Roderick Impey Murchison must have been a remarkable man. The son of a Scottish landowner, he was one of the first people to rigorously use the principles of stratigraphy discovered by William Smith, which put him in a position to erect the Silurian system and to name about 123myrs of geological time. (That is, he named the Silurian, Devonian and Permian.) Yet, at the same time, he was incapable of accepting the Lyellian gradualist principles being developed at the time, preferring instead to resort to time-honoured, catastrophic deluges to carve the valley sides from which he collected his fossils. In addition, he was a courageous explorer of the Permian wastelands of Tsarist Russian, yet found time to be a devoted husband to an inspiring and well-educated wife.
John Morton’s book covers all this and more. Like his biography of William Smith (see book review opposite), he concentrates mostly on Murchison’s work and travels – his coverage of his Russian adventures is particularly gripping. As a result, it is easy to see how he came to exercise the power he undoubtedly held over the conduct of the early earth sciences in Britain. However, I would have preferred a little more on his psychology. It is not easy to get a feel for Murchison’s famous ability to alienate people. In fact, his bitter feud with Prof Adam Sedgwick comes over as more to do with Sedgwick’s jealousy and inadequacies – the result of a man struggling to promote the Cambrian as a bona fide system (he often had to define it by means of lithology, as a result of the frequent absence of fossils). In that respect, the impression is that Sedgwick was unlucky in his choice of geological period to study, whereas Murchison was anything but. (The Silurian is much better represented in the UK than the Cambrian.) However, maybe, this was the case…
Nevertheless, this an excellent read about a scientist who has had too little written about him in the popular science market. Well-written and well-researched, it is certainly worth a read. With his biography of William Smith, John Morton has created an excellent mini-portfolio of biographies.
King of Siluria: How Roderick Murchison change the face of Geology by John L. Morton, Brocken Spectre Publishing, Horsham (2004). 276 pp., softback, £11.99