Oldham, Thomas

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(b. Dublin, Ireland, 4 May 1816; d. Rugby, England, 17 July 1878)


Oldham was educated privately in Dublin and received his B.A. from Trinity College, Dublin, in 1836. Next, at Edinburgh he studied engineering; also geology and mineralogy under Robert Jameson, professor of natural history. On his return to Ireland in 1839, Oldham became chief geological assistant to J. E. Portlock, who was in charge of the Ordnance Survey in Ireland. Oldham supplied the mineral identifications for Portlock’s Report on the Geology of Londonderry… (London, 1843). In 1844 he was appointed assistant professor of engineering at Trinity College, and a year later he became professor of geology there. In 1846 he also became local director or the Irish branch of the Geological Surveys of the United Kingdom, but continued to occupy the chair of geology.

During the next four years Oldham carried out much geological work. His noteworthy discovery in 1849 of hitherto unnoticed radiating fanlike impressions in the Cambrian rocks of Bray Head, County Wicklow, aroused intense interest; and the paleontologist Edward Forbes gave the name Oldhamia to the presumed fossil. The nature of this fossil has been disputed, but it is now thought to be a trace fossil—that is, a sedimentary structure caused by a living creature.

In November 1850 Oldham was appointed, on a five-year agreement, as geological surveyor to the East India Company. Although he succeeded another surveyor, D. H. Williams, he took no narrow view of his new post, immediately describing himself as the “Superintendent of the Geological Survey of India,” and began to recruit other geologists to his staff. His office was renewed every five years until his retirement in 1876.

Oldham is justifiably regarded as the architect of the Geological Survey of India; under his guidance a remarkable amount of work was carried out, and large areas of India were surveyed geologically. Particular attention was given to a survey of the Indian coalfields, and in 1864 Oldham issued an elaborate report, On the Coal Resources of India. At the same time, under his supervision several serial publications were begun: Annual Reports, Records, Memoirs, and the important Palaeontologia Indica. Oldham initiated the scientific study of earthquakes in India and published a catalog of earthquakes. He also brought to the attention of European geologists much new information on the Cretaceous rocks. A vast collection of Indian rocks and fossils was accumulated, and shortly before Oldham’s retirement it was transferred to the Indian Museum in Calcutta.

Oldham was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1848, and in 1875 the Society awarded him a Royal Medal.


Oldham’s scientific papers are listed in the Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, IV, 672; VIII, 528. His geological work in India was published by the Geological Survey of India.

There is no biography of Oldham, but details of his career are given by T. G. Bonney, in Dictionary of National Biography, XLII (1895), 111, which is based partly on an obituary notice in Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 35 (1879), “Proceedings,” 16. The circumstances relating to his appointment in India are given by Sir Cyril S, Fox, “The Geological Survey of India, 1846 to 1947,” in Nature, 160 (1947), 889. For a brief appraisal of his work there, see Sir Lewis Fermor, “Geological Survey of India, Centenary Celebrations,” ibid., 167 (1951), 10.

Joan M. Eyles