Sir Roderick Impey Murchison, 1st Baronet, KCB, DCL, FRS, FRSE, FLS, PRGS, PBA, and MRIA, pause for breath; the geologist and geographer who established the Silurian and Devonian systems, and predicted the discovery of gold in Australia, died on the 22nd of October, 1871.
Roderick Impey Murchison was saved from a life of idle debauchery, and the butchery of foxes, by an interest in geology he got through the encouragement of Sir Humphrey Davy and the eccentric William Buckland. After helping Wellington win the Peninsular War, Murchison turned to hunting and killing foxes instead of Frenchmen. He was exceedingly capable at both these pursuits, but the novelty kinda wore off and, thankfully for the advancement of science, he thereafter devoted the rest of his life to geology. In keeping with his earlier exploits, Murchison didn’t hang about and after investigating sedimentary rocks in Scotland, the Welsh Borderland and South Wales, he made geological tours “at a furious pace” to continental Europe. He famously visited the Ural Mountains in Russia, where he got the nickname ‘Count Siluria’, and the Alps, where he studied the geological formations. He was the first to penetrate the mysteries of the Permian frost, but before that, he became the first to identify and classify the Silurian and Devonian eras and put a period to the Cambrian and the Ordovician.
His important contributions included ‘The Silurian System’ in 1839 and ‘Geology of Russia in Europe and the Ural Mountains’, which he co-wrote with the French palaeontologist, Edouard de Verneuil, and the German geologist, Count Alexander von Keyserling. Obviously, the Peninsular War was long forgotten. In 1839, Murchison’s work on the Devonian with Adam Sedgwick, the Professor of Geology at Cambridge, identified the ‘Old Red Sandstone’ system that a certain Hugh Miller made famous in his book of the same name. Murchison was never shy of publicity and was always in the public eye, but to the layman, he represented the ‘official’ voice of geology and was anything but idle in the cause of the advancement of science. Apart from Hugh Miller, he encouraged the Minister from Newburgh, John Anderson, when he discovered extensive sandstone deposits of ‘ganoid’ fossilised fish in Dura Den, in Fife. Murchison became the top man in British geology when he was made Director-General of the Geological Survey and as many as twenty-three geographic features on six continents have been named in his honour. His personal tally of topographical features includes Mount Murchison in New Zealand, Murchison Falls (he didn’t) in Uganda, the Murchison River in Australia, and Murchison Island off the west coast of Canada. And, there is a 58km wide crater on the Moon that has been given his name.
Roderick Impey Murchison was born in Tarradale House on the north shore of the Beauly Firth, not far from Muir of Ord, on the 22nd of February, 1792. Funnily enough, that’s not a million miles from where Hugh Miller was born and reared. At the tender age of seven, Roddie was sent away to Durham School and then spent his early teenage years at the Military College in Great Marlow. Then, at the age of fifteen, Roderick joined the army, where he was commissioned and in 1808, landed in Spain with the ‘Duke to be’ of Wellington. He served his country for eight years before Napoleon’s defeat in 1815 ended both men’s military ambitions. He returned to England, studied arts and antiquities, and took up fox hunting before, at the age of thirty-two, he had his epiphany moment.
Encouraged by his wife, who collected fossils, Murchison began to attend lectures at the Royal Institution and became fascinated by the young science of geology. He joined the Geological Society of London, where he gave his first paper in 1825, and thereafter embarked on his travels in geology. His highly acclaimed book, ‘The Silurian System’, resulted from his extensive research into the fossils contained within the ‘greywacke rocks’ – a layer of sandstone in Wales. That work established the Silurian geological time period of 443-417 million years ago and not satisfied with that, he followed it up a year later by identifying the Devonian period of 417-354 million years ago, along with Alan Sedgwick. Spurred on by his success, he took off for Russia and the Urals, where incidentally, a Murchison memorial has now been erected by the ‘Ural-Scottish Society’ in Yekaterinburg. The stone and cast-iron plaque features the tooth whorl of a Permian shark called the ‘Helicoprion’. The chairman of the Ural-Scottish Society, Alexander Zyrianov, said at the time, “We [Russians and Scots] have a lot in common – nature, climate and mountains… We are highlanders and that speaks volumes.”
The output of Murchison’s time in Russia was the collaborative ‘Geology of Russia in Europe and the Ural Mountains’ of 1845 in which the Permain period of 290-248 million years ago was first categorised. And it was his study of the deposition of gold in the Urals that contributed to the discovery of gold in Australia. Later, Murchison also produced a collaborative study of the structure of the Alps that would come to be regarded as a classic. Towards the end of his career, he was involved in a wee bit of an argument with another famous Scottish geologist, James Nicol, who held the chair of natural history at the University of Aberdeen from 1853. Murchison and his initially fearsome advocate, the young Archibald Geikie, believed in ‘stratigraphic continuity’, but Nicol proposed that the rock succession was not continuous. That led to the ‘Highlands Controversy’ over Nicol’s theory that the formation had been ‘tectonically’ broken, resulting in the fault zone that runs from Eriboll to Skye and known today as the ‘Moine Thrust’. Murchison’s reputation and Geikie’s support meant that it wasn’t until after Nicol’s death that his theory was accepted, thanks to Geikie, who coined the term ‘thrust’.
Sir Roderick Impey Murchison died in London on the 22nd of October, 1871, and was buried in Brompton Cemetery.
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