Selwyn, Alfred Richard Cecil

views updated


(b. Kilmington, Somerset, England, 28 July 1824; d. Vancouver, British Columbia, 19 October 1902)


Selwyn was born into an English upper-class family. His father was a canon in the church and his mother was the daughter of a nobleman. His education began at home under private tutors and was completed in Switzerland, although to what level is not known. He was interested in the natural sciences and especially in geology; at the age of twenty-one he was engaged by the Geological Survey of Great Britain. His mapping assignments were in the lower Paleozoic graptolitic sediments and black volcanics of western Shropshire and North Wales. Selwyn is credited with sixteen map sheets, which were described by his superior, and sometime field associate, Sir A. C. Ramsay, as “the perfection of beauty.”

At the end of 1852 Selwyn accepted the post of director of the Geological Survey of Victoria, Australia, which he held for seventeen years. About the same time he married Matilda Charlotte Selwyn, daughter of the Rev. Edward Selwyn of Hemmingford Abbotts, and they had nine children. The area of Victoria is ten times that of Wales, but the rocks are generally similar in type and age. Although he had only a small staff of geologists, sixty-one geological maps (with accompanying sections at a scale of two inches to a mile) were produced. Since Victoria was the scene of intensive gold prospecting, particular attention was given to the distribution of auriferous veins and the extension of gold-bearing placer deposits beneath younger Tertiary lava flows. He administered the survey, actively participated in field mapping, and served as a commissioner to international exhibitions in London (1862), Dublin (1865), and Paris (1866). The survey was abruptedly terminated in 1869, when the colonial legislature refused to vote a budget.

In December 1869 Selwyn became the second director of the Geological Survey of Canada, succeeding Sir William Logan, who had established a small but effective organization. The following year Selwyn investigated the gold fields of Nova Scotia. With the confederation of Canada in 1867 the jurisdiction of the survey over Ontario and Quebec had been expanded to include the Maritime Provinces. Moreover, negotiations for union were in progress with the western provinces, and such a unification would require the construction of a railroad to the Pacific coast. Thus, in 1871, at the request of the government, Selwyn went via San Francisco to British Columbia to traverse on horseback possible rail routes in the southern part of the province. The dense forest and raging streams made progress so difficult that a distance of only five miles a day was normal. At one point, a hungry horse seems to have eaten the records of two days’ observations. Selwyn strengthened the assumption by feeding the horse blank pages from the same notebook.

In 1873 Selwyn made a geological reconnaissance of the western provinces, traveling by horse cart from Winnipeg to the Rocky Mountains, and in 1875 he examined a proposed northern railroad route via the Peace River. On this latter trip he was accompanied by a botanist because the survey had been expanded to include all aspects of natural history. Thus within five years Selwyn had a broad knowledge of Canadian geology and the hardships of fieldwork in Canada. Later his responsibilities as director of the survey prevented him from conducting prolonged fieldwork; but he still visited in the field on a regular basis, usually to inspect mineral finds of economic importance.

During his directorship, the staff of the Geological Survey was increased to over thirty employees, including some of the most highly qualified geologists graduating from Canadian universities. Sections within the survey were set up for chemistry, mineralogy, paleontology, natural history, topographic mapping, and administration. The survey library was greatly expanded and was described as one of the great scientific libraries in North America. Selwyn initiated new sections for mines, borings, water supply, and statistics of mineral production. The survey was represented at international exhibits in Philadelphia (1876), Paris (1878), London (1886), and Chicago (1893), all of which drew attention to the mineral industry of Canada and credit to Selwyn’s organization. The Survey Act of 1890 required that the geologists had to be graduates of recognized universities.

Selwyn’s term as director, however, was marked by much internal dissension, possibly because of his authoritarian attitude, and agitation by malcontents both inside and outside the survey. A government inquiry in 1884 into the operations of the survey has been described as breaking open a hornet’s nest. Some of the problems arose from the expansion of Canada, devoting too much time to one provincial area rather than another, low pay and different salaries for individuals with the same qualifications, slow promotions, the delay or suppression of publications, poor accounting, lack of public relations, pursuing a purely scientific (rather than practical) goal, and following in the footsteps of Logan. Although the final report was critical of the discord, the level of activity, and the delay and seeming suppression of publications, Selwyn remained as director and none of the employees resigned. Selwyn’s superannuation at age seventy in 1894 proved embarrassing when the government, during his absence in England, issued an order for his immediate retirement and the appointment of G. M. Dawson as director, about which selwyn learned upon his return.


I. Original Works. A complete list of Selwyn’s publications is given in the biographical sketch by H. M. Ami (see below). His most notable contributions are the sixty-one geological maps of Victoria, which, according to the present director of the Geological Survey of Victoria, are still held in the highest regard. His thirty-seven publications for Canada, listed by J. M. Nickles in “Geologic Literature of North America 1785–1918,” in Bulletin of the United States Geological Survey, 746 (1923), 931–932, are mainly the annual summary reports of the Geological Survey of Canada. Selwyn admitted after retirement that he had “an antipathy to the mechanical labour of writing,” but he was described as a master of clear English expression. His broad interests are evident in “Notes and Observations on the Gold Fields of Quebec and Nova Scotia,” in Canadian Geological Survey, Report of Progress 1870–71 (1872), 252–282: “The Stratigraphy of the Quebec Group.” in Canadian Naturalist and Geologist, n.s. 9 (1879), 1731; and “Tracks of Organic Origin in the Animikie Group,” in American Journal of Science, 3rd ser, (1890), 145–147.

II. Secondary Literature. See H. M. Ami “Memorial or Sketch of the Life of the Late Dr. A. R. C. Selwyn, C.M.G., L.L.D., F.R.S., F.G.S., etc., etc., Director of the Geological Survey of Canada from 1869 to 1894,” in Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, Section IV, Geological Sciences and Mineralogy (1904). 173–205. An interpretative account of Selwyn as director of the Geological Survey can be found in M. Zaslow, Reading the Rocks: The Story of the Geological Survey of Canada, 1842–1972 (Toronot, 1975). Passim.

C. Gordon Winder