Fitton, William Henry

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Fitton, William Henry

(b. Dublin, Ireland, January 1780; d. London, England, 13 May 1861)


Fitton was a son of Nicholas Fitton, a Dublin attorney. The family, long resident in Ireland, was descended from the Fittons of Gawsworth, Cheshire. Fitton entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1794 and distinguished himself as a classical scholar, being awarded the senior scholarship in 1798 and graduating B.A. in 1799. In 1808 he went to Edinburgh University to study medicine and graduated M.D. in 1810. After a year or two in London he set up as a physician in the county town of Northampton in 1812 and remained there until 1820. During this period Fitton obtained other medical degrees, the M.B. and M.D. from Dublin in 1815 and the M.D. from Cambridge in 1816. In 1816 also he was admitted fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. In June 1820 he married Maria James (by which marriage he had five sons and three daughters) and, since she was a lady of some wealth, he gave up his practice and moved to London, thenceforth devoting himself to scientific, particularly geological, studies. He had been elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1815 and had become a member of the Geological Society of London in 1816.

Fitton’s interest in geology went back to his early years in Dublin, and the first volume of the Transactions of the Geological Society of London (1811) contained a paper about minerals found in the vicinity of Dublin, by Fitton and his friend Rev. Walter Stephens. In 1813, under the pseudonym “F,” he published in Nicholson’s Journal of Natural Philosophy two articles entitled “On the Geolgocial sytem of Werner.” a remarkably impartial review of Werner’s theoretical views, their value, and their weaknesses. No doubt the fact that he had, while in Edinburgh, attended the lectures of Robert Jameson and T. C. Hope accounts for his being so well informed about the systems of both Werner and Hutton.

While in Northampton, Fitton began to write reviews of geologcial and medical books for the Edinbugh Review. Two published in 1817 and 1818 show that his interest in the early history of geology had been aroused. One of these in particular, his review of the publications of William Smith, directed the attention of geologists and others to the career and remarkable achievements of this still far from wellknown man, who in 1815 had published a large-scale geologcial map of England and Wales but was not even a member of the Geological Society. Fitton made verbatim use of his reviews in some valuable articles, “Notes on the History of English Geology,” which he contributed to the Philosophical Magazine (1832–1833). An article in the Edinburgh review (1839) on Lyell’s Elements of Geology, in which the Huttonian theory is discussed, and another on Murchison’s Silurian system (1841), show that Fitton continued to be interested in the history of his favorite subject.

Fitton is perhaps better known for his contributions to stratigraphy and his elucidation of the succession of the Upper Jurassic and Lower Cretaceous strata of southern England. In his review of Smith’s map he had endeavored to point out some of the errors, one of these being a confusion over the position in the stratigraphical succession of the beds of the Weald in southeast England. It was perhaps this which led Fitton, after his return to London from Northampton, to take a closer interest in this area, especially in Kent and Sussex. Then, in 1824, he examined sections in similar beds along the south coast of the Isle of Wight, already described by Thomas Webster in 1816.

In November 1824, Fitton published in Thomas Thomson’s Annals of Philosophy a masterly account of the beds found below the Chalk in southeast England. Entitled “Inquiries Respecting the Geological Relations of the Beds Between the Chalk and the Purbeck Limestone in the South-east of England,” it was accompanied by a colored geological map of the southern half of the Isle of Wight and geological sections showing the succession both there and on the neighboring coast of Dorset. In this article Fitton elucidated and corrected the errors which had arisen through the existence of different beds of ferruginous sands, with clays between.

Although it was some time before a final nomenclature was accepted, it was this paper which made it clear that there was an “Upper Greensand,” just below the Chalk, with “Gault clay” below it, as both William Smith and Thomas Webster had already recognized. Below this was the “Lower Greensand,” and all three formations, Fitton pointed out, contained marine fossils. He also showed that the Weald Clay, containing many freshwater fossils, was present beneath the Lower Greensand not only in the Weald but also in the Isle of Wight and on the Dorset coast, and beneath these beds there were ferruginous sands, also with freshwater fossils (which clearly distinguished them from the Lower Greensand). These he named the Hastings Sands, after the town on the Sussex coast where they were well exposed. By providing a tabular “List of Strata From the Chalk to the Hastings Sands, With Synonimes [sic] of Different Geologists,” he made it clear just what errors had arisen.

Fitton continued to study the Lower Creatceous and upper Jurrasic strata, both in England and in northern France, and in 1836 published a monograph entitled “On Some of the Strata Between the Chalk and the Oxford Oolite (e.g., Corallian) in the Southeast of England” (Transactions of the Geological Society, 2nd ser., 4 ). This covered much the same field as his earlier paper, but was far longer and embodied many detailed observations, including a number on rocks exposed between Dorset and the Norfolk coast. Accompanied by maps and sections, it is regarded by geolosits as a classic contribution to stratigraphy.

Later, between 1843 and 1847, he demonstrated the existence of a clay, the Atherfield Clay, at the base of the Lower Greensand but clearly different from the Weald Clay because it contained marine fossils and marked the readvance of the sea after a long nonmarine episode; he also provided detailed descriptions of an important section along the southwest coast of the Isle of Wight and discussed the equivalents of the Wealden beds in Europe.

Fitton’s only separately published work was a small volume entitled A Geological Sketch of the Vicinity of Hastings (London, 1833), which gives a good account of the Wealden strata, with sections and a bibliography. He was always ready to instruct naturalist travelers in the principles of geology, and the took a particular interest in the geology of Australia. His last published paper, in the Proceedings of the Geographical Society in 1857, was entitled “On the Structure of North-West Australia.”

Fitton was secretary of the Geological Society of London from 1822 to 1824 and president from 1827 to 1829. He was largely instrumental in establishing its printed Proceedings, which first appeared in 1827. In this publication the presidential addresses were printed, Fitton’s being the first to appear, commencing that valuable series in which the progress of geology was annually reviewed. He served as vicepresident of the society from 1831 to 1846 and in 1852 was awarded the Wollaston Medal, the society’s premier award, in recognition of his important contribuition to stratigraphy.


I. Original Works. Except for his Geological Sketch of the Vicinity of Hastings (London, 1833), all of Fitton’s contributions to geology appeared in scientific periodicals and are listed in Agassiz’s Bibliographia-Zooligiae et geo logiate (London, 1850) and the Catalogue of Scientific Papers (1800–1863) published by the Royal Society (London, 1868). Both should be consulted.

II. Secondary Litearture. An obituary notice in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 18 (1862), xxx-xxxiv provides the fullest information about Fitton’s life and work; other accounts, all brief, appear to be derived from it. W. Munk’s The Roll of the Royal College of Physicians, III (London, 1878), 154, gives some additional facts. Biographies of his geological contemporaries do not throw much light on his activities, except for The Journal of Gideon Mantell, E. C. Curwen, ed. (London, 1940). J. Challinor, “Some Correspondence of Thomas Webster, Geologist (1773–1844),” in Annals of science17–20 (1961–1964), includes twenty-seven letters from Fitton, and there are also interesting references to him in the other letters. A catalog of the sale of his library in 1856 is in the British Museum library.

Joan M. Eyles