Greenough, George Bellas

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Greenough, George Bellas

(b. London, England, 1778; d. Naples, Italy, 2 April 1855)


Greenough’s father, George Bellas, a lawyer, married Sarah, daughter of Thomas Greenough, a surgeon, in 1776. Both parents died when he was a child, and George was brought up by his maternal grandfather, whose surname he assumed in 1795. He entered Eton College in 1789 and Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1794. He spent three years at Cambridge but did not graduate. Later he went to Göottingen University to study law, and to improve his German he attended the natural history lectures of J. F. Blumenbach. As a result he developed an enthusiasm for science, particularly geology, which lasted all his life. Considerable inherited wealth freed him from the necessity of following a profession.

After returning to England, the controversy between the Huttonians and the Wernerians aroused Greenough’s interest. In 1805 he made a two-month tour of Scotland, closely examining the field evidence afforded by basalts and granites. Published extracts from his journal show that he did not fully accept the views of either neptunists or plutonists. A published statement that Greenough had studied under Werner at Freiberg is incorrect, but it is known that on some occasion he met Werner and recorded (in manuscript) an unfavorable impression of him.

In 1807 Greenough was elected both fellow of the Royal Society and a member of Parliament. Soon after, he joined with a dozen other enthusiasts in founding the Geological Society of London. As their first president he upheld the independence of the group and resisted the attempts of Sir Joseph Banks to bring it under the control of the Royal Society. He remained president until 1813 and was elected to further terms in 1818 and 1833. His presidential addresses for 1833 and 1834 were mainly summaries of recent advances in geological science.

Greenough was actively interested in the construction of geological maps, and in 1812 he presented to the Geological Society “nine maps of England with the principal strata sketched in.” Its council then requested him to prepare a geological map of England and Wales on a larger scale, which task he undertook with the assistance of other members, although aware that William Smith was already preparing such a map for publication. The completed map was published on 1 May 1820 (see bibliography), five years after Smith’s map. Greenough’s map was on a slightly smaller scale than Smith’s and had much more topographic detail, with hachuring to indicate valleys and escarpments. There was also more geological detail, and the Cretaceous and Upper Jurassic rocks in particular were more accurately delineated. More outcrops of granite and trap were shown, and an interesting feature was the attempt to show the distribution of diluvium, or drift. In the memoir that accompanied the map Greenough claimed that he had not seen Smith’s map until it was published and had made very limited use of it. Nonetheless, it seems certain that Greenough did see and use manuscript maps based on Smith’s work that were lent to him by John Farey. A revised edition of the map was issued by the Geological Society in 1840 and a third edition in 1865, ten years after Greenough’s death. Only in the latter was belated acknowledgment made to William Smith.

In the memoir accompanying the maps, there is very little geology, but Greenough gave many of his notes to W. D. Conybeare and William Phillips, “who made frequent use of them in their Outlines of the Geology of England and Wales (London, 1822), identifying them as “G. Notes” or simply “G.” Greenough also spent many years compiling a geological map of India, which was published in 1854.

In 1819 he published A Critical Examination of the First Principles of Geology; in a Series of Essays. These essays were a challenge to those who saw uniformity and regularity in the strata, the skeptical Greenough quoting exceptions for every such assumption. “Before we yield or refuse assent to any proposition,” he wrote, “we must sum up probabilities and improbabilities on both sides and strike a balance.” But his balance was struck in such as a manner that his own views or conclusions were seldom stated, except for his firm belief in the Deluge as the prime cause of valley excavation and a general agreement with the catastrophic theories of Cuvier. This publication, although not well received at the time, was based on wide reading and observation and can be used today as a source book.

When the Royal Geographical Society was founded in 1830, Greenough was elected to its council, and he served as president from 1839 to 1841. His continued interest in geology and geography led him to set off for the East at the age of seventy-six, but he was taken ill and died en route at Naples. In his will he left his extensive library to be divided between the Geological Society of London and the Royal Geographical Society. His collection of rocks and fossils went to University College, London, whose library also possesses a large collection of his manuscripts, including letters, journals, and memoranda.


I. Original Works. Greenough’s published works include A Critical Examination of the First Principles of Geology; in a Series of Essays (London, 1819); Memoir of a Geological Map of England (London, 1820) accompanying A Geological Map of England & Wales (London. 1819)—the map, although dated 1819, was not published until 1820; presidential addresses in Proceedings of the Geological Society of London,2 (1838), 42–70, 145–175;and General Sketch of the Physical and Geological Features of British India (London, 1854), a map.

II. Secondary Literature. Obituary notices are in Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 12 (1856), xxvi-xxxiv; and Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, 25 (1855), lxxxviii-xc. Passing references are in H. B. Woodward. The History of the Geological Society of London (London, 1907); and H. R. Mill, The Record of the Royal Geographical Society (London, 1930). Two informative articles by M. J. S. Rudwick, based on Greenough’s MSS, are “Hutton and Werner Compared; George Greenough’s Geological Tour of Scotland in 1805,” in British Journal for the History of Science,1 (1963), 117–135; and “The Foundation of the Geological Society of London: Its Scheme for Co-operative Research and Its Struggle for Independence,” ibid., 325–355.

V. A. Eyles