Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Macculloch, John

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1904 Errata appended.

1442015Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 35 — Macculloch, John1893Thomas George Bonney

MACCULLOCH, JOHN, M.D. (1773–1835), geologist, was born in Guernsey, 6 Oct. 1773, his mother, Elizabeth, being a daughter of Thomas de Lisle, a jurat of that island, but his father, James, who was engaged in business in Brittany, was descended from the Maccullochs of Nether Ardwell in Galloway. John, the third son, a precocious, thoughtful child, was sent to school, first at Plympton, then at Penzance, and lastly at Lostwithiel, where he remained three years. Thence he went to Edinburgh to study medicine, and graduated M.D. 12 Sept. 1793, with a thesis on electricity. He remained for some time longer at the university, and, as he afterwards stated, those systematic journeys in Scotland which supplied the material for the main work of his life grew out of the ‘boyish wanderings of his college holidays,’ when he visited such places as Dunkeld and Dunsinane. At this time he formed a close friendship with Walter (afterwards Sir Walter) Scott and with Thomas Douglas, fifth earl of Selkirk [q. v.] James Macculloch, the father, lost his business in France in consequence of the revolution; was imprisoned during the reign of terror; and after his release quitted the country and settled in Cornwall. John obtained the position of assistant surgeon to the royal regiment of artillery; but his scientific acquirements became known, and in 1803 he was appointed chemist to the board of ordnance. In 1807 he established himself at Blackheath, where for a time he followed his profession, and was admitted a licentiate of the College of Physicians, 30 Sept. 1808, but gave up practice in 1811, when he was sent by the board of ordnance to Scotland, to determine what kinds of rock could be most safely employed in powder-mills. A commission followed to ascertain on which of the Scotch mountains the experiments which had been undertaken by Maskelyne in 1774, in regard to the deflection of the plumb-line, might be repeated with most advantage. From 1811 to 1821 he travelled yearly in Scotland, accumulating a vast store of scientific observations. He was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society on 21 April 1801, and a member of the Geological Society of London on 5 Feb. 1808. His name appears among the council in the first volume of the Geological Society's ‘Transactions,’ to which he contributed a paper on Guernsey and the other Channel islands, his first important contribution to geology, and he was president in 1816–17. Macculloch was also appointed about 1814 geologist to the trigonometrical survey, and was lecturer on chemistry and mineralogy at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. Later in life he held a similar appointment at the East India Company's College at Addiscombe, and he was nominated in 1820 physician to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in the same year. In 1826 he was commissioned to prepare a geological map of Scotland. The idea had occurred to him at an early period, and on his previous visits to Scotland he had used ‘his own time and spent his own money,’ in the intervals of work for the government in making investigations in the matter. From 1826 to 1832 he was busily engaged, travelling in Scotland during the summer, and arranging his materials in the winter. In 1835, to the surprise of his acquaintances, he married a Miss White, but not many weeks afterwards, while travelling with her in Cornwall, he was thrown from his carriage and sustained a compound fracture of the leg. It was amputated, and he sank after the operation, dying on 20 Aug. at the house of a friend, Captain Giddy, R.N., of Poltair, near Penzance. He was buried at Gulval, near that town.

Macculloch was a man of unwearied industry, and his knowledge included geology, mineralogy and chemistry, physics and mathematics, botany and zoology, even mechanics and architecture, besides, of course, medicine. He was something of a musician and of an artist. His writings are numerous. His minor scientific papers are seventy-nine in number, the majority being geological, but they also deal with such subjects as malaria, an indelible ink, the naturalisation of plants and animals—for instance, of marine fishes in fresh water—how crabs part with their claws, Greek fire, and the use of lights or fires in fisheries. They appeared chiefly in the ‘Quarterly Journal of Science,’ the ‘Edinburgh Journal of Science,’ the ‘Edinburgh Philosophical Journal,’ and the ‘Transactions of the Geological Society of London.’ To the last he contributed nineteen papers, some of them of considerable length; the majority dealt with the geology of Scotland, and that on the ‘Parallel Roads of Glenroy’ is the first careful account of these remarkable terraces. Macculloch regarded them as lacustrine, not marine; but as a dam of glacier ice had not been then devised, he was obviously puzzled to account for the absence of any traces of a barrier at the end of the supposed lake.

The following are the more important of his larger works: 1. ‘A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, including the Isle of Man,’ 3 vols. 8vo, with an atlas in 4to, 1819. 2. ‘A Geological Classification of Rocks,’ 1821. 3. ‘On the Art of Making Wine,’ 1821; 4th ed. 1829. 4. ‘Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland,’ a general account of the country, in the form of a series of letters to Sir Walter Scott, 4 vols. 1824. 5. ‘Malaria, an Essay on the Production and Propagation of this Poison,’ &c., 1827. 6. ‘Essay on the Intermittent and Remittent Diseases,’ 2 vols. 1828; Philadelphia, 1830. 7. ‘A System of Geology, with a Theory of the Earth, and an Explanation of its Connection with the Sacred Records,’ 2 vols. 1831. 8. ‘Geological Map of Scotland, with a Memoir to H.M. Treasury,’ 1836. 9. ‘Proofs and Illustrations of the Attributes of God from the Facts and Laws of the Physical Universe,’ &c., 3 vols. 1837. The last was a posthumous work, published in accordance with directions left by him, for it had been completed in 1830, but held back because of the appearance of the ‘Bridgewater Treatises.’ The ‘Geological Map of Scotland’ was also published a few months after his death.

Some pungent remarks in the first and fourth of these works on the procrastination, slovenly habits, and other defects of the sea-coast Celts excited vehement indignation, which was expressed in print by Dr. John Brown in a vituperative book (cf. Gent. Mag. 20 Aug. 1835). Sir Charles Lyell, who first met Macculloch about 1825, speaking from the chair of the Geological Society, bears a less grudging testimony to Macculloch's talents. ‘The influence exerted by them [his writings] on the progress of our science has been powerful and lasting, yet they have been less generally admired and studied than they deserve. Their popularity has been impaired by a want of condensation and clearness in the style, which none could more easily have remedied than the author, had he been willing to submit to the necessary labour.’ Lyell also complains that ‘a want of enthusiasm for his subject is perceptible, especially in his “System of Geology,” and a disposition to neglect or speak slightingly of the labours of others, and even to treat in a tone bordering on ridicule some entire departments of science connected with geology, such as the study of fossil conchology.’ Lyell attributed these imperfections to habitual ill-health acting on a sensitive mind, and to a fixed impression that his services in the cause of geology were underrated.

Macculloch's writings give the impression that he was a man of solitary habits, making but few friends, and somewhat trying (as is reported) those few: of a critical nature, keen at detecting an unsound argument or a vulnerable point in a position. Diffuse his style may be, but it is smooth and balanced, and not seldom Macculloch enlivens a narrative of plain facts or the course of a scientific argument by some touch of caustic humour or some sound philosophic maxim; he was also a skilful and adroit controversialist. Undoubtedly he did not fully appreciate the importance of palæontology. It was then a novel branch of investigation, and he was one of the old school of geologists who could not forget that ‘their father was a mineralogist.’ Of the solid value of his work there can be no question. He made mistakes, but in his days geology was almost in its infancy; and the generation which succeeded him, while professing to correct and improve his work, not once only went wrong where he had been right—chiefly owing to the want of his sound knowledge of mineralogy and his inductive habit of thought. For instance, he duly appreciated the intrusive character of certain 'traps' in the Western Islands, the nature of the gabbros of the Cuchullin Hills, and the existence of three types of red sandstone in Scotland. The wide range of his observation as a traveler is well indicated by the sub-title of his 'Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland,' a book which provides the reader with excellent fare, if somewhat 'confused.' His 'Description of the Western Tales 'still remains among the classic works in geology. In fine, the period which has elapsed since Maccullock's death has fully justified the laudatory phrases with which Lyell concludes his obituary notice: 'As an original observer he yields to no other geologist of our own time, and is perhaps unrivalled In the wide range of subjects on which he displayed great talent and profound knowledge.'

The Royal Society possesses a portrait (in oils) of Macculloch, and the Geological Society a marble bust.

[Proc. Geol. Soc. ii. 359 (obituary notice); many incidental delails occur in his works; the Cyclopædia of Biography contains a rather full memoir: Gent. Mag. 1835, pt. ii.; Munk's Coll. of Phys. iii. 65, where the name is given as Maccullock — it is also printed (apparently with some authority) as MacCullock.]

T. G. B.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.189
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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18 ii 6 MacCulloch, John: for third read fourth