Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Fitton, William Henry

FITTON, WILLIAM HENRY, M.D. (1780–1861), geologist, born in Dublin in January 1780, was a descendant of an ancient family, originally of Gawsworth in Cheshire, but long settled in Ireland. Fitton went to school in Dublin with Moore (the poet) and Robert Emmett. He carried off the senior classical scholarship at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1798, and took his B.A. degree there in 1799. He was destined for the church, but his bent towards natural science induced him to adopt the medical profession.

Before 1807 he had determined barometrically the heights of the principal mountains of Ireland, had made excursions to Wales and to Cornwall to study their minerals and rocks, and had been arrested on suspicion as a rebel while engaged in collecting fossils in the neighbourhood of Dublin. In 1808 Fitton went to the university of Edinburgh, where he attended the lectures of Professor Jameson, through whose influence many able men were led to the study of geology. In 1809 Fitton removed to London, where he continued to study medicine and chemistry, and in 1812 he established himself in Northampton, assured of a good reception there as a physician by the introduction of Lord and Lady Spencer, and with the anticipation also of succeeding to the practice of Dr. Kerr, the father of Lady Davy.

At Northampton Fitton's mother and three sisters kept house for him, till in 1820 he married Miss James, a lady of ample fortune, by whom he had five sons and three daughters. In 1816 Fitton was made M.D. of Cambridge University, but after his marriage he gave up the active practice of his profession, removed to London, and devoted himself entirely to scientific researches, mainly geological. After acting for several years as secretary of the Geological Society, Fitton was made president in 1828. He established the 'Proceedings' of the society.

Fitton was a man of very independent spirit. He strongly supported Herschel in opposition to the Duke of Sussex for the chair of the Royal Society. His house was a hospitable meeting-place for scientific persons, and while president of the Geological Society he held a regular conversazione on Sundays. Fitton was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1815; he also belonged to the Linnean, Astronomical, and Geographical Societies. He was awarded the Wollaston medal by the Geological Society in 1852. He died at his house in London on 13 May 1861.

Fitton's scientific work began in 1811 with his paper, 'Notice respecting the Geological structure of the vicinity of Dublin ('Trans. Geological Society,' 1811). Between 1817 and 1841 he contributed a series of papers to the 'Edinburgh Review' upon contemporaneous geological topics, such as 'William Smith's Geological Map of England,' 'Lyell's Geology,' the 'Silurian System,' &c. But Fitton's best work was done between 1824 and 1836, when he laid down the proper succession of the strata between the oolite and the chalk ; dividing the 'greensand' into an upper and a lower division, separated by a bed of clay, the gault. This work forms a distinct landmark in the history of geology. His principal papers descriptive of the greensand are contained in the 'Proceedings' and in the 'Transactions' of the Geological Society for 1834-5, and in the 'Journal' of the same society, 1845-6. It was Fitton's delight to instruct others in practical geology, and many travellers, including Sir John Franklin, Sir George Back, and Sir John Richardson, received valuable assistance from him.

Fitton's last paper (he published twenty-one altogether) was 'On the Structure of North-West Australia' in the 'Proceedings of the Geographical Society' for 1857.

[Quart. Journ. Geological Society, president's address, 1862, p. xxx ; Royal Society's Catalogue of Scientific Papers.]

W. J. H.