Toulmin, George Hoggart

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(b. Southwark, Surrey, England, September 1754; d. Wolverhampton, England, July 1817)


Toulmin was the eldest son of Robert Toulmin, a prosperous soapmaker whose forebears had lived for many years in Westmorland, in northwest England. Young Toulmin studied medicine at Edinburgh University from 1776 until 1779, when he graduated M.D. with a thesis entitled De cynanche tonsillari. Little is known about Toulmin’s career after graduation, but it seems likely that he practiced medicine for the rest of his life; at first probably in London, and later in Wolverhampton. He published two unimportant medical works in 1789 and 1810. In the second work he states that he had lectured in London in 1795 on the subjects treated in the book; and a notice of the second book in the Gentleman’s Magazine (London, 1810) describes him as Dr. G. H. Toulmin of Wolverhampton.

Soon after graduating Toulmin published his only geological work, The Antiquity and Duration of the World (London, 1780). This book, reprinted with some changes in title and content in 1783, 1785, and 1789, is chiefly remarkable for having anticipated in a very general way some of the conclusions reached by James Hutton in his Theory of the Earth (1788). In his book Toulmin rejected contemptuously earlier attempts to establish a chronology of the earth’s history, including, by implication, the Old Testament chronology, and he accepted the Aristotelian belief in the eternity of the world. He claimed that the matter of which the earth is composed, both organic and inorganic, is in a state of constant motion, resulting from decay and erosion; and that new fossiliferous sediments are being deposited in the oceans. He recognized that mountains are destroyed by erosoin and supposed that new ones would be formed by elevation. He also claimed that the operations of nature proceed in a slow and uniform manner; and that each part of the universe operates in a manner designed to secure the preservation of both the parts and the whole.

Although reprinted three times, Toulmin’s book seems to have been almost completely ignored by contemporary geologists. G. F. Richardson, in his Geology for Beginners (London, 1842), stated that “Dr. Toulmin, although doubted and disbelieved in his own day, has expressed opinions which contain the substance of the system of Dr. Hutton, and the principles of Mr. Lyell.”

While there are similarities in both the philosophy of the two authors and in the geological conclusions they reached, there is a fundamental difference between the two books. The geological conclusions reached by Hutton are to a large extent based on the extensive studies of rocks in the field which he made before publishing his Theory, but Toulmin adduces no evidence at all to suggest that his book was similarly based. On the contrary, he makes much use of previously published literature, notably John Whitehurst’s An Inquiry into the Original State and Formation of the Earth (London, 1778). This, alone, may have accounted for the neglect of Toulmin’s work by geologists; but an additional reason may have been his atheistical tendencies.

Toulmin and his book were forgotten until 1948, when S. I. Tomkeieff commented on the similarities of Toulmin’s views to some of the conclusions reached by Hutton. In 1963 D. B. McIntyre drew attention to certain statements in the 1788 version of Hutton’s Theory that are strikingly similar, textually, to statements to be found in Toulmin’s book, and he concluded that Hutton must have read this book before writing his Theory. In 1967 G. L. Davies discussed fully the evidence bearing on the question whether Hutton, in compiling his Theory, was in any way indebted to Toulmin and concluded that there was no evidence supporting the suggestion; although he surmised that Toulmin, during his stay in Edinburgh, may have read a rough draft of HuttOn’s Theory, which could account for the textual similarities to be found in Toulmin’s book. Whatever the truth may be, Toulmin’s book can only be regarded as an academic exercise, rather than an original contribution to the development of geological ideas in the eighteenth century.


I. Original Works. Toulmin’s published works on geology are The Antiquity and Duration of the World (London, 1780; repr., 1824); The Antiquity of the World (London,1783); The Eternity of the World (London, 1785); and The Eternity of the Universe (London, 1789; repr., 1825, 1837). The last three works repeat, with little change, the text of the first.

His published works on medicine are The Instruments of Medicine, or the Philosophical Digest and Practice of Physic (London, 1789); Elements of the Practice of Medicine on a Popular Plan . . . an Elementary Work for Students (London, 1810).

II. Secondary Literature. See S. I. Tomkeieff. “James Hutton and the Philosophy of Geology,” in Transactions of the Edinburgh Geological Society, 14 (1948), 253-276, and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 5 (1950), 387-400; D. B. McIntyre. “James Hutton and the Philosophy of Geology,” in C.C. Albritton. ed., The Fabric of Geology (Reading. Mass.-Palo Alto-London, 1963), 1-11; and G. L. Davies, “George Hoggart Toulmin and the Huttonian Theory of the Earth,” in Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, 78 (1967), 121-124

V. A. Eyles