Charles Lyell, Baronet


Childhood and Early Life

Sir Charles Lyell 1st Baronet was born on 14 November 1797. He was born at Kinnordy house, in Forfarshire in Scotland. He was the eldest of the ten children of his father also Charles Lyell. His father Charles Lyell was an accomplished botanist and naturist but had more literary pursuits. Charles was first exposed to the study of nature by his father.

His father had books on almost all subjects including geology in his study. Charles spent much of his childhood in Bartley Lodge in New Forest, Hampshire in southern England. His grandfather also Charles Lyell worked with the British Navy as a purser on various ships, he left a fortune and an estate of Kinnordy at Kirriemuir for his family.

Charles attended several private schools in 1805, he went to Ringwood Hampshire, in1808 he studied at Salisbury and in 1810 he went to Midhurst in Sussex. He left Midhurst in 1815 and graduated from Exeter College of Oxford in B.A Hons. Second class degree in Classics. He moved to London to practice law and entered Lincoln’s Inn in 1820 and gained his M.A in 1821. When he was in London, he met Sir Walter Scott and took an active part in several scientific societies.

He attended lectures of William Buckland on geology and spent his vacations on geological studies. Lyell had studied the effects of the interaction of the Yare river with the sea forming the delta on which Yarmouth stood in 1817 when he visited his father’s friend Dawson Turner at Yarmouth.

His observations about the effects of glaciers and the destruction produced by mountain torrents made during his continental tour to France, Switzerland and the North of Italy, crossing the Jura and the Alps with his family. He visited Sussex to find evidence of vertical movements of the earth’s crust in 1822.

His first paper, “On a recent formation of freshwater limestone in Forfarshire” was published in 1822. He was elected as a joint secretary of the geological society in 1823. He also studied sediment formation in the freshwater lake close to Kinnordy in 1824.


He joined the bar in 1825 and have become a lawyer specializing in Higher court Litigation however because of his weak visual modality it became tough for him to observe law and he found a lot of relief in earth science work. He finally gave up law and pursued geology.

He met famous geologist George Cuvier and Alexander Von Humboldt on a trip to Paris in 1823 and examined the Paris Basin. He was additionally influenced by the French geologist Louis Constant Prevost and discovered places wherever marine and freshwater fossils were mixed together, and he suggested that the basin had been at times a freshwater lake and at other times a great bay of the sea.

In 1824 Lyell and Constant Prevost went along on a geological tour of Southwest England. Lyell developed new principles of reasoning in geology and started planning a book that will stress that there are natural explanations for geological phenomena, that ordinary natural process of today does not differ from those of the past and that the earth must, therefore, be very ancient because these everyday processes work very slowly.

His Approach towards Geology

He traveled with Roderick Murchison and studied the volcanic mountains and freshwater formations of central France. Lyell went to Sicily where there were many instances of modern changes produced by the volcanoes of Vesuvius. In 1828 he visited the Val del Bove and from Nicolosi climbed Mount Etna and was deeply impressed by the enormous size and great age of Etna, that convinced him to believe that it had been built up by a long series of volcanic eruptions.

In Sicily Lyell saw a continuity between the fauna living in the Mediterranean and its fossil ancestors preserved in the rocks, he perceived that the conditions under which both lived must be analogous. Therefore, `conditions throughout past earth science ages must have been primarily like modern conditions on the earth’s surface, and therefore the forces that led to earth science changes must have been the results of processes like those occurring at this time.

Principles and Elements of Geology

After returning to London he started working on his book, Principles of Geology and published the first volume in July 1830. In his book Lyell made arguments for uniformitarianism and that the order of nature in the past was uniform with that in the present and, therefore, that the scientist must always try and explain geological phenomena by analogy with present conditions. He also discussed the historical development of geology and then treated the principles of geological reasoning.

The central argument in Principles was that the present is the key to the past – a concept which David Hume had stated as “the present is the key to the past and that the future will resemble the past”, and James Hutton had described in 1788 that “from what has actually been, we have data for concluding with regard to that which is to happen thereafter.”

He studied the factors that verify climate across the globe and showed how worldwide climatic conditions depend on the pattern of distribution of land and sea and would, therefore, be altered by changes in their distribution. An increase in the proportion of land close to the equator, and of ocean space towards the poles, would tend to create a warmer world climate and the other way around.

He published the second volume in 1832 and in this volume, Lyell considered the changes which had occurred in the living world through geological time. Lyell also showed that the lifetime of a species was at identical time dependent upon a large number of relationships with different species living within the same space and that the living world of plants and animals was during a state of equilibrium which the fluctuations of the balance of nature would themselves steady tend to supply the extinction of species.

Lyell, therefore, began his discussion of species with a scientific examination and criticism of Lamarck’s theory though he was enthralled by Lamarck’s theory. Lyell published his third volume of principles in the year 1833. He continued to write, and the fourth edition came in June 1835 and fifth edition in March 1837.

Lyell published Elements of Geology in the year 1838. This book became the first modern textbook of geology written on the assumption that geological phenomena could be explained completely in terms of natural and knowable causes. Lyell’s Elements had six editions eventually growing to two volumes making a portable handbook. Lyell provided both the Principles and the Elements with maps, diagrams, and illustrations.

Contributions and Achievements

• In 1831 he was awarded as a post of professor in Geology at King’s College, London.
• He was honored with the ‘Royal Medal’, or ‘Queen’s Medal’, in 1834 for his scientific achievements.
• Lyell was the president of the Geological Society of London from the year 1834 to 1836.
• In 1858 he received the Copley medal which is the highest award of the ‘Royal Society of London’.

• In 1866, Lyell was honored by the ‘Wollaston Medal’ a scientific award for geology that is the highest award granted by the ‘Geological Society of London’.
• He was a member of the American Philosophical Society and a corresponding member of the Institute de France and of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Berlin, in addition to membership in many other scientific and learned societies.

• In 1866 he was made a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
• Mount Lyell, the highest peak in Yosemite National Park, is named after him. The Lyell Range, Lyell River and the gold mining town of Lyell (now only a camping site) were all named after Lyell located in Southwest Nelson in the South Island of New Zealand.

• Places named after him include Mount Lyell in California; Mount Lyell in Canada; Lyell Land in Greenland; Mount Lyell in Tasmania; Lyell Glacier in South Georgia; and Lyell Canyon.

Personal Life and Death

Lyell established geology as a science. In 1832 Lyell married the daughter of Leonard Horner, Mary Horner also associated with the Geological Society of London. In 1875 Lyell died at the age of seventy-seven due to failing health on 22 December and was buried on Westminster Abbey.

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