological Epochs,” in Philosophical Magazine (Aug. 1864). William Jame’s annotated copy of The Philosophical Basis of Evolution is in the Harvard College library. A list of Croll’s published scientific papers is an appendix to the biography cited below.
James Campbell Irons, Autobiographical Sketch of James Croll With Memoir of His Life and Work (London, 1896), contains a brief autobiography (1887) followed by a long memoir. The MS materials used by Campbell Irons in preparing the memoir are in the British Museum, B. M. Addl. MSS 41077 (item 189 in Sotheby’s sale of 10 April 1924).
Harold L. Burstyn
"Croll, James." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 11, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/croll-james
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