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Edinburgh University Library Special Collections Division

Papers of Sir Charles Lyell

Collection Summary

Reference Code

GB 0237 Sir Charles Lyell



Extent and medium of the unit of description

9 metres

(37 boxes)

Existence and Location of Originals

This material is original.

Name of creator

Lyell | Sir | Charles | 1797-1875 | geologist

Biographical History

Biographical History

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.

Scope and Content

Scope and Content

The papers Sir Charles Lyell consist of:

  • 10 boxes of correspondence
  • 2 boxes of miscellaneous papers and lecture notes
  • 24 boxes of offprints of papers




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