Ramsay, Andrew Crombie

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(b. Glasgow, Scotland, 31 January 1814; d. Beaumaris, Wales, 9 December 1891)


Ramsay was the third child of William Ramsay, who owned a dye business. The family was well educated and French was spoken at the breakfast table on one morning a week and passages from famous authors read on other mornings. In 1827 the father died, and Andrew had to leave Glasgow Grammar School to become a clerk in a cotton broker’s office. Here he found consolation in literature and in composing humorous poems. Later he worked for a firm of linen merchants and entered into partnership in a cloth and calico business, which soon failed.

The turning point in Ramsay’s life came in 1840, when the British Association for the Advancement of Science met at Glasgow, and he played a major part in collecting geological specimens and in making a geological model and map of the Isle of Arran. A paper he read on the subject was well received, and Ramsay was asked to guide a section of the Association to the island. Unfortunately, he worked so late into the night on notes for this journey that he overslept the following morning and missed the boat. The ability he had shown, however, led indirectly to his appointment to the Geological Survey of Great Britain in 1841. He served this institution for the next forty years and rose from assistant surveyor to local director (1845), senior director for England and Wales (1862), and finally to director general in 1871, a post that he held for ten years. To offset the poor pay, he held the professorship of geology at University College, London, from 1847 to 1852 and a lectureship at the Government School of Mines (1852–1871).

In 1852 Ramsay married a daughter of the Rev. Chancellor Williams of Llanfairynghornwy, Anglesey; they had four daughters and one son. He wrote nearly fifty scientific papers and books, and shared responsibility for numerous official maps and memoirs. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1862 and presided over the Geological Society of London (1862–1864) and the British Association (1880). On his retirement in 1881 he was knighted, and three years later went to live at Beaumaris, Anglesey.

Owing to overwork Ramsay suffered a few periods of nervous strain, one of which culminated in the removal of his left eye in 1878, but he is rightly held up as a delightful geologist, exuberant, a devotee and frequent quoter of the major English poets, eloquent, humorous, musical, and athletic.

Ramsay was essentially a stratigrapher and geomorphologist, and showed little regard for paleontology and petrology. Apart from detailed local surveys, his main contributions to geology concern general denudation, the development of river systems, and glaciation. In these his bold theories had a great and lasting influence. His early professional studies were summarized in “On the Denudation of South Wales…” (1846), which is of outstanding importance for three reasons.

First, it demonstrated that the Paleozoic sedimentary strata were composed of fragments derived from older rocks, thus proving that the district had experienced immense denudation in early geological periods.

Second, it postulated the power of the sea to cut wide plains (of marine planation) on a stationary or subsiding land mass, as distinct from the theories of Charles Lyell, who applied marine action to a rising landmass and to dissection rather than planation.

Third, it emphasized for the first time the visual reconstruction of former folded surfaces and the statistical assessment of the amount of material removed by denudation.

Ramsay’s contributions to the knowledge of the physical development of the Rhine and of certain rivers in England and Wales proved of less importance and at best remain controversial, but they aided the cause of fluvialism. On the other hand, his ideas on glacial action, which caused tremendous contemporary disagreement, have for the most part been vindicated. Although at first skeptical of glaciation, after working in northern Wales he became, by 1850, the leading British advocate of glacial action. He went further and suggested that certain Permian conglomerates in the English Midlands had been transported by glacial action. These today are thought to have been deposited by flash floods in a semiarid environment, but Ramsay’s idea led to the universal acceptance of extensive glaciation in Gondwanaland during Permo-carboniferous times. In 1858 he revisted the Alps with John Tyndall and soon added important suggestions on the power of glacial erosion.

Ramsay postulated that Alpine valleys were created by rivers, then deepened and widened by ice, and finally modified by river action. His most exciting contention was that many large lake basins in area formerly occupied by land ice had been scooped out by glacial action. This principle of glacial over-deepening did not command general assent until at least sixty years after its announcement. His contemporaries thought it of little significance, and Sir Archibald Geikie considered Ramsay’s elucidation of the Snowdonia region in northern Wales “a masterpiece of geological work and his own fittest and most enduring monument” (“Obituary …,” 42).


I. Original Works. Ramsay’s writings include The Geology of the Isle of Arran (Glasgow, 1841); “On the Denudation of South Wales and the Adjacent Counties of England,” in Memoirs of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, J (London, 1846), 297–335; “On the Superficial Accumulations and Surface Markings of North Wales,” in Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, 8 (1852), 371–376: “On the Occurrence of Angular … Fragments and Boulders in the Permian Breccia of Shropshire, Worcestershire …,” ibid., 11 (1855), 185–205; “The Excavation of the Valleys of the Alps,” in Philosophical Magazine, 4th ser., 24 (1862), 377–380; “On the Glacial Origin of Certain Lakes in Switzerland, the Black Forest, … and Elsewhere,” in Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 18 (1862), 185–204; The Physical Geology and Geography of Great Britain (London, 1863; 6th ed., enl., 1894); “On the Erosion of Valleys and Lakes,” in Philosophical Magazine, 4th ser., 28 (1864), 293–311; “The Geology of North Wales,” which is Memoirs of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, III (London, 1866; 2nd ed., 1881); “On the River-Courses of England and Wales,” in Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 28 (1872), 148–160; “The Physical History of the Valley of the Rhine,” ibid., 30 (1874), 81–95; and “On the Physical History of the Dee, Wales,” ibid., 32 (1876), 219–229.

II. Secondary Literature. See R. J. Chorley, A. J. Dunn, and R. P. Beckinsale, The History of the Study of Landforms, I (London, 1964), 301–313 and passim; A. Geikie, “Obituary of Sir A. C. Ramsay,” in Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 48 (1892), 38–47; and Memoir of Sir A. C Ramsay (London, 1895); and E. Walford, ed., Andrew Crombie Ramsay (London, 1866), a biographical memoir with photograph.

Robert P. Beckinsale