Ramsay, Andrew Crombie (DNB00)

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RAMSAY, Sir ANDREW CROMBIE (1814–1891), geologist, born 31 Jan. 1814, was third child of William Ramsay, a manufacturing chemist of Glasgow, by his wife, Elizabeth Crombie. The father was a man of scientific tastes and marked ability; the mother was a woman hardly less strong than tender. As the boy was delicate in his early years he was sent to school at Salcoats, but when his health improved he returned to Glasgow and attended the grammar school. But in 1827 his father died, leaving a very scanty provision for his widow and four children. Andrew, in consequence, had to take a clerkship in a cotton-broker's office. Here he was anything but happy, but he found consolation in literature and in science, becoming gradually absorbed in geology. In 1837 he started in business with a partner, but with so little success that he gave it up after a three years' trial.

In the autumn of 1840, however, the British Association met at Glasgow, and in anticipation of their visit a geological model of the Isle of Arran was prepared. In the construction of this Ramsay, who for the last four years had spent his holidays in that island, took far the greatest share, and it not only got him a commission to write a small book on the island (published in 1841), but also introduced him so favourably to some of the leaders of the science that in the spring of this year Roderick (afterwards Sir Roderick) Impey Murchison [q. v.] invited him to act as his assistant on a tour to America, which he was then contemplating. Ramsay at once accepted the offer, and started for London, to find on his arrival that his services would not be required; for his employer had changed his plans and was going to Russia. But Murchison had done his best to save Ramsay from being a loser by procuring for him a nomination to the geological survey under Sir Henry Thomas de la Beche [q. v.], and so the young geologist, instead of crossing the Atlantic, was at work at Tenby within a fortnight of his arrival in London. The pay of the post was small, but there were good prospects of improvement, and the work was thoroughly congenial. For four years Ramsay was engaged in the southern part of Wales, after which he gradually pushed on northwards. His energy and the excellence of his work soon won the approval of his chief, and on a reorganisation of the survey, early in 1845, Ramsay was appointed ‘local director’ for Great Britain. The more northern part of Wales soon became the field of his personal work, and during the summers of 1848–51 he was engaged in the Snowdonian region.

In 1847 he was appointed professor of geology at University College, London, a post where the duties were not very heavy; but the pay was almost minute, so that his connection with the survey was undisturbed. In the summer of this year his attention was directed, probably by Robert Chambers [q. v.], to the signs of glacial action in North Wales. His interest was at once keenly aroused, and he communicated a paper on the subject to the Geological Society of London in the winter of 1851.

In the summer of 1850 he was invited to spend a few days under the roof of the Rev. James Williams, rector of Llanfairynghornwy, Anglesey, whose daughter Louisa he married on 20 July 1852. Their wedding tour afforded Ramsay his first opportunity of seeing the peaks and glaciers of the Alps, and gave him a still keener interest in physical geology. Prior to his marriage another change had taken place. The Government School of Mines had been established in connection with the geological survey; Ramsay was appointed to the lectureship in geology, and resigned his post at University College. But his work became, if possible, harder than ever, and the difficulties after a time were increased by the failing health of the director-general. In the spring of 1855 De la Beche died. Ramsay had hoped to be his successor; his disappointment, however, was mitigated by the selection of his first patron, Sir R. I. Murchison.

In the summer of 1858 Ramsay was recalled from an Alpine tour, in company with Professor John Tyndall [q. v.], by the news of his mother's death in her eighty-fifth year. He felt the loss keenly, and at the close of the next year his own health, hitherto so vigorous, showed signs of failure. Rest was ordered for six months, which were spent chiefly at Bonn and in the Eifel. He returned with his bodily vigour restored, but it may be doubted whether his nervous system ever quite regained its former strength.

In the beginning of 1862 the staff of the survey again underwent rearrangement, and Ramsay's post was altered to that of senior director for England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland being placed under separate officials. Though this restricted the area of his visits of inspection, the natural increase of work made the change no relief, and so ten laborious years slipped away, till, in the autumn of 1871, Sir R. I. Murchison died. After some delay Ramsay was appointed director-general; but the authorities diminished the salary by the amount of his lectureship, thus indirectly obliging him to retain the latter post. Ten more weary years had passed before his taskmasters gave him some relief by restoring the salary to its original amount, when he at once resigned the lectureship. But the effects of overstrain were again becoming perceptible. In the autumn of 1878 an acute nervous affection in his left eye made its removal a necessity. But he worked on till the end of 1881, when he retired from the geological survey, and received the honour of knighthood.

Ramsay was (1862–4) president of the Geological Society; he had been elected a fellow in 1844, and received the society's Wollaston medal in 1871. He was elected F.R.S. in 1862, and was awarded a royal medal in 1880. From the Royal Society of Edinburgh he received the Neill prize in 1866. Edinburgh university made him an LL.D. in the same year, and Glasgow in 1880. In 1856, 1866, and 1881 he presided over the geological section at the British Association, and was president of the association in 1880. In 1862 he received the cross of St. Maurice and St. Lazare, and he was a corresponding or honorary member of many societies, British and foreign.

After spending the two winters following his retirement on the continent, he finally, in the summer of 1884, quitted London for Beaumaris, where Lady Ramsay some years before had inherited a house, in which their summer holidays had been generally passed. Very slowly a torpor stole over body and mind, till on 9 Dec. 1891 he died; he was buried in the churchyard at Llansadwrn. His wife, four daughters, and a son survived him.

Ramsay's official duties made travel difficult beyond the limits of our islands; but he once spent two months in North America, visited Gibraltar on a mission to investigate the water supply, and made some half-dozen holiday trips to the continent besides those mentioned above. Most of these journeys bore fruit in scientific papers. Of these he wrote between forty and fifty. In addition to his share in the maps and memoirs of the geological survey, the most important of which was the classic memoir on North Wales (1866, 2nd edit. 1881), he was author of a volume on the ‘Physical Geology and Geography of Great Britain.’ This had its origin in six lectures delivered to a class of working men at Jermyn Street, published in 1863, but was expanded till, in the fifth edition (1878), it had become a fairly large volume. Since the author's death a new edition has been prepared by Mr. H. B. Woodward. Ramsay was also a contributor to the ‘Saturday Review’ and other periodicals.

As a geologist his heart was in the physical side of the subject. He had no particular liking for palæontology, and almost a contempt for petrology, which sometimes led him into serious theoretical errors, thereby impairing the value of his work. To him the question of absorbing interest was the history and origin of the natural features of a district. In recording its stratigraphy he was a master; in the more speculative task of accounting for its scenery he was always suggestive. Perhaps a certain mental impetuosity sometimes carried him beyond the limits of cautious induction; but even those who criticised never failed to admit that his work bore the impress of genius. Among his more noteworthy papers may be named those on the ‘Denudation of South Wales’ (‘Mem. Geol. Survey,’ vol. i.), on the ‘Old Glaciers of Switzerland and North Wales’ (‘Peaks, Passes, and Glaciers,’ 1st ser.), and his contributions to the ‘Journal of the Geological Society of London’ on the ‘Red Rocks of England’ (two papers), on the ‘River Courses of England and Wales,’ on the ‘Physical History of the Rhine and of the Dee,’ and on the ‘Glacial Origin of Certain Lakes in Switzerland, the Black Forest, &c.’ (‘Journal,’ 1862, p. 185). With this last subject—that certain lake basins have been scooped out by glaciers, now melted away—Ramsay's name is inseparably connected. Few scientific papers have ever excited more interest or more controversy. The latter is not yet decided; but perhaps it is not unjust to say that the hypothesis has failed to gather its most ardent supporters from the ranks of those who have an intimate personal knowledge of the Alps. Still, whatever be its ultimate fate, the paper, beyond all question, was a most valuable contribution to a very difficult subject, and gave an extraordinary stimulus to the study of physiography.

Ramsay, however, was no mere geologist. Frank and manly in bearing, his well-cut features beamed with intelligence and candour. Ready in conversation, he possessed a wide range of knowledge, boyish exuberance of spirits, a rare simplicity and modesty of nature, sterling integrity, and generous sympathy (Geikie). He was interested in every aspect of nature, an antiquary, and a lover of the best English literature. He could lecture, speak, and write well; could take his part at sight in a chorus, and could improvise humorous verse. He delighted in the open air, was a walker of unusual endurance, and in his forty-seventh year, after a breakdown in health, was one of the first party that climbed the Lyskamm. A portrait is in the possession of the family, and a bust at the Geological Society.

[Obituary notices appeared in the course of 1891–2 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, the Journal of the Geological Society, the Geological Magazine, Nature, and other scientific periodicals; but these are now superseded by the excellent and sympathetic memoir written by Sir Archibald Geikie (1895).]

T. G. B.