Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Croll, James

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CROLL, JAMES (1821–1890), physical geologist, was born on 2 Jan. 1821, the second of four sons of David Croll, a stone-mason of Little Whitefield, Perthshire, and his wife, Janet Ellis of Elgin. The boy went to the village school, and his first impulse to real study came, when about eleven years old, from accidentally falling in with the 'Penny Magazine.' After an apprenticeship to a wheelwright at Collace he got work at Banchory as a joiner. His constitution, however, was not sound, and a boil on the elbow, accidentally injured when he was about ten years old, never healed, and in 1846 became so serious that he was compelled to seek a less laborious occupation, and next year opened a shop at Elgin. On 11 Sept. 1848 he married Isabella, daughter of John Macdonald of Forres. Then came an illness, which substituted an ossified joint for an inflamed elbow. But it injured his business, and in the summer of 1850 he left Elgin for Park, and early in 1852 he opened a temperance hotel at Blair- gowrie, making much of the furniture himself. That, however, was not a success, and in 1853 he became an agent for the Safety Life Assurance Society, residing at Glasgow, at Edinburgh, and then at Leicester. A serious failure in his wife's health obliged him to resign this appointment and return to Scotland, where, in 1858, he got work on the 'Commonwealth,' a weekly paper, and was appointed in the following year keeper at the Andersonian University and Museum, Glasgow. He had already begun to write, and extended his studies, working mostly at physical questions and at the glacial deposits of South-western Scotland, publishing his first scientific paper, the forerunner of a long series, on an experiment of Ampere, in the 'Philosophical Magazine' for 1861.

In September 1867 he was appointed to the Geological Survey of Scotland, as keeper of the maps and correspondence. He now pursued his studies, especially in physical geology, with even greater ardour, but in the face of unusual difficulties. His health had never been good; from boyhood he had suffered from pains, apparently neuralgic, in the head, and afterwards in the eyes. Still, by husbanding his powers and living by rule, he succeeded in writing many papers, and produced his most important book, 'Climate and Time,' in 1875. The following year he was elected F.R.S., and received from St. Andrews the degree of LL.D. But in 1880 another trivial accident did some permanent injury to the brain, and obliged him to retire from the Geological Survey. The treasury adhered to the letter of the law in regard to his pension; two prime ministers of opposite politics refused him one from the civil list; so Croll, with a world-wide reputation, retired invalided with less than 60l. per annum. Friendly efforts, however, slightly augmented his income, and with his scanty savings from literary work he purchased an annuity of 55l. on the joint lives of himself and his wife. For some time he moved from place to place in search of health, but at last, about 1886, settled down near Perth. There he died, after much suffering, but with unclouded mind, and working, so far as he could, to the last, on 15 Dec. 1890.

Besides the distinctions already mentioned Croll three times received complimentary awards of funds from the Geological Society of London. He wrote three books: 'The Philosophy of Theism,' 1857; 'Climate and Time,' 1875; and 'The Philosophic Basis of Evolution,' 1890, besides about ninety separate papers, the majority on questions in physical geology, such as ocean currents, climate, and the causes of the glacial epoch.

The last subject is discussed at length in 'Climate and Time,' Croll maintaining that the low temperature occurred when the eccentricity of the earth's orbit had a high value, but was modified by the precessional movement of the earth's axis. Croll's advocacy of this hypothesis, whatever be its ultimate fate, was characterised by patient research and acute reasoning, and will give his name an honourable place in the history of geology. Many of his writings, as may be supposed, were controversial, but his industry, energy, and love for truth won for him the respect of adversaries, who, even if they could not accept his views, thought them worthy of careful consideration.

[Obituary notice, Nature, xliii. 180, by [Sir] A. G[eikie], and James Croll's Life and Work, by James Campbell-Irons, 1896. This volume (with a portrait) contains an incomplete autobiography, with many additions by the author, and an interesting selection from Croll's correspondence.]

T. G. B.