Sir Charles Lyell

The Scottish geologist Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875) established the uniformitarian view of geology.

Charles Lyell, the eldest son of Charles Lyell, was born at Kinnordy, Forfar, the family estate, on Nov. 14, 1797. During his early childhood, the family moved to Lyndhurst, Hampshire, where he received his early education. He showed a keen interest in collecting moths, a hobby he pursued throughout his life. At age 15 Lyell read Robert Bakewell's Introduction to Geology (1813), which aroused his interest in geology. Entering Exeter College, Oxford, in 1816, he studied classics and attended geology lectures with William Buckland.

Lyell earned his bachelor's degree in 1819 and then entered Lincoln's Inn to study law. However, eye trouble interrupted his law study, and he developed an even greater affinity for geological study. He joined the Geological Society, becoming its secretary in 1823 and later president for two terms.

Beginning with Rome in 1820, Lyell made several geological tours on the Continent as well as in England and Scotland. Returning to law in 1825, he was called to the bar and practiced intermittently for 3 years, during which time he also wrote many papers on geological subjects, published primarily in the proceedings of the Geological Society.

In Principles of Geology (3 vols., 1830-1833) Lyell attempted to explain the former changes of the earth's surface by reference to causes now in operation. The continuous revision and expansion of the Principles, his main object in life, form a record of 40 years' progress in geology through the 12 editions. The twelfth edition was published posthumously in 1875. In these volumes, through his wide-ranging synthesis of geological phenomena observed in Europe and America, Lyell established the uniformitarian view of geology; that is, contemporary processes, long continued, of land erosion and deposition coupled with slow uplift of sea floors were a sound basis for reconstructing the earth's past. The wasting land of one age becomes the rocks of later ages. This view, set out with forensic skill, opposed and displaced the catastrophist view of sudden violent occurrences, the last of which was believed to be Noah's flood.

Lyell served as the first professor of geology at King's College, London, from 1831 to 1833. In 1832 he married Mary Horner; they had no children. He stopped teaching to devote his time to research and writing. In addition to the Principles, he wrote Manual of Elementary Geology (1838), two accounts of his North American travels (1845, 1849), and Geological Evidence of the Antiquity of Man (3 eds., 1863-1873).

Lyell was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1826; was knighted in 1848; was awarded the Copley Medal in 1858; and was created baronet in 1864. He died on Feb. 22, 1875, in London and was buried in Westminster Abbey.


Further Reading on Sir Charles Lyell

Important biographical material is in Life, Letters and Journals of Sir Charles Lyell, Bart, edited by his sister-in-law, Katherine Lyell (2 vols., 1881). The two major studies of Lyell are Thomas G. Bonney, Charles Lyell and Modern Geology (1901), and Edward Bailey, Charles Lyell (1962).