Charles Lyell

Born at Kinnordy, Scotland to a botanist father who possessed considerable literary tastes, Charles Lyell graduated from Oxford in 1821, and joined the bar in 1825.

Sir Charles Lyell was the most famous lawyer and geologist of his time.

One of the most important British scientists in history, Lyell wrote “Principles of Geology”, a landmark work in geology that explores James Hutton’s doctrine of uniformitarianism.

At the age of 19 Lyell went to Oxford University, where his interest in classics, mathematics, and geology was stimulated, and the latter by the enthusiastic lectures of William Buckland, later widely known for his attempt to prove Noah’s Flood by studies of fossils from cave deposits.

Lyell spent the long vacations between terms traveling and conducting geological studies. Notes made in 1817 on the origin of the Yarmouth lowlands clearly foreshadow his later work.

The penetrating geological and cultural observations Lyell made while on a continental tour with his family in 1818 were as remarkable as the number of miles he walked in a day.

In December 1819 he earned a B.A. with honors and moved to London to study law.

During the summer of 1830 Lyell traveled through the geologically complex Pyrenees to Spain, where the closed, repressed society both fascinated and repelled him.

Returning to France, he was astonished to find King Charles X dethroned the tricolor everywhere, and geologists able to talk only of politics.

Back in London he set to work again on the Principles of Geology, finishing Volume II in December 1831 and the third and final volume in April 1833.

His steady work was relieved by occasional social or scientific gatherings and a trip to a volcanic district in Germany close to the home of his sweetheart, Mary Horner, in Bonn, whom he married in July 1832, taking a long honeymoon and geological excursion in Switzerland and Italy.

Mary, whose father had geological leanings, shared Charles’s interests.

For 40 years she was his closest companion; the happiness of their marriage increased because of her ability to participate in his work.

In the 1840s Lyell became more widely known outside the scientific community, socializing with Lord John Russell, a leading Whig; Sir Robert Peel, founder of Scotland Yard; and Thomas Macaulay, the historian of England.

In 1848 Lyell was knighted for his scientific achievements, beginning a long and friendly acquaintance with the royal family.

He studied the prevention of mine disasters with the English physicist Michael Faraday in 1844, served as a commissioner for the Great Exhibition in 1851–52, and in the same year helped to begin educational reform at Oxford University—he had long objected to church domination of British colleges.

Lyell’s professional reputation continued to grow; during his lifetime he received many awards and honorary degrees, including, in 1858, the Copley Medal, the highest award of the Royal Society of London; and he was many times president of various scientific societies or functions.

Expanding reputation and responsibilities brought no letup in his geological explorations.

With Mary, he traveled in Europe or Britain practically every summer, visiting Madeira in the winter of 1854 to study the origin of the island itself and of its curious fauna and flora.