Sollas, William Johnson

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(b. Birmingham, England, 30 May 1849: d. Oxford, England, 20 October 1936)

geology, paleontology, anthropology.

Sollas was educated at the Royal School of Mines, London, where he studied under A. C. Ramsay and T. H, Huxley, and then at St. John’s College, Cambridge, where T. G. Booney, deputy to Adam Sedgwick, was his tutor. For six years he gave university extension courses in geology and biology to adult students in various parts of the country. He was afterward successively professor of geology at Bristol (1880–1883), Trinity College, Dublin (1883–1897). and Oxford (1897–1936). Sollas was a versatile investigator and experimentalist, and in the course of a long and active life he made significant contributions to many branches of the geological sciences and to biological research. He received numerous British and foreign academic awards, including the Royal Medal of the Royal Society of London.

Sollas’ early work was on fossil and modern sponges and culminated in a paper on Tetractinellida in the Report of the Scientific Results of the Voyage of H.M.S. Challenger (1888). While at Dublin. Sollas carried out petrological and mineralogical investigations of the granites of Ireland. In this work he concluded that the “pleochroic haloes” surrounding the zircon crystals—which are contained in the dark micas of Wicklow granite—were probably caused by an unknown element. Joly. his colleague at Dublin, later proved that this phenomenon resulted from the presence of radioactive elements of the uranium decay series in the zircons.

Sollas published papers on richeckite and zinnwaldite, and he also studied the intimate architecture of crystals. To form crystalline solids he adapted the methods and ideas of Hauy and approached the subject from the standpoint of the structural arrangement of the atomic units. The structures later revealed by more sophisticated X rays fully supported his contention that the closest packing of atoms does not provide the only style of crystal architecture; in many cases the packing is as open as he had postulated. To obtain a preliminary separation of minerals for chemical analysis, Sollas devised the “diffusion column” in which heavy liquids are superposed in layers of graded density that are indicated by floating markers of known specific gravity. He adapted the method of serial sections, which he had used for his sponge research, to the examination of fossils, thus obtaining data on their internal structure and then constructing models of the skeleton. Using this method, he made important investigations on fossils ranging from Silurian echinoderms to Jurassic reptiles. In some of this work his daughter Igerna was his collaborator. His elder daughter, Hertha, was responsible, under his direction, for the En-glish translation of Eduard Suess’s Das Antlitz der Erde.

In 1911 Sollas published Ancient Hunters and Their Modern Representatives. Thereafter he engaged increasingly in research on various aspects of anthropology and prehistoric archaeology. He excavated the Paviland Cave in South Wales, which had first been explored by a predecessor at Oxford. William Buck land. With Breuil. Sollas showed that the flint implements associated with the skeleton of the “Red Lady” belonged to the Aurignadan age, and he suggested that the skeleton itself belonged to cro-magnon man. This conjecture has been confirmed by isotope dating.


I. Orginal Works. Few of sollas’ MSS suivuve They consist mainly of notebooks and lecture not at the department of geology. University of Oxford He published some 180 works from 1872 so 1933. His major writings include The Age of the Earth and Other Geological Studies (London, 1905): The Rocks of Cape colville Peninsula. Auckland. New Zealand, 2 vols. (Wellington. New Zealand. 1905–1906): and Ancient Hunters and Their Modern Representatives (London, 1911: 2nd ed., 1915: 3rd ed., 1924).

II. Secondary Literature. Accounts of Sollas’ work and fife are inObituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society of London. 2 (1938), 265–281; and proceedings of the Geological Society of America for 1937 (1938), 203–220. Both of these contain a complete list of his publications and a portrait.

J. M. Edmonds