(b. England, 1768; d. Hampstead, England, 15 August 1843)
Bakewell’s parentage and birthplace are not known, although he may have come from Nottingham. He was not related to Robert Bakewell (1725-1795), the celebrated Leicestershire husbandman with whom be has often been confused. That he became interested in science, particularly geology, about the middle of his life perhaps explains the emphasis in his works on presenting science to his readers in clear, simple language, scorning merely technical distinctions and abstruse vocabulary. He wrote for the general reader but without undue popularization. During much of his life he lived in London, working as a mineralogical surveyor and teaching mineralogy and geology
Bakewell’s Introduction to Geology appeared in 1813. The work was widely read and appreciated, largely because it used examples and illustrations taken from the English countryside. A second, enlarged edition appeared in 1815, a third edition in 1828, a fourth edition in 1833, and a final edition in 1838. The second and third editions were translated into German. In 1829, Benjamin Silliman published an American edition, in which he included his own lecture notes.
Bakewell’s brightly ironic style contributed greatly to the popularity of the Introduction, and perhaps accounts for the book’s continued success despite its being outdated by advances in the subject. William Smith’s ideas of using fossils for the correlation of strata, for example, were never included in the Introduction. Bakewell appreciated James Hutton’s “plutonic” ideas while failing to grasp the principle of uniformity—Hutton’s greatest contribution. He was highly critical of the geognosy of the Wernerian school, missing no opportunity to disparage it, and he rejected “neptunism,” depending almost entirely on volcanic processes to account for rock formations. Like Baron Cuvier, a French contemporary, Bakewell found evidence in the rocks for geological revolutions of great magnitude with quiet intervals lasting tens of thousands of years.
In addition to the Introduction, Bakewell wrote many articles on geological and biological subjects. Most of these appeared in the Philosophical Magazine, although one was published by the Geological Society of London, to which Bakewell was never admitted as a member. One of his sons, also named Robert Bakewell, wrote on geology, and the three articles on the Falls of Niagara listed for the elder Bakewell in the Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers were written by his son.
In addition to An Introduction to Geology, … and Outline of the Geology and Mineral Geography of England (London, 1813; 5th ed. 1838), Bakewell wrote An Introduction to Mineralogy (London, 1819) and Travels...in the Tarentaise, 2 vols. (London, 1823). Further details of Bakewell’s life may be found in the Dictionary of National Biography.