Murchison, Roderick Impey (DNB00)
|←Murchison, Charles||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 39
Murchison, Roderick Impey
MURCHISON, Sir RODERICK IMPEY (1792–1871), geologist, born on 19 Feb. 1792 at Tarradale in Eastern Ross, was the eldest son of Kenneth Murchison by his wife, the daughter of Roderick Mackenzie of Fairburn. The Murchisons were a highland sept, living near Kintail and Lochalsh, the members of which were active in the rebellion of 1715. Kenneth Murchison was educated for the medical profession, went out to India, and held a lucrative appointment at Lucknow. After an absence of seventeen years he returned to Scotland with his savings, purchased Tarradale, and married in 1791. But about four years afterwards his health began to fail; he left Tarradale for the south of England, where he died in 1796. His widow settled in Edinburgh with her two boys, and before long married Colonel Robert Macgregor Murray, an old friend of her late husband. In 1799 Roderick was placed at the grammar school, Durham, where he led in mischief more often than in his class. In 1805 he was removed to the military college, Great Marlow, where he kept up his Durham reputation, but was attentive to work distinctly professional. In 1807 he was gazetted ensign in the 36th regiment, but did not join till the following winter, though even then he was under sixteen. The regiment — a smart and distinguished one — was then quartered at Cork, but during the summer it was hurried off to Portugal, where it fought with distinction at Vimeiro, and afterwards shared in Sir John Moore's Spanish campaign and his disastrous retreat to Corunna. The regiment embarked safely during the night of 16 Jan. 1809, but narrowly escaped shipwreck on the Cornish coast. It remained in England, but in the autumn Murchison went out to Sicily as aide-de-camp to his uncle, General Mackenzie, returning in 1811. The latter was then appointed to a command in Ireland, and took Murchison with him. But the peace of 1814 placed him on half-pay. As it happened, he was in Paris when the news of Napoleon's landing arrived. Murchison then, in hope of seeing active service, and against his uncle's advice, exchanged into a cavalry regiment to no purpose, for his troop remained in England. But as a consolation he met in the Isle of Wight Charlotte, daughter of General and Mrs. Hugonin, whom he married on 29 Aug., and shortly afterwards retired from the army.
This was the turning-point of Murchison's life. 'From this time he came under the influence of a thoughtful, cultivated, and affectionate woman ... to his wife he owed his fame, as he never failed gracefully to record ' (Geikie). It was, however, still some years before he settled down to scientific work. For a brief time he thought of being ordained, but soon gave up the idea, and started with his wife in the spring of 1816 for a leisurely tour on the continent. Here they remained till the summer of 1818, chiefly at Rome and Naples, where Murchison plunged enthusiastically into the study of art and antiquities. On his return to England he sold Tarradale, to the benefit of his income, and settled down at Barnard Castle, devoting himself to field-sports. But about five years afterwards he became acquainted with Sir Humphry Davy, and determined to remove to London in order to pursue science instead of the fox. In the autumn of 1824 he began to attend lectures diligently at the Royal Institution. He was admitted on 7 Jan. 1825 a fellow of the Geological Society, and that science quickly kindled his enthusiasm. The following summer was devoted to field-work around Nursted, Kent (where General Hugonin resided), and to a tour westwards as far as Cornwall. Murchison's first paper, a 'Geological Sketch of the Northwestern extremity of Sussex and the adjoining parts of Hants and Surrey,' was read to the Geological Society at the end of 1825. In 1826 he was elected F.R.S., an honour which at that time indicated social position more than scientific distinction, and spent the summer examining the Jurassic rocks of Yorkshire and on both coasts of Scotland. This was the first of a series of summer journeys for the study of geology, and of a number of papers which quickly made him 'one of the most prominent members of the Geological Society.' In 1827 he travelled with Sedgwick in the highlands; in 1828, accompanied by his wife, with C. Lyell in Auvergne and Northern Italy, the Murchisons returning from Venice across the Tyrol to the Lake of Constance. In 1829 Murchison and Sedgwick wandered through Rhine-Prussia and Germany to Trieste, whence they worked their way through the Eastern Alps to the Salzkammergut, and so back by Constance across France. In 1830 Murchison with his wife revisited the Eastern Alps to continue the last year's work.
After five years of service as secretary of the Geological Society he was elected president in 1831, and almost simultaneously quitted the secondary rocks, hitherto the chief subject of his studies, for those older masses, underlying the carboniferous or the old red sandstone, which were called by Weiner the transition, by some greywacke. These, geologically speaking, were an almost unknown land. In the summer of 1831 Sedgwick attacked the northern part of Wales from Anglesey, Murchison the more southern district from the eastern borderland. At one time a joint tour had been suggested ; but the intention was unfortunately never realised. Murchison devoted the next two summers to similar work, and in the autumn of 1833 determined that his researches should result in a book. In the summer of 1834 the two friends spent some days together in Wales, endeavouring to fit their separate work, but unluckily they parted without discovering that the lower part of Murchison's system of strata (to which in 1835 he assigned the name Silurian) was identical with the upper part of that worked out and called Cambrian by Sedgwick. The preparation of Murchison's book took a long time, but field-work went on in the summer, and in 1836 he made the first of three journeys to Devonshire to unravel another 'greywacke' district. At last, at the end of 1838, 'The Silurian System,' a thick quarto book, with a coloured map and an atlas of plates, of fossils, and sections, was published. It embodied and systematised the results obtained by Murchison himself, or supplied to him by others, which had been already communicated to geologists in numerous papers.
The researches of Sedgwick and Murchison in the west of England were followed by papers in which was proposed the establishment of a Devonian system intermediate between the carboniferous and Silurian, and so equivalent to the old red sandstone, and the two friends in 1839 visited Germany and the Boulonnais to obtain further confirmation of their views.
In this year Murchison's social influence was increased by an augmentation of fortune, which enabled him to move to a house in Belgrave Square, his residence for the rest of his life, which became a meeting-place for workers of science with those otherwise distinguished. H e also planned a visit to Russia, in which country the palseozoic rocks were comparatively undisturbed, and so presented fewer difficulties than they did in Britain. Accompanied by De Verneuil, and greatly aided by the officials and savants of Russia, Murchison crossed the northern part of that country to the shores of the White Sea, and thence up the Dwina to Nijni Novgorod, Moscow, and back to St. Petersburg. In the following summer the two travellers returned to Moscow, and, after examining the carboniferous rocks in the neighbourhood, struck off for the Ural Mountains, followed them southwards to Orsk, thence westward to the Sea of Azof, and so back to Moscow. After a third visit to St. Petersburg by way of Scandinavia and Finland, besides travel at home as usual, the important work on 'The Geology of Russia and the Ural Mountains,' by Murchison, Von Keyserling, and De Verneuil, was published in April 1845.
Honours other than scientific now began to come in. From the emperor of Russia he had already received the orders of St. Anne and of Stanislaus, and in February 1846 he was knighted. In 1843 he was elected president of the Geographical Society, an office which henceforth somewhat diverted his attention from geology. Still the old love was not forgotten. His summer journeys continued, and from July 1847 to September 1848 Sir Roderick and Lady Murchison, partly on account of her health, were on the continent, revisiting Rome, Naples, and the Eastern Alps. This journey had for its result an important paper on the geological structure of the Alps, Apennines, and Carpathians (Quarterly Journal Geological Society, v. 157). Auvergne also was revisited in 1850. Murchison for some time had been occupied in recasting the 'Silurian System' into a more convenient form, and the new book, under the title 'Siluria,' appeared in 1854.
The following year brought an important change in Murchisou's life, for on the death Sir H. De la Beche [q. v.] he was appointed director-general of the geological survey. The same summer also witnessed the beginning of a new piece of work, the attempt to unravel the complicated structure of the Scottish highlands. A journey undertaken in 1858 with C. Peach [q. v.] made it clear that the Torridon sandstone of the north-western highlands was much less ancient than a great series of coarse gneissose rocks, to which Murchison gave the name of fundamental gneiss, afterwards identifying it with the Laurentian gneiss of North America. The Torridon sandstone afforded no traces of life, but it was followed by quartzoles and limestones, then supposed to be, from their fossils, lower Silurian age, but now placed low in the Cambrian, and above these, in apparent sequence, came a series of crystalline schists less coarse grained, and with a more stratified aspect than the 'fundamental gneiss.' Of these schists much of the central highlands and the southern part of the north-western were evidently composed. Murchison, then, regarded these as Silurian strata altered by metamorphism. Professor J. Nicol [q. v.], who had been at first associated with Murchison, dissented from this view, maintaining these schists to be really part of the fundamental gneiss, brought up by faulting. Murchison accordingly revisited the highlands in 1859 with Professor Alexander Ramsay [q.v.], and in 1860 with Mr. A. Geikie, and returned more than ever convinced of the accuracy of his view, which was maintained in a joint paper read to the Geological Society early in 1861. But Professor Nicol, as time has shown, in the main was right.
This highland tour closed the more active part of Murchison's life. Afterwards he made no lengthy journey, though he visited various localities in Britain, and even went to Germany in order to investigate questions which arose out of his former work. Much time also was occupied by his official labours at Jermyn Street, and by other duties arising from his position and his general interest in scientific affairs. After 1864 he wrote few more papers, but continued president of the Geographical Society, and gave an annual address till 1871. Early in 1869 Lady Murchison died, after an illness of some duration, In November 1870 he was struck by paralysis. From this he partially recovered, but during the later part of the following summer the malady began to make marked progress, and his life was closed by an attack of bronchitis on 22 Oct. 1871. Four days afterwards he was laid in Brompton cemetery by his wife's side.
Murchison could not complain that his merits were unrecognised. Besides the distinctions mentioned above, and valuable presents from the czar of Russia, he was made a K.C.B. in 1863, and a baronet in 1866. He received the degree of D.C.L. from Oxford, that of LL.D. from Cambridge and from Dublin, and was an honorary member of numerous societies in all parts of the world, including the Academy of Sciences in the French Institute. He was president of the geographical and the geological sections of the British Association more than once, and of the association itself (which he helped to found) in 1846. He was for fifteen years president of the Geographical Society, and twice president of the Geological Society, for which he received the Wollaston medal. He was also awarded the Copley medal of the Royal Society, the Brisbane medal of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and the Prix Cuvier.
In person Murchison was tall, wiry, muscular, of a commanding presence and dignified manner. A portrait was painted by Pickersgill, which has been engraved, and there are marble busts at the Geological Society and in the Museum of Economic Geology.
Murchison was fortunate not only in the society of a wife who saved him from becoming a mere idler, but also in the possession of means which from the first placed him above want, and in later life were very ample. He was not insensible to the advantages of aristocratic friends and royal favour. His social influence was considerable, and it was exercised for the benefit of science and its workers. One of his last acts was to contribute half the endowment to a chair of geology at Edinburgh. He was a hospitable host, a firm and generous friend, though perhaps, especially in his later years, somewhat too self-appreciative and intolerant of opposition. He was a man of indomitable energy and great powers of work, blessed with an excellent constitution, very methodical and punctual in his habits. His contributions to scientific literature were very numerous, for, in addition to the books already mentioned, a list of above 180 papers (several of them written in conjunction with others), notes, and addresses is appended to the memoir of his life, nearly all on geographical or geological subjects. Of the value of his work it is still difficult to speak, for the dispute as to the limits of the Cambrian and Silurian systems which arose between him and Sedgwick unfortunately created some bitterness which extended beyond the principals. Into its details we need not enter, but we must admit that in the 'Silurian System' Murchison made at least two grave mistakes, that of confusing the Llandovery rocks with the Caradoc sandstone, and of mistaking the position of the Llandilo beds in the typical area near that town. Murchison's strength lay in rapidly apprehending the dominant features in the geology of a district. His knowledge of palaeontology was limited, but here generally he was able to avail himself of the assistance of others ; of petrology he knew less, and his errors on the subject of metamorphism, particularly in regard to the Scottish highlands, most seriously impeded, both directly and indirectly, the progress of that branch of geology in Britain. In short, as his biographer candidly states, 'he was not gifted with the philosophic spirit which evolves broad laws and principles in science. He had hardly any imaginative power. He wanted, therefore, the genius for dealing with questions of theory, even when they had reference to branches of science the detailed facts of which were familiar to him. . . . But he will ever hold a high place among the pioneers by whose patient and sagacious power of gathering new facts new kingdoms of knowledge are added to the intellectual domain of man. He was not a profound thinker, but his contemporaries could hardly find a clearer, more keen-eyed and careful observer.'
[Archibald Geikie's Life of Sir Roderick I. Murchison, 2 vols. 187-5 ; Griffin's Contemporary Biography in Addit. MS. 28511.]