Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Buckland, William
BUCKLAND, WILLIAM (1784–1856), geologist, dean of Westminster, was born at Axminster in Devonshire in 1784. He was the eldest son of the Rev. Charles Buckland, rector of Templeton and Trusham. As a child he appears to have been a close observer. We hear of his attention being especially directed to the ammonites which are found in the rocks near his native town. Beyond this we know but little of Buckland's childhood. In 1797 he was at Blundell's school in Tiverton, and in 1798 he entered St. Mary's College, Winchester. The young student was interested in the sponges of the chalk and other fossils, and he began to form a collection of them.
In 1801 Buckland obtained a scholarship at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. In 1805 he advanced to a B.A. degree, and in 1808 he was admitted a fellow of his college; he was ordained a priest in the same year. Although he never neglected his classical studies, Buckland continued to give a considerable amount of attention to natural phenomena, the mineral kingdom being his favourite field of investigation. In this pursuit he was usually associated with Mr. Broderip of Oriel College. The fruits of his first geological excursions were derived from Shotover Hill, and these formed the nucleus of the large collections which forty years later Buckland placed in the Oxford Museum. William Smith, the father of geology, was born in Oxfordshire, and he being a land surveyor was led step by step, while pursuing his vocation, to perceive that each group of strata had its own characteristic fossils. He began to publish geological maps in 1799, and with these Buckland was guided in tracing back the history of the world's mutations. From 1808 to 1812 he travelled on horseback over a large portion of the south-western district of England, collecting from those tracts which had been the scene of Smith's earliest labours the materials for geological sections and cabinets of organic remains.
In 1813 Dr. Kidd resigned his chair of mineralogy at Oxford, and Buckland was appointed his successor. In the same year he was elected a fellow of the Geological Society of London. At the instigation of the prince regent, the lords of the treasury were induced to found a readership in geology at Oxford and endow it. Buckland received this appointment, and he delivered the inaugural address on 15 May 1819. This address, which was subsequently published in 1820 under the title of ‘Vindiciæ Geologiæ,’ created a sensation, dealing as it did most judiciously with the discoveries which were then exciting some alarm.
In this year Dr. Kidd and Professor Playfair had directed attention to the Lickey Hill in Worcestershire as the possible nearest source of the siliceous pebbles which are accumulated in large masses over Warwickshire and the midland counties. The disintegration of the Lickey Rock in consequence of its brecciated structure was pointed out by Buckland, who endeavoured to show that the evidence, which the transport of these pebbles over a wide range of area afforded, bore strongly in favour of the fact of a recent deluge.
Buckland contributed in 1815 to the Geological Society of London a paper on the ‘Slate and Greenstone Rocks of Cumberland and Westmoreland,’ and in 1817 one on the ‘Plastic Clay at Reading,’ and another on the ‘Flints in Chalk.’
About this time Buckland commenced the organisation of his geological museum, which was subsequently given by him to Oxford University. His profound knowledge of palæontology, and his happy mode of explaining the difficult phenomena of geology, added to considerable natural eloquence, stimulated the salutary reaction which now set in in favour of the physical and natural sciences. In 1818 Dr. Buckland was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. In 1821 he published in ‘Silliman's Journal’ some ‘Instructions for the Investigation of Geological Phenomena,’ which at this period was of considerable advantage. In the same year he made a careful examination of the results of the expedition to the river Macquarie, under the direction of Mr. Oxley, which enabled him to publish a memoir, in the ‘Transactions of the Geological Society,’ ‘On the Geological Strata of Madagascar.’
In 1823 Buckland published his ‘Reliquiæ Diluvianæ, or Observations on the Organic Remains attesting the Action of a Universal Deluge.’ In the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ of the Royal Society in 1822 he had described the remains found in the cave of Kirkdale, and explained their relation to similar cave remains found in England and in Germany. In the ‘Reliquiæ Diluvianæ’ he argued that the remains of animals found in caves afford the means of judging of the inhabitants and character of the earth before the great flood recorded in the Mosaic history. This work was seized upon with eagerness by all who were desirous of having the records of revelation supported by the interpretations of scientific investigations, and it fully established the author's reputation as a geologist and a philosopher. In 1824 Buckland became president of the Geological Society, and in 1825 he resigned his fellowship, and was presented by his college with the living of Stoke Charity, near Whitchurch, Hampshire. In the same year Lord Liverpool gave him a canonry of the cathedral of Christ Church, Oxford.
Buckland married, in 1825, Mary, the eldest daughter of Mr. Benjamin Morland of Sheepstead House, near Abingdon, Berkshire. The intellectual abilities of this lady were of considerable value to her husband, and he always admitted that he was greatly aided by her in the production of the Bridgewater treatise. In this year he also published in the ‘Geological Society's Transactions’ ‘A Description of the South-western Coal-field of England.’
In 1829 Buckland described and named the ‘Pterodactylus macronyx’ which had been recently discovered in the blue lias of Lyme Regis by Miss Mary Anning, and drew especial attention to the elytra of coleopterous insects at Stonefield, associated with the remains of pterodactyles, of which such insects were probably the food. Remains supposed to be those of birds had been discovered at Tilgate Forest; Buckland, however expressed his opinion that they were probably portions of pterodactyles. At the same time he read another paper which proved to be commercially of the highest value. In the lias of Lyme Regis he had discovered some strange deposits; after a most careful examination, he arrived at the conclusion that they were the fossil fæces of extinct saurians, mixed with the bones of the animals themselves (coprolites), which have since been worked extensively for manure.
In 1836 Buckland's Bridgewater treatise made its appearance. This series was especially directed to prove, by the aids of science, ‘The Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God as manifested in the Creation.’ This work may be regarded as a compendium of geological and palæontological science up to the date of its publication, enriched by numerous reflections of a highly philosophic character. At this period a brother geologist of eminence described Buckland as ‘cheery, humorous, bustling, full of eloquence, with which he too blended much true wit; seldom without his famous blue bag, whence, even at fashionable evening parties, he would bring out and describe with infinite drollery, amid the surprise and laughter of his audience, the last “find” from a bone cave.’ The following quotation is from a letter of Sir Roderick Murchison's, at the time of the meeting of the British Association at Bristol: ‘At that meeting the fun of one of the evenings was a lecture of Buckland's. In that part of his discourse which treated of ichnolites, or fossil footprints, the Doctor exhibited himself as a cock or a hen on the edge of a muddy pond, making impressions by lifting one leg after another. Many of the grave people thought our science was altered to buffoonery by an Oxford Don.’
About 1840 Buckland, who had studied with care the action of ice upon the rocks in Switzerland, began to identify in this country the ‘dressed rocks’ of Sir James Hall, and to show that the smoothing and the scratching of the rocks could have been the work of but one agent, glacier ice. Subsequently Agassiz corroborated Buckland's identifications, and proclaimed that a great portion of Scotland and the north of England had once been actually buried under vast sheets of ice.
In 1845 he became, on the recommendation of Sir Robert Peel, dean of Westminster, and through this he was led to abandon many of his former pursuits. Alterations in Westminster Abbey; sanitary measures, especially the supply of London with water from artesian wells; the potato disease, and agricultural improvements now occupied his attention and consumed his time. It has been said of Buckland that to him we were indebted for unexpected suggestions, curious inquiries, and moral kinds of evidence. He examined coprolites to discover the food of the saurians; he studied snails to explain the holes bored in limestone; he extracted gelatine from the bones of the mammoth; he enclosed toads in artificial cavities to determine their tenacity of life, and he made living hyenas crush ox bones to furnish evidence for the conviction of the old midnight robber of preglacial caverns.
In the ‘Catalogue of Scientific Papers,’ published by the Royal Society, we find that Buckland was the author of fifty-three memoirs. Agassiz, however, increases the number to sixty-six. In 1840 Buckland was elected president of the Geological Society for the second time, and in 1848 he received from the hands of Sir Henry De la Beche the Wollaston medal, the highest honour known in geological science. In reply to the address of the president, Buckland expressed his conviction of the high destiny of his science, and he spoke of geologists ‘whose names are inscribed on the annals of the physical history of the globe,’ concluding with some remarks on the incompleteness of human knowledge, of the shortness of life when compared with the vastness of the work upon which the mind of man should be employed.
Shortly after this date Buckland suffered from a mental disease which debarred him from attempting further work. He died 15 Aug. 1856, regretted by all who had listened to his eloquence, or who had been charmed by the strange truths which he had gathered from the works of nature.
[Proceedings of the Royal Society, viii. 264; Philosophical Transactions; Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, 1817 to 1855; Geikie's Life of Sir R. Murchison, 1875; Zoological Society's Journal, v. 1832–4; Thomson's Annals of Philosophy, iv. 1822.]