Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Conybeare, William Daniel
CONYBEARE, WILLIAM DANIEL (1787–1857), geologist and divine, younger brother of John Josias Conybeare [q. v.], was born in June 1787, and educated at Westminster and Christ Church. At Oxford he was in the same year as Sir Robert Peel, with whom he took a first in classics and a second in mathematics, being classed with Archbishop Whately. Conybeare continued to reside at the university until he took his M.A. degree.
Among the students of science at the university at the commencement of the 19th century the two brothers Conybeare, Dr. Buckland, and a few others devoted themselves to geology. Some of the early members of the Geological Society of London were in the habit of paying an annual visit in Whitsun week to the university, and with the club they explored the geology of the neighbourhood of Oxford. Buckland said that Conybeare would have been the fitting person to fill the office of lecturer on geology. Professor Sedgwick stated that he looked upon Conybeare as his early master in geology.
In 1814 Conybeare married and retired from the university to a country curacy, and nine years afterwards he removed to the vicarage of Sully in Glamorganshire. He subsequently held the curacy of Banbury and lectureship of Brislington, near Bristol. In connection with Sir Henry de la Beche he founded the Bristol Philosophical Institution and Museum. At this time he was visited by Elie de Beaumont and Dufresnoy, who were desirous of acquiring a knowledge of the secondary rocks of England. On their return to France they co-operated with Cuvier in obtaining the election of Conybeare as a corresponding member of the Institute for geology. In 1836 Conybeare presented himself to his family living of Axminster, and while there preached, at the request of the university of Oxford, the Bampton lecture for 1839. In 1844 he resigned this living, and became dean of Llandaff, where he carried on the work of restoration with zeal and success. Conybeare left Llandaff to attend the deathbed of his eldest son, William John [q. v.] At the house of another son he was stricken with apoplexy, and died on the morning of 12 Aug. 1857. Conybeare's versatility is strikingly illustrated by one of his early contributions to palæontological science in 1814, which appears in the second volume of the ‘Transactions of the Geological Society,’ entitled ‘On the Origin of a remarkable Class of Organic Impressions occurring in Nodules of Flint.’ He arrived at the conclusion that ‘these cellules were the work of animalcules preying on shells, and on the vermes inhabiting them,’ and Dr. Buckland fully confirmed these conclusions.
Conybeare's examination of the landslip at Culverhole Point, near Axmouth, in 1839, also illustrates his knowledge of physical science. His paper on the ‘Hydrographical Basin of the Thames,’ written with a view to determine the causes which had operated in forming the valley of the Thames, and his examination of Elie de Beaumont's ‘Theory of Mountain Chains,’ are proofs of the philosophical views which he brought to bear on his favourite science. Conybeare's paper on the ‘Ichthyosaurus’ established in the most satisfactory manner the propriety of creating a new genus of reptilia, forming an intermediate link between the ‘Ichthyosaurus’ and crocodile, to which he gave the name of ‘Plesiosaurus.’ Sir Henry de la Beche was associated with Conybeare in this inquiry. He allows Sir Henry every praise for his assistance in working out the geological details, but the osteological details and reasonings must be ascribed to Conybeare. When obliged to undertake a voyage to Madeira on account of the health of his youngest son, Conybeare visited the peak of Teneriffe, and studied the volcanic phenomena of the neighbouring islands.
These labours were fully recognised by the illustrious Cuvier, who, as already stated, advocated his admission to the French Academy as a corresponding member for the science of geology. He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1832, and of the Geological Society of London in 1821. In 1842 Conybeare presented to the meeting of the British Association at Oxford a ‘Report on the Progress, Actual State, and Ulterior Prospects of Geological Science,’ in which he displayed the combined powers of the scholar and the man of science.
[Royal Society's Catalogue of Scientific Papers; Geological Society's Transactions; Thomson's Annals; Philosophical Magazine, 1830–4; Edinburgh Philosopbical Journal, 1840, Lyell's Principles of Geology.]