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Phillips, John


(b. Marden, Wiltshire, England, 25 December 1800; d. Oxford, England, 24 April 1874)

geology, paleontology

Phillips was the son of John Philips of Blaen-y-Ddol, Carmarthenshire, an excise officer, and Elizabeth Smith, daughter of John Smith of Churchill, Oxfordshire. He remained unmarried, and for many years at York and at Oxford his sister Anne was hostess at his home. Phillips was left an orphan at an early age and entered into the care of his maternal uncle, the geologist and land surveyor William Smith. He was educated at a school near Bath and also spent a year in the house, and under the instruction, of the Reverend Benjamin Richardson of Farleigh Hungerford; but his formal education ended before he reached the age of fifteen when he returned to live with his uncle in London. There, after Smith’s fossil collection had been bought for the nation in 1815, Phillips assisted in preparing a catalog and in arranging the specimens “according to Linnaeus” before their delivery to the British Museum.

One of the few to practice the art of lithography in England, Phillips was entrusted by Smith with copying and lithographing some of his reports. For the next nine years he acted as assistant and amanuensis to his uncle and was almost constantly his companion. During this time, apart from professional assignments, they were occupied in compiling the series of county geological maps; and both together and independently they made many geological traverses throughout the north of England.

In 1824, following an invitation to Smith to lecture to the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, Phillips was engaged to arrange the fossil collections at the museum at York. Shortly afterward he was appointed curator of the society’s museum, a post he held until the end of 1840.

In 1831 Phillips played a leading part in organizing at York the general meeting of British scientists that became the British Association for the Advancement of Science. This society was founded “to give a stronger impulse and a more systematic direction to scientific inquiry; to promote the intercourse of those who cultivate science in different parts of the British empire with one another, and with foreign philosophers; to obtain a more general attention to the objects of science, and a removal of any disadvantages of a public kind which impede its progress.” He was the executive officer of the Association until 1859, and throughout this period he arranged the venue for its annual assembly, maintained close links with leading British scientists, edited the society’s annual reports and, through his efficiency and cordial relationships, was a major contributor to its success.

Phillips was an accomplished lecturer and teacher and gave courses in geology and zoology in many towns in the north of England under the auspices of the local scientific and philosophical societies. In 1831 he began similar courses in London, and in 1834 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and was appointed professor of geology at King’s College, London. He gave up this post in 1840, when he joined the Geological Survey under De la Beche. In 1844 he became professor of geology at Trinity College, Dublin. But an expected appointment to a senior position in the Irish branch of the Geological Survey, which could have been held concurrently, did not materialize; and the following year he relinquished his Dublin post. Phillips’ assignment with the Geological Survey involved work in Southwest England and detailed geological mapping around the Malvern Hills and in South Wales.

In 1853 Phillips was appointed deputy reader in geology at Oxford, and on the death of William Buckland in 1856 he became reader and subsequently professor. He also played an important part in the building of the new University Museum and was its keeper until his death, which resulted from a fall.

By his early training and by inclination, Phillips was a practical field geologist, skilled in the making of geological maps; and his most important contributions to stratigraphical geology were descriptive. In his volumes on the geology of Yorkshire he recorded the stratigraphy and structure of the “Mountain” (Carboniferous) Limestone and the Jurassic and Cretaceous strata of a large area of the north of England. He also introduced the term “Yoredale series” (1836, p. 37) for sediments showing a rhythmic succession of shales, sandstones, and limestones, together constituting a special facies of the uppermost zone of the Carboniferous Limestone series in this region. He traced the changes in these sediments when followed laterally and interpreted them as due to changes in the depositional environment.

In his work on the fossils of Southwest England (1841, p. 160), Phillips introduced the term “Mesozoic” to identify the geological era between the Paleozoic and Cenozoic and to include the “New Red” (Triassic), “Oolitic” (Jurassic), and Cretaceous periods. This book was an essential supplement to De la Beche’s first official Geological Survey memoir, Report on the Geology of Cornwall, Devon, and West Somerset (1839). A similar style of presentation was continued in Phillips’ volume on the geology of the Paleozoic rocks in the vicinity of the Malvern Hills. By these descriptions and illustrations of the stratigraphy and characteristic fossils of particular formations, Phillips contributed notably to the background of knowledge by which progress in stratigraphical classification and correlation was made possible.

In 1852 John Phillips brought mature geological experience to his own personal observation of the physical features of the surface of the moon, using at first the great telescope belonging to the Earl of Rosse. These investigations arose out of the appointment of an ad hoc committee by the British Association charged with the task of procuring a new series of drawings or survey of selected parts of the lunar disk. The drawings were to be made under a set of standard conditions of representation and on a uniform scale. Since few observers were willing to undertake the investigations, it was left to Phillips to pursue, virtually, alone, the queries enumerated in the committee’s prospectus. By 1853 he was recording his observations photographically on collodion plates and employing his great artistic skill in accurate and detailed drawings. After he reached Oxford there was an interval of several years before he resumed the study using an up-to-date telescope provided by the Royal Society.

Phillps emphasized the need for continuous observation of selected areas and the recording of each one at different times of the lunar day so that the configurations could be accurately determined. In a summary of his findings published in 1868, Phillips drew vivid analogies between many of the features seen on the surface of the moon and those known to him intimately by observation and measurement of the earth.


I. Original Works. A complete bibliography of Phillips’ works is given in Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society (see below). Works on regional geology include Illustrations of the Geology of Yorkshire, I (York, 1829; 2nd ed., London, 1835; 3rd ed., London, 1875), II (London, 1836); Figures and Descriptions of the Palaeozoic Fossils of Cornwall, Devon, and West Somerset (London, 1841); and Geology of Oxford and the Valley of the Thames (Oxford, 1871). His lunar work, submitted in papers to the Royal Society, is summarized in “Notices of Some Parts of the Surface of the Moon,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 158 (1868), 333-346. Other astronomical researches are mentioned in “The Planet Mars,” in Quarterly Journal of Science, 2 (1865), 369-381. Phillips included certain autobiographical material in his Memoirs of William Smith (London, 1844).

II. Secondary Literture. A number of obituary notices are mentioned in T. Sheppard, “John Phillips,” in Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society,22 (1933), 153-187, which contains a full bibliography of Phillips’ scientific papers and a number of portraits with the location of the originals.

J. M. Edmonds

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