Lyell | Sir | Charles | 1797-1875 | geologist

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

Sir Charles Lyell was a geologist whose work helped to found the modern notion of geology and geologic time whilst establishing geology as a seperate science. In his first book, Principles of Geology, (1830) he propounded his theory of uniformitarianism, that the Earth's history can be explained by gradual change over time. He also proposed the idea that different periods of geologic time could be established by reference fossils, he divided geologic time into four periods; Pleistoscene, Older Pliocene, Miocene and Eocene. He also expounded notions on the rock cycle, how one type of rock was transformed into another, volcanic forces, deposition and erosion.

Lyell attended William Buckland's (1784-1856) lectures on Geology in1818. He visited Paris in 1823 where he spent 2 months. The scientific influence of Paris was profound for Lyell. He first became aware of the depth and seriousness of French studies on natural history and geology.

In 1822 Lyell was called to the bar; and from 1825-1827 he was a practicing barrister. Whilst on circuit he had the opportunity to study the geology of the Southwest of England. In May 1828 he travelled to Europe (some of the journey with Sir Roderick Impey Murchison 1792-1871) going through France and into Italy. In 1830 he made a geological journey to the Pyrenees. In the first edition of his Principles of Geology, (1831) Lyell argued that the natural order of the past was uniform with that of the present; the same physical laws held true and the same kinds of processes occurred. The geologist should, therefore, attempt to explain geological phenomena by analogy with modern processes. The doctrine came to be known as uniformitarianism. Lyell continued to revise Principles of Geology throughout his lifetime and brought out 12 successive editions. He later published Elements of Geology, (1838) in one volume. This first modern textbook of geology assumed that geological phenomena could be explained completely in terms of natural and knowable causes. He developed a warm friendship with Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882) in 1836, shortly after Darwin's return from the 'Beagle' Voyage. Lyell's theoretical positions even when wrong, were always carefully reasoned; and he showed an extraordinary capacity even into old age to understand the meaning of new evidence and to change his mind.


Sir Charles Lyell was married to Mary Elizabeth Horner, daughter of educationalist and geologist Leonard Horner (1785-1864) and his brother Henry was married to her sister Katherine Murray Horner.

Other Significant Information

Notable publications:

Principles of Geology, (1830)

Elements of Geology, (1837)

Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man, (1863)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1819: Elected Fellow, Geological and Linnean Societies of London

1823: Appointed Secretary, Geological Society of London

1826: Appointed Foreign Secretary, Geological Society of London

1831-1833: Appointed Professor of Geology, Kings College, London

1834: Awarded Royal Medal, Royal Society of London

1834-1836: Elected President, Geological Society of London

1848: Awarded Knighthood

1850: Appointed President, Geological Society of London

1858: Awarded Copley Medal

1864: Appointed President, British Association for the Advancement of Science

1864: Awarded Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society


List of sources for the biographical information:

Williams, TI, A Biographical Dictionary of Scientists, (London, Adam and Charles Black Ltd, 1969)

Bailey, Edward, Charles Lyell, ( London, Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd, 1962)

Angus Council, Local History, People of Angus, Sir Charles Lyell , (, Angus Council, 2001)