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Lyell, Sir Charles, 1797-1875 (1st Baronet | Scottish geologist)



  • Existence: 14 November 1797 - 22 February 1875


Charles Lyell Project - 2020


Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875) wrote many geological papers, mainly published by the Geological Society of London (1807-present day), but his reputation rests almost entirely on his work Principles of Geology, ( 1830-1833) inspired in part by a European tour with Sir Roderick Impey Murchison and also his knowledge of James Hutton's Theory of the Earth. In this work, first published in three volumes, Lyell propounded his theory of uniformitarianism, which holds that all geological formations can be explianed solely in terms of natural processes which can be observed in operation today. This ran counter to the prevailing theory which assumed that mountain-building and other geological phenomena could only have occurred as a result of major cataclysmic events in the past. Lyell's uniformitarianism was developed in order to reject the progressionism implicit in the prevailing theory, which he saw as leading to evolution, an idea which he strongly opposed. Ironically, Lyell's opposition to evolution brought the idea to scientists' attention and the vast time scales required by uniformitarianism enabled Darwin to conceive of his version of evolutionary theory. Lyell's other works include: The Elements of Geology, ( 1837) Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man, ( 1863-1873).

Charles Lyell's father was an active naturalist, and Lyell had access to an elaborate library which included works on geology. Whilst at Oxford University he attended lectures by William Buckland, professor of geology, that triggered his enthusiasm for the subject. He became more and more interested in the subject and made many geological tours with his family in England and Scotland in 1817, and on the Continent the following year, the first of many trips abroad. In 1828 he explored the volcanic region of the Auvergne, then went to Mount Etna to gather supporting evidence for the theory of geology he would expound in his Principles of Geology . He also made numerous tours of the United States, described in Travels in North America, ( 1909) . His writings deal with the rock cycle, which explains how one type of rock is transformed into another. Lyell also expounds notions on volcanic forces, deposition, erosion and palaeontology in his writings. His work helped to establish the modern study of geology and geologic time. In addition to rock formation, he also wrote about palaeontology. It was Lyell who proposed the idea of reference fossils - fossils which are indicative of certain periods of geologic time. He divided geologic time into four periods: Pleistocene, Older Pliocene, Miocene and Eocene. His final work, The Antiquity of Man, ( 1863) , was a wide-ranging study of the human fossil record. In this work Lyell finally accepted Darwinian evolution, but still tried to insist that there was a radical discontinuity between humankind and the rest of the animal kingdom.

In 1823 Lyell was appointed secretary of the Geological Society of London, and 3 years later they made him their foreign secretary. He was twice President in 1836 and 1850. Lyell was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1826. He was awarded a Royal Medal in 1834 and the Copley Medal in 1858 and in 1866 he was awarded the Wollaston Medal. In 1832 he was the first professor of geology at King's College, London, and became President of the British Association in 1864.

Found in 1033 Collections and/or Records:

Addresses and Speeches, c. 1850s - 1870s

 Series — Box Lyell Temp Box 3.12: Series Coll-203/B14; Series Coll-203/B15
Identifier: Coll-203/B15
Scope and Contents Series of printed addresses given by Charles Lyell, including: Galley proof of an Address delivered to the Royal Institution, Friday 4th February, [1840s - after 1846] 'The Fossil footmarks of a reptile in the coal-formation of the Alleghany Mountains' but also covers the antiquity of Earth, and political freedoms in Pennsylvania Printed Address delivered at the Anniversary Meeting of...
Dates: c. 1850s - 1870s

Albums containing autograph letters to Sir Charles Lyell and family, and portraits of the writers, compiled by Leonard Lyell

Identifier: Coll-1997
Content Description This collection consists of two albums compiled by Leonard Lyell, nephew of Charles Lyell and son of Katharine Murray Lyell. The volumes contain letters sent by many leading scientists and scholars of the 19th century to Sir Charles Lyell and others in his family, such as his wife Mary, the elder Charles Lyell, Mary’s father Leonard Horner, and his brother Francis Horner. In both albums, most of the letters are accompanied by a facing photograph or portrait print of the letter’s...
Dates: 1805-1899

Archibald Geikie, correpondence

Identifier: Coll-1815/2
Scope and Contents Letters to Sir Archibald Geike from: Hicks, Henry (25 Oct. 1887); Hooker, Joseph Dalton (Sir) (May 1890); Horne, John (5 Jun. 1898); Huxley, Thomas Henry (17 May 1862); Kidston, Robert (3 Aug. 1883); Lapworth, Charles (Sir) (16 Nov. 1898); Lyell, Charles (Sir) (31 Mar. 1860); Marcou, Jules (5 Jan. 1871); Marcon, Jules (30 Apr. 1878); Milne, John (15 Aug. 1895); Peach, Benjamin Neve (19 Oct. 1898); Prestwich, Joseph (Sir) (15 May 1892?); Scrope, G. Poulett (1866?); Sorby, Henry...
Dates: Majority of material found within 1840s-1940s

Armstrong, William, 21 July 1863; 29 August 1863

Identifier: Coll-1989/1
Scope and Contents Two autograph letters signed from Sir William Armstrong to Sir Charles Lyell.1. Letter dated 21 July 1863: "It will be quite convenient to receive you & Lady Lyell with her servant on the 29th Aug[us]t & Lady Armstrong and I hope you will not hesitate to come. I have several houses available for sleeping within a few hundred yards of my own & I have abundance of room in all other aspects [...]".2. Letter dated 29 August 1863: "I am very sorry that we are...
Dates: 21 July 1863; 29 August 1863

Articles, c. 1829-c.1874

 Series — Box Lyell Temp Box 3.13: Series Coll-203/B16
Identifier: Coll-203/B16
Scope and Contents Articles by Charles Lyell, and by others. Original label exists, which lists some of the items below: Printed list of papers and articles by Charles Lyell, with two handwritten lists inserts, one written by Mary Lyell. Lists 62 publications dated 1825-1852 Boulder Formation or Drift, and associated freshwater deposits, composing the mud cliffs of Eastern Norfolk, read at The Geological...
Dates: c. 1829-c.1874

Autograph Letter Signed from Charles Lyell to an unknown correspondent, 21 April 1874

 Item — Box CLX-A-1591
Identifier: Coll-1848/20-0081
Scope and Contents This is an antograph letter signed "Cha. Lyell", sent by Charles Lyell to an unnamed individual, dated 24 April 1874, 73 Harley Street, London. In this letter he thanks his correspondent for "the additional list of Aldeby shells", explaining that he has completed "[his] new edition of the Students Elements [of Geology]" and that he "[had the assistance of Mr Searles Wood". He goes on to discuss papers and maps relating to the geology of the Rhine which Lyell himself had found instructive,...
Dates: 21 April 1874

Barclay and Livingston, 2 May 1864

 File — Box Box 3.3: Series Coll-203/B1
Identifier: Coll-203/B1/61

Boxall, William, 31 January 1867; 13 January 1877

Identifier: Coll-1989/6
Scope and Contents 1. Autograph letter of excuse from William Boxall to Katharine Murray Lyell following an invitation (dated 31 January 1867): "I have been in bed two days with one of my bad attacks in the throat. I hoped till this moment that I might have had the pleasure of dining with you on Saturday but I am so unwell that I feel that it will be impossible for me to leave the house. – I am most grateful to you and to Col. Lyell and to Sir Charles and your sister for unremitting kindness and I cannot help...
Dates: 31 January 1867; 13 January 1877

Bunsen, Christian Frh. Von, 5 August 1858; 25 January; 1 September [no year]

Identifier: Coll-1989/8
Scope and Contents 1. Autograph letter signed from Christian von Bunsen to Leornard Horner, dated 5 August 1858: "Welcome in Germany! I was afraid you had gone to Hekekiah and Sesustesen instead of my dear country, and am happy to know you so near. You threaten to overthrow the balance of the minor states however, by all settling in such numbers in one Dukedom only: and as I ever not wish you to separate, we might hope you would put up headquarters for a week or two at Heidelberg where there are plenty of...
Dates: 5 August 1858; 25 January; 1 September [no year]

Burton, Decimus, 14 May 1814

Identifier: Coll-1989/9
Scope and Contents Autograph letter signed from Decimus Burton to Sir Charles Lyell, dated 14 May 1814: "I have considered the subject put to me in your note. I take the superficies of London, Westminster[,] Southwark, Finsbury[,] Marylebone etc. to be 16 sq. miles. I suppose the cubical mass of stone, brick & paving stone over that area to be 74,000,000 cubic yards in the Houses, Churches, Public Buildings etc. Taking the number of Houses to be 250,000 – and this would give about 5 feet thickness or...
Dates: 14 May 1814