Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Phillips, John (1800-1874)

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PHILLIPS, JOHN (1800–1874), geologist, descended from a Welsh family, was born at Marden in Wiltshire on 25 Dec. 1800. His ancestors had possessed some landed property; his father held a position in the excise; his mother was a sister of William Smith (1769–1839) [q. v.], the geologist. When about seven years old he lost his father, and about a year later his mother died. The uncle then took charge of the boy, and at once initiated him in geology. In his eleventh year he was sent to a school at Holt Spa in Wiltshire. Here he was active in games and diligent in class, and when he left, some four years later, he carried away a fair knowledge of Latin, French, and mathematics, with the rudiments of Greek and German, and a certain proficiency in drawing and practical mechanics. The next year was spent with Benjamin Richardson, rector of Farleigh, near Bath, a man of wide knowledge and an ardent geologist, to whose good influence he always expressed himself deeply indebted. Then he joined his uncle in London, just about the time when the latter published his geological map of England, and had undertaken to prepare a series of county maps similarly coloured. Smith, in fact, had now devoted himself to that study which proved ‘so fatal to his prosperity, though so favourable to his renown.’ Of this epoch in his life John Phillips afterwards wrote: ‘In all this contest for knowledge, under difficulties of no ordinary kind, I had my share. From the hour I entered his house in London, and for many years after he quitted it, we were never separated in act or thought … and thus my mind was moulded on his.’

The joint labour in the field and in the office was continued till the spring of 1824, when a lecture engagement took Smith to York, and, as a result of the visit, John Phillips was entrusted with the arrangement of the fossils in the museum, and next year was appointed its keeper. He held this post with the secretaryship of the Philosophical Society, till 1840, but continued to be honorary curator of the museum till 1844. During his residence at York the museum was transferred to its present quarters in the grounds of St. Mary's Abbey, the keeper's residence being on the site of the gatehouse.

In 1831 the British Association held its first meeting at York, and Phillips took the leading part in the work of organisation. In the following year he became its assistant secretary, and held this office for twenty-seven years. In 1834 he was appointed professor of geology at King's College, London, where he delivered an annual course of lectures, but continued to reside at York till 1840, when he received an appointment on the geological survey. This he held till 1844, when he quitted London for Dublin, to become professor of geology at Trinity College. Here he remained till 1853, when he succeeded Hugh Strickland [q. v.] as deputy at Oxford for Professor William Buckland [q. v.] On the death of the latter in 1856, he became ‘reader in geology,’ and at a later date was constituted professor. When the new museums were built at Oxford in 1857, he was appointed curator, and occupied the official residence. He was keeper of the Ashmolean Museum from 1854 to 1870.

Phillips was elected F.G.S. in 1828, received the Wollaston medal from that society in 1845, and was its president in 1859 and 1860. He was elected F.R.S. in 1834. He presided over the section of geology at the British Association in 1864 and 1873, and was its president in 1865. He was also an honorary member of various British and foreign scientific societies, and was admitted to the freedom of the Turners' Company a few days before his death. He received an honorary LL.D. from Trinity College, Dublin, in 1857, and the same degree from Cambridge in 1866; Oxford gave him the honorary degree of M.A. in 1853 and of D.C.L. in 1866. He was also an honorary fellow of Magdalen College. Still in the full vigour of mind, and with but little loss of bodily power, he died on 24 April 1874, from the result of a fall on a staircase at All Souls' College. He was unmarried.

Notwithstanding his heavy official duties, Phillips contributed largely to scientific literature. Rather more than a hundred papers stand under his name in the Royal Society's ‘Catalogue,’ the majority of which appeared in the ‘Proceedings’ of the Royal Society, the British Association Reports, the publications of the Geological Society of London, and the ‘Philosophical Magazine.’ The variety of subjects shows the wide range of his knowledge; they include magnetic and electrical topics, pendulum experiments, questions meteorological and astronomical, especially in relation to sunspots and to the planet Mars, researches in which his mechanical skill stood him in good stead; and in geology he wrote on stratigraphy, palæontology, and the physical side of the subject, contributing among other papers a most valuable report to the British Association on the subject of slaty cleavage. He contributed to the publications of the Geological Survey ‘Figures and Description of the Palæozoic Fossils of Cornwall, Devon, and West Somerset’ (1841), and a ‘Memoir on the Malvern Hills,’ &c. (1849); and to the Palæontographical Society ‘A Monograph of the Belemnitidæ’ (left unfinished). Besides these, he was the author of the following separate works: ‘Treatise on Geology,’ 1837 (two editions); ‘Guide to Geology,’ 1834 (five editions); ‘Illustration of the Geology of Yorkshire,’ vol. i. 1829, vol. ii. 1836 (at the time of his death he was engaged on a new edition, of which the first volume was afterwards published); ‘Geological Map of the British Isles,’ 1842; ‘Memoirs of William Smith,’ 2 vols. 1844; ‘Life on the Earth, its Origin and Succession’ (the Rede lecture delivered to the university of Cambridge in 1860); ‘Vesuvius,’ 1869; and ‘The Geology of Oxford and the Valley of the Thames,’ 1871. More than one of these books still hold a high place in geological literature.

Phillips was an attractive speaker and lecturer, an excellent organiser, ‘eminently judicious, ever courteous, genial, and conciliatory.’ There is a portrait in oils at the Geological Society, London, and a bust in the museum at Oxford.

[Obituary Notice in Quart. Jour. Geol. Soc. 1875, Proc. p. xxxvii; Geological Magazine, 1870 p. 301 (portrait), and 1874, p. 240; Nature, ix. 510.]

T. G. B.