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Geikie, James

Geikie, James

(b. Edinburgh, Scotland. 23 August 1839. d. Edinburgh, 1 March. 1915)


James Geikie was the son of James Stuart Geikie and Isabella Thom and the brother of Archibald Geikie. After leaving Edinburgh High School, for a few years he divided his time between working in a printer’s office and attending the University of Edinburgh. Under the supervision of his brother, he joined the Geological Survey in 1861 as one of the men recruited to map the glacial deposits (“drifts”) of parts of central Scotland. He devoted himself with sustained ardor to this work, with the result that the study of Pleistocene geology in general, and the glacial deposits in particular, became his lifework. In these fields he became the leading British authority. His official work in the mapping and investigation of the Paleozoic rocks and the superficial deposits overlying them in the areas allotted to him was of the highest quality but is hardly given full expression in the Survey publications.

It is on his unofficial papers and his books, The Great Ice Age (1874) in particular, that Geikie’s reputation rests. This work was dedicated to Andrew Ramsay, the director general of the Geological Survey, who had already shown the effects of land ice and to whom he owed much as teacher and friend. A second edition appeared in 1877, and in 1894 a third edition was published, extensively revised in accordance with new knowledge and with the advance in Geikie’s own opinions. His book Prehistoric Europe (1880) supplemented it. In The Great Ice Age Geikie put forward the hypothesis that the glacial period as a whole had been interrupted by mild episodes or interglacial periods. This hypothesis was suggested to him by evidence in Scotland, where (as in the rest of Britain) the evidence is not very definite; thus he was at first hesitant. But support of a more conclusive nature was forthcoming from the Continent, and Geikie became a progressively stronger advocate for the existence of interglacial periods. His fundamental contention—now generally accepted—was strikingly supported by Albrecht Penck and Eduard Bruckner in their description of the glacial phenomena of the Alpine valleys published in 1909 in a volume dedicated to Geikie. He further taught that man lived in Europe throughout the glacial period, a theory that also has gained acceptance.

Geikie succeeded his brother Archibald as Murchison professor of geology at the University of Edinburgh in 1882. He had left the Geological Survey with great reluctance but enthusiastically took up the work of geological and geographical education. In 1884 he was one of the founders of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and was its president from 1904 to 1910. For many years he was editor of its magazine. Geikie conducted his university teaching, both in the classroom and in the field, with great success and showed administrative ability within the university. For his students he wrote Outlines of Geology (l886; 4th ed., 1903) and Structural and Field Geology (1905). The latter was particularly successful and has been brought up to date in a sixth edition, published in 1953. He retired from his professorship in June 1914.

Geikie joined the Geological Society of London in 1873. He was awarded the Murchison Medal in 1889 and in the same year received the Brisbane Medal of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburg at the time of his death.

In 1875 Geikie married Mary Johnston, whose family lived in the region of the Cheviot Hills. A man of great activity and many interests, he published Songs and Lyrics by Heinrich Heine, translated from the German, in 1887.


I. Original Works. A full list of Geikie’s writings is in Newbigin and Flett (see below). Among the more important are “On the Buried Forests and Peat Masses of Scotland.” in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. 24 (1867), 363–384,; The great Ice Age (London, 1874); Prehistoric Europe, (London, 1880); “On the Geology of the Faroe Islands,” in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 30 (1882), 217–269; Outlines of Geology (London, 1886); Fragments of Earth Lore (Edinburgh, 1893); Earth Sculpture (London, 1898); Structural and Field Geology (Edinburgh, 1905); Mountains: Their Origin, Growth and Decay (Edinburgh, 1913); and Antiquity of Man in Europe (Edinburgh, 1914).

II. Secondary Literature. On Geikie or his work, see “Eminent Living Geologists: James Geikie,” in Geological Magazine, 50 (1913), 241–248; J. H., in Proceedings of the Royal Society, B91 (1920), “Obituary Notices,” xxxiii-xxxv; J. Horne, “The Influence of James Geikie’s Researches on the Development of Glacial Geology,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 36 (1917), 1–25;, M. I. Newbigin and J. S. Flett, James Geikie: The Man and the Geologist (Edinburgh, 1917); and an obituary notice in Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 72 (1916). 1iii-Iv.

John Challinor

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