Sir Roderick Impey Murchison correspondence, 1830-1867


Date: 1830-1867 | Size: 0.25 Linear feet, 32 items, photocopies


These are letters written from America, to Murchison, discussing geology, natural history, and contemporary topics.

Background note

Sir Roderick Impey Murchison (1792-1871, APS 1860), geologist, geographer, and advocate of exploration, devoted the bulk of his scientific career to stratigraphy and promoting a catastrophist view of geological change. The Silurian System (1839) was a milestone work exploring fossil-bearing strata in Wales and western England, and The Geology of Russia and the Ural Mountains (1845, with Alexander von Keyserling and Edouard de Verneuil) established the Permian System. Murchison's scientific career was littered with theoretical, personal, and political disputes; most significant were rivalries with Charles Lyell and Adam Sedgwick regarding, respectively, uniformitarianism and the Cambrian-Silurian boundary. Murchison was an advocate of imperial expansion and exploration; he viewed science as a nationalistic endeavor.

The Murchisons were a highland clan, stripped of their lands after participating in the 1715 and 1745 rebellions. After seventeen lucrative years as a surgeon in the employ of the East India Company, Kenneth Murchison returned to Scotland, purchased the Tarradale estate in Eastern Ross, and married Barbara Mackenzie in 1791. Roderick was born at Tarradale on February 19, 1792; a brother, Kenneth, followed two years later. The elder Kenneth Murchison died in 1796 after a period of physical decline; Barbara Murchison moved her family to Edinburgh and married Colonel Robert Macgregor Murray, a friend of her late husband. Roderick Murchison was sent to Durham for grammar school in 1799 and in 1805 entered the Great Marlow military college in Buckinghamshire. Murchison lacked a rigorous formal scientific education, but during his schooling he developed a keen interest in practical studies, including topographical appraisal, which were invaluable to his later geological studies.

In 1807 Murchison was gazetted ensign in the 36th infantry. The regiment saw action in Portugal (fighting with distinction at Roliça and Vimeiro in 1808) and Spain (retreating to Corunna with Sir John Moore in 1809). Beginning in the autumn of 1809, Murchison served as aid-de-camp to his uncle, General Sir Alexander Mackenzie, in Sicily and Armagh. Despite seeing action in the Peninsular War (which provided fodder for after-dinner conversations in later years), Murchison's military career was filled with frustrating near-misses: he purchased a captaincy but went on half-pay with the peace of 1814; he was in Paris when Napolean escaped Elba; he transferred to a cavalry troop hoping to see action, but they did not participate in the fighting. After the Battle of Waterloo he resigned his commission.

In 1815, shortly before his retirement, Murchison married Charlotte Hugonin. His future occupation was uncertain. He briefly considered ordination and during a tour of the continent he studied art and antiquities in Rome and Naples. Returning to the United Kingdom, he sold Tarradale, settled in Durham and devoted himself to fox-hunting. Loans from Charlotte's father enabled a lavish lifestyle and questionable financial speculation. In 1822 the Murchisons moved to Leicestershire and in 1823 relocated to London. The following year Murchison began attending lectures at the Royal Institution, inspired to explore the physical sciences by Sir Humphry Davy. In January of 1825 Murchison was admitted as a fellow of the Geological Society and by the end of the year his first paper was read to the Society.

Murchison spent the summer of 1826 in Yorkshire and the Scottish coasts and wrote a monograph demonstrating that Jurassic English formations were the same age as the Scottish Brora coalfield. In 1827, he travelled the Highlands with Adam Sedgwick. In 1828, he visited France and Italy with Charles Lyell and Charlotte Murchison, who actively participated in fossil collection, landscape sketching, and communication with francophone locals. In 1829, Murchison and Sedgwick visited the Alps. Previously sympathetic to Lyell's gradualism, Murchison was converted to Sedgwick's catastrophist views of geologic processes, beliefs which he would hold and defend for the remainder of his career.

Murchison turned his attention to Wales and western England and the "greywacke" formations underlying the Old Red Sandstone. Between 1831 and 1836 Murchison and Sedgwick conducted fieldwork in Wales and Devon. Fossils in the greywacke formed a sequence with those in the Old Red Sandstone, making the greywacke part of the oldest fossiliferous classification known at the time. Though he coined the term "Silurian" in 1835 (in honor of a Welsh tribe), it was not until 1939 that Murchison published The Silurian System, based upon his own fieldwork and that of others. Murchison revised The Silurian System and republished it as Siluria in 1854, 1859, and 1867, incorporating the latest geological and paleontological discoveries.

After their fieldwork in west England, and a subsequent trip to Germany and the Boulonnais, Murchison and Sedgwick defined the Devonian System (between the Carboniferous and Silurian) in "On the Physical Structure of Devonshire" (1939).

Accompanied by French paleontologist Edouard de Verneuil, Murchison travelled to Russia three times. This work, along with fieldwork conducted in Scandinavia, formed the basis of The Geology of Russia and the Ural Mountains, published by Murchison, de Verneuil, and Alexander von Keyserling in 1845. The book set forth the Permian System, another Paleozoic strata separating Carboniferous rocks from the Mesozoic strata.

Murchison's last major geological work focused upon the highlands of Scotland. The region was a geological puzzle: Torridon sandstone, "fundamental gneiss," quartzites, limestones, and schists occurred in unexpected sequences. In 1858, 1859, and 1860, Murchison conducted fieldwork with Charles Peach, Andrew Ramsay, and Archibald Geikie, respectively. Murchison and Geikie jointly wrote a paper, read to the Geological Society in 1861, positing that Moine schists were metamorphosed Silurian strata. A decade and a half after Murchison's death, Geikie conceded that their conclusions were incorrect; ironically, catastrophic processes of displacement (rather than patient metamorphosis) explained the curious geological landscape of the highlands.

Murchison was a strong advocate for exploration. He organized all major British expeditions between 1850 and 1870. He was a proponent of arctic exploration (a subject much in the public eye after the loss of Franklin's expedition). He supported the African exploration of Speke, Grant, Baker, and Livingstone, who dedicated Missionary Travels (1857) to Murchison. Based upon explorers' reports, he was able to predict geographical features of Africa. Murchison believed geology in general (and his Silurian System in particular) had practical implications. If Silurian strata predated terrestrial vegetation, then their presence in a region precluded the presence of coal; fruitless excavation could be avoided and industrial needs could be met more efficiently. In 1845 he predicted the discovery of gold in Australia, citing parallels between the Cordillera and Ural regions. In the 1854 edition of Siluria, Murchison set forth conditions under which gold and coal might be found.

In 1855, Murchison was appointed Director-General of the Geological Survey. In his official capacity, he appointed colonial geological surveyors, and he was able to offer more general government patronage to specific geologists and the wider field. Murchison believed that colonial expansion could serve the scientific community (as science also served the empire) and sometimes argued in favor of specific territorial annexations.

Murchison's fieldwork was his great strength. He could ascertain the dominant geological features of an area and thus grasp the "big picture." He could perceive parallels in different regions, enabling him to extrapolate African and Australian geography. When dealing with sister disciplines, such as paleontology and petrology, Murchison relied upon the expertise of others. Perhaps influenced by his early military training in topography, Murchison's preference for taking in the overall landscape lead him to ignore details. He employed the geological strategies of the 1820s throughout his career, an approach that proved particularly inadequate to explain the geology of the Scottish highlands.

A practicing Anglican, Murchison perceived some tension between his religious beliefs and scientific inquiries. He doubted the divinity of Christ, but in Siluria he asserted belief in a creator and the majestic nature of geography as evidence thereof. He rejected Darwin's theory of evolution and accepted the idea of successive creations, mitigating some of the religious questions raised by his geological observations and informing his catastrophist views.

Murchison was active in the service of various scientific societies and acquired an array of royal honors. He was an elected fellow of the Geological Society and Royal Society, and served as the President of the Royal Geographical Society of London and the British Association and Director-General of the Geological Survey. He received honorary degrees from Oxford, Cambridge, and Dublin, and was an honorary member of various foreign societies. He won the Copley Medal, Brisbane Prize, and Wollaston Medal. He was knighted in 1846, created Knight Commander, Order of Bath in 1863 and, after a quarter century of lobbying, created Baronet in 1866. He was also honored by foreign sovereigns, most notably in Russia with the orders of St. Anne and St. Stanislaus.

Murchison's career was marked by a series of professional disagreements, which typically had a personal or political element, and to which he typically responded by vigorously campaigning to recruit supporters for his position. He clashed with Charles Babbage (severed his relationship with the British Association after Murchison retracted an offer of the Presidency of the organization), Sir Henry De la Beche (objected to the Devonian System as defined by Murchison and Sedgwick), James Niccol (disagreed that highland schists belonged to the Silurian), Louis Agassiz (supported theories of continental glaciation), and Thomas Henry Huxley (advocated theories of Devonian vertebrates which threatened Murchison's geological conclusions). His most significant rivalries were with fellow geologists Charles Lyell and Adam Sedgwick.

Despite their divergent working styles and theoretical conclusions, Murchison and Lyell remained on generally friendly terms. Murchison praised Lyell's Principles of geology, the third volume of which was dedicated to Murchison. However, the relationship became strained in the 1830s. Lyell felt Murchison was patronizing and that he attempted to claim credit for the course of Lyell's career and the development of his ideas. He considered Murchison too political, more concerned with honors than science. A liberal supporter of democratic institutions, Lyell's politics were sharply different from those of the Tory Murchison. In 1850, Murchison formally renounced the conclusions he and Lyell had reached in 1828; instead of erosion, he now argued that earth movements were responsible for the formation of the Auvergne valleys. Lyell's gradualism was the "piddling" school. During the 1860s Murchison was gratified that uniformitarians acknowledged the effects of occasional catastrophes, though this theoretical victory would be short-lived.

Murchison felt great pride in (and ownership of) the Silurian and eagerly sought to prove that the earliest fossils belonged to this period. He placed new fossils in his system and claimed a portion of the Cambrian, defined by Sedgwick, in fact belonged to the Silurian. Murchison characteristically bolstered his viewpoint with tireless advocacy. Sedgwick objected on grounds scientific (Murchison had confused strata in two places) and political (accusing the Geological Society of tampering with a paper, he broke with the organization). The friendship was permanently soured and British geologists were split between the two camps. Charles Lapworth finally ended the controversy in 1879 by proposing an Ordovician System between the Silurian and Cambrian.

Despite his well-known professional rivalries, Murchison did not demand ideological purity in his friends. Though he dismissed Agassiz's geological theories, Murchison relied upon his expertise as a paleontologist. Ramsay and Geikie rejected the catastrophists' view of mountain building, erosion, and glaciation, but both benefitted from Murchison's patronage and ultimately ushered in more progressive scientific views. Murchison was himself socially progressive, insofar as he was instrumental in convincing the Royal Geographic Society to award its Gold Medal to women (Lady Franklin and Mary Somerville) he considered deserving. He used his wealth and influence to support scientific inquiry. After the 1939 death of Charlotte's father, the Murchisons used her inheritance to move into a mansion, 16 Belgrave Square, and transform it into an intellectual salon. Shortly before his death Murchison donated £6000 to the University of Edinburgh, half the endowment for a chair of geology (initially held by his protégé Archibald Geikie). He bequeathed £1000 each to the Geological and Geographical Societies.

Thanks to his network of supporters, Murchison enjoyed a good (if not uncontroversial) reputation during his life. The hagiographic Life of Sir Roderick I. Murchison (1875), written by Geikie, elided some of Murchison's professional mistakes. Various terrestrial geographical features (including an island in British Columbia, a waterfall in Uganda, and mountains in British Columbia and Antarctica) are named for Murchison, as is a lunar crater. Despite accolades during his life and praise after his death, many of Murchison's scientific arguments (including catastrophism and the mechanisms responsible for creating highland schists) were proven incorrect.

Murchison was a passionate man and inspired strong feelings in others, collecting close friends and harsh detractors throughout his life. His scientific feuds were not without personal and political dimensions and Murchison never hesitated to defend his position, but neither were they purely dogmatic. He was willing to examine new evidence and refine his opinions.

Murchison suffered a stroke in November of 1870, from which he partially recovered. He died of bronchitis in his London home on October 22, 1871. He was buried in Brompton Cemetery in London alongside his wife, who had died two years earlier.

Scope and content

This material is now incorporated into B M93p as Series II.

Collection Information

Physical description

32 items, photocopies.


Purchased from Geological Society of London (£14.35) and accessioned, 11/24/1964 (1965 160ph).

Location of originals:

Originals in Geological Society of London.

Early American History Note

This manuscript collection falls outside the geographic scope of the Early American guide (British North America and the United States before 1840). It may be of interest to scholars interested in global history, international relations, imperialism, or the U.S. in the world.

Indexing Terms

Family Name(s)

  • Vanuxem, Lardner.

Personal Name(s)

  • Agassiz, Louis, 1807-1873
  • Dana, James Dwight, 1813-1895
  • Everett, Edward, 1794-1865
  • Featherstonhaugh, George William, 1780-1866
  • Hall, James
  • Harlan, Richard, 1796-1843
  • Lea, Isaac, 1792-1886
  • Murchison, Roderick Impey, Sir, 1792-1871
  • Rogers, Henry D. (Henry Darwin), 1806-1866
  • Ross, P. Campbell
  • Silliman, Benjamin, 1779-1864


  • Beyond Early America
  • Geology.
  • Natural history.