Adam Sedgwick – One of the Founding Fathers of Geology

Today, the 22nd March, marks the 227th anniversary of Adam Sedgwick, one of the founding fathers of geology and perhaps one of the most influential Earth scientists of the 19th Century.  Adam Sedgwick was born in Yorkshire (England) on March 22nd 1785.  A Cambridge University graduate, Sedgwick dedicated most of his adult life to the study of rocks, rock strata and geological features and was instrumental in helping to classify the strata of the United Kingdom.

Working with the soon to become be-knighted, Roderick Murchison, Sedgwick mapped the Lower Palaeozoic strata of Wales and using fossils found in rocks that he studied, defined the Cambrian geological period  and the later Devonian geological period (with Murchison).  This work took place during the 1830’s when the extension of Britain’s canal system and the first railways led to there  being much more interest in strata and rocks in the United Kingdom, more than ever before.  The on set of the industrial revolution led to the need for more coal and the demand for this fossil fuel helped to develop a scientific interest in how rock layers are formed and how old they might be.

Sedgwick was instrumental in helping to lay the foundations for the science of biostratigraphy.  Biostratigraphy involves estimating the age of strata, which may be separated by hundreds of miles, by examining the fossils it may contain and comparing the fossil data to that found in other bands of rocks.  Widely separated outcrops of rock could be correlated using fossils to identify the relative age of different strata.  Adam Sedgwick studied theology as well as mathematics and was adopted into the English clergy.  Throughout his life he struggled to defend the established religious doctrine against the advancements made in the knowledge of the Earth’s age, formation and composition.  Although Charles Darwin was one of his geology students, he never accepted the theory of natural selection postulated by Darwin in his seminal book “On the Origin of Species”, which was published in 1859.  In fact, Sedgwick was an ardent critic of Darwin’s work and although he praised Darwin for his meticulous studies, he could not accept the consequences of the main theory that Darwin postulated – that of evolution by natural selection.

Adam Sedgwick – Founding Father of Modern Geology

Adam Sedgwick in later life

Sedgwick was involved in a number of scientific controversies, one of the most famous of which was his long running dispute with his former friend and colleague Sir Roderick Murchison.  Whilst studying the rocks and strata of Wales, Sir Roderick in a re-assessment of some of the work carried out in conjunction with Sedgwick; subsequently lowered the base of the Silurian geological period, into the later part of the Cambrian period that had been established previously.  This debate as to when the Silurian began and the Cambrian ended was not fully resolved for many years.

Sedgwick was awarded the Woodwardian Professorship at Cambridge University, a post that he held for more than fifty years.  He played a significant role in the development and advancement of the principles of geology, and today we acknowledge his contribution to Earth Sciences.

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