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Murchison, Roderick (1792-1871)

Murchison, Roderick (1792-1871)

Scottish geologist

Roderick Murchison was an amateur geologist of the Victorian age in Britain. Murchison's paramount achievement is his naming of the periods of the stratigraphic column.

Murchison was wealthy and traveled often; both qualities enabled him to make a significant contribution to geological research in England and Wales while still an amateur in the field. Born in Ross in Scotland, Murchison was destined for a military career and trained at Durham and Great Marlow Military College. Until 1818, he lived in Ross-shire at which time he moved to England. A colleague, chemist Humphrey Davy, along with Murchison's wife, persuaded Murchison to attend some lectures on chemistry and geology , and he then turned his vast energies to science.

Murchison named the Silurian System in 1839, after an Iron Age tribe in mid-Wales and the Permian in 1841, after the Perm region of Russia in the Ural Mountains. For his work on the Permian rocks of Russia, he was made an honorary member of the Academy and Natural History Society of St. Petersburg and Moscow. He named the Devonian Period with Adam Sedgwick after the British county of Devon. After great public arguments, however, Murchison and Sedgwick could not agree on the boundary between the Cambrian and the Silurian, and their friendship ended. Sedgwick had been mapping the Cambrian rocks of North Wales and the system is named after the Latin name for Wales. This famous controversy was not resolved until both men had gone to their graves as bitter enemies in the mid 1870s. Charles Lapworth resolved the crisis by naming the Ordovician Period (after another Iron Age Welsh tribe) between the Cambrian and Silurian.

In another scientific dispute, Murchison was against the theory of widespread glaciation as proposed by Louis Agassiz (18071873) and was one of the few geologists of his time who died not accepting it.

Murchison was knighted in 1846 following his presidency of the Geological Society of London in 1842 and his founding of the Royal Geographical Society (1830). He was subsequently four times the president of the later. When he died in 1871, he stipulated in his will that a medal and fund should be awarded each year by the Geological Society of London in his honor. It is awarded to outstanding Earth scientists who have shown a breadth and achievement over more than a narrow field. He was also a trustee of the British Museum. Murchison became the second Director-General of the Geological Survey of Great Britain in 1855, which gave him tremendous influence over the advancement of geology in Britain during the mid-Victorian age. He had little interest in economic geology such as hydrology, and this facet of geology did not develop at the survey during his time as Director-General. Historians debate that he actively prohibited research, but he certainly had an influence on slowing down work on the applied areas of geology. Murchison also founded a chair of geology and mineralogy at the University of Edinburgh.

See also Geologic time; Stratigraphy

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