Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sedgwick, Adam

SEDGWICK, ADAM (1785–1873), geologist, was born on 22 March 1785 at Dent in the dales of western Yorkshire. He was the third child of Richard Sedgwick, perpetual curate of Dent, by his second wife, Margaret Sturgis. Till his sixteenth year he attended the grammar school at Dent, of which, during this time, his father became headmaster. Adam was next sent to the well-known school at Sedbergh. There he remained till 1804, when he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, as a sizar. For a few months before he read with John Dawson [q. v.], the surgeon and mathematician, who had helped to bring him into the world. An attack of typhoid fever in the autumn of 1805 nearly proved fatal. He was elected scholar in 1807, and graduated B.A. in 1808, with the place of fifth wrangler. The examiner, who settled the final order of the candidates, is said to have considered Sedgwick the one who showed most signs of inherent power.

Sedgwick continued at Cambridge, taking private pupils and reading for a fellowship. The latter he obtained in 1810, but at the cost of serious and possibly permanent injury to his health. In May 1813 he broke a blood-vessel, and for months remained in a very weak state. In 1815, however, he was able to undertake the duties of assistant tutor, and he was ordained in 1816.

The great opportunity of his life came in the early summer of 1818, when the Woodwardian professorship of geology became vacant [see Hailstone, John]. Though Sedgwick was practically ignorant of the subject, and his opponent, the Rev. George Cornelius Gorham [q. v.], was known to have studied it, he seems to have so favourably impressed the members of the university that he was elected by 186 votes to 59. Hitherto the office had been almost a sinecure; Sedgwick, although the income was then only 100l. a year, determined to make it a reality. He at once began earnest study of the subject, spending part of the summer at work in Derbyshire, and gave his first course of lectures in the Easter term of 1819. It was soon evident that a wise choice had been made. Sedgwick's lectures became each year more attractive. His repute as a geologist rapidly increased, and he took a leading part in promoting the study of natural science in the university. One instrument for this purpose was the Cambridge Philosophical Society, in the foundation of which he was one of the most active. He interested himself in the geological collection of the university, which he augmented often at his private expense, and saw transferred to a more commodious building in 1841.

In 1818 Sedgwick was elected fellow of the Geological Society; he was president in 1831, and received its Wollaston medal in 1851. He was made fellow of the Royal Society in 1830, and gained the Copley medal in 1863. In 1833 he was president of the British Association, and served as president of the geological section in 1837, 1845, 1853, and 1860. He was made honorary D.C.L. of Oxford in 1860 and honorary LL.D. of Cambridge in 1866.

Though Sedgwick spent much time in the field during the vacations, he seldom left the British Isles, and to Ireland he went but twice. He visited the continent only four times, going as far as Chamonix in 1816, to Paris in 1827, to the Eastern Alps with Murchison in 1829, and he made, with the same companion, another long geological tour in Germany and Belgium in 1839.

Meanwhile Sedgwick engaged in much university business. He was senior proctor in 1827, and in 1847 he was made Cambridge secretary to Prince Albert when the latter was elected chancellor of the university, and from 1850 to 1852 served as a member of a royal commission of inquiry into the condition of that university. He was appointed by his college to the vicarage of Shudy-Camps (tenable with his fellowship), declined the valuable living of East Farleigh offered him in 1831 by Lord-chancellor Brougham, accepted a prebendal stall at Norwich in 1834, and declined the deanery of Peterborough in 1853. At Norwich, as in Cambridge, he stimulated an interest in science, and was hardly less popular as a preacher than as a host. But this removed him from Cambridge only for two months in the year. He delivered his usual courses of lectures till the end of 1870, though in later years he not seldom had to avail himself of the services of a deputy.

He died after a few days' illness very early in the morning of 27 Jan. 1873, and was buried in the chapel of Trinity College. It was determined to build a new geological museum as a memorial, and a large sum was collected for the purpose, but this scheme has not yet been carried out (1897). His name is commemorated by the ‘Sedgwick Prize’ (for an essay on a geological subject), founded by Mr. A. A. Vansittart in 1865.

Sedgwick was quick in temper, but sympathetic, generous, and openhanded; a lover of children, though he never married. As a speaker and lecturer he was often discursive, sometimes colloquial, but on occasion most eloquent. He possessed a marvellous memory, and was an admirable raconteur. Thus his humour, his simplicity of manner, and his wide sympathies made him welcome among ‘all sorts and conditions of men,’ from the roadside tavern to the royal palace. A reformer in politics, he was not without prejudices against some changes. The same was also true in science. Though so eminently a pioneer, new ideas met sometimes with a hesitating reception. He was rather slowly convinced of the former great extension of glaciers advocated in this country by Louis Agassiz and William Buckland [q. v.], never quite accepted Lyell's uniformitarian teaching, and was always strongly opposed to Darwin's hypothesis as to the origin of species. But he had a marvellous power of unravelling the stratigraphy of a complicated district, of co-ordinating facts, and of grasping those which were of primary importance as the basis of induction. A certain want of concentration diminished the quantity and sometimes affected the quality of his work, but any one whose good nature is great and interests are wide, who is at once a professor in a university and a canon of a cathedral—and active in both—must be liable to many serious interruptions. Moreover, Sedgwick's health, after his election to a fellowship, was never really good. His eyes, especially in later life, gave him much trouble; one indeed had been permanently injured in 1821 by a splinter from a rock. He seems to have met with more than his share of accidents—falls, a dislocated wrist, and a broken arm.

It is evident that he disliked literary composition and was somewhat given to procrastinate. But, notwithstanding these drawbacks, he left an indelible mark on his own university, and will be ever honoured as one of the great leaders in the heroic age of geology. At the outset of his career, as he stated in his last published words, ‘three prominent hopes’ possessed his heart—to form a collection worthy of the university, to secure the building of a suitable museum, and to ‘bring together a class of students who would listen to my teaching, support me by their sympathy, and help me by the labour of their hands.’ These hopes, as he says, were fully realised (Catalogue of the Cambrian and Silurian Fossils, &c., Pref. p. xxxi).

Sedgwick in his prime was a striking figure: almost six feet high, spare but strongly built, never bald, close-shaven, with dark eyes and complexion, strongly marked features, overhanging forehead, and bushy eyebrows. A portrait in oils by Thomas Phillips, R.A., dated 1832, and owned by Mr. John H. Gurney of Norwich, was reproduced for the ‘Life and Letters’ (1890), as was also a fine crayon portrait by Lowes Dickinson, dated 1867, now in the Woodwardian Museum at Cambridge. Busts of Sedgwick by H. Weekes and Thomas Woolner are in possession of the Geological Society, London, and Trinity College, Cambridge.

Sedgwick never published a complete book on any geological subject, though he wrote a lengthy introduction to the description of ‘British Palæozoic Fossils in the Geological Museum of the University of Cambridge’ by Professor McCoy (1854), and a preface to ‘A Catalogue of the Cambrian and Silurian Fossils,’ in the same collection, by John William Salter [q. v.] and Professor John Morris [q. v.] (1873). He appears in the ‘Royal Society's Catalogue of Scientific Papers’ as the sole author of forty papers and joint-author of sixteen, published for the most part in the ‘Transactions’ or the ‘Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society,’ the ‘Transactions of the Cambridge Philosophical Society,’ or the ‘Philosophical Magazine.’ Of these the more important can be grouped in five divisions: 1. ‘On the Geology of Cornwall and Devon,’ a subject which was dealt with in the first of his more important communications, read before the Cambridge Philosophical Society in 1820 (Trans. C. P. S. i. 89). Other papers follow, some of them written in conjunction with Murchison. In these the order of the rocks beneath the new red sandstone of the south-west of England was worked out, the stratigraphy of the Carboniferous deposits and of the underlying Devonian system was gradually established, and some valuable contributions were made to the history of the various crystalline masses in Devon and Cornwall, including those in the Lizard peninsula.

2. The next group of papers, small in number, deals with the ‘new red sandstone’ in the northern half of England, giving the results of field work between 1821 and 1824. One of them describes the mineral character and succession of the magnesian and other limestones, the marls, and the sandstones, which extend along the eastern flank of the Pennine range from the south of Northumberland to the north of Derbyshire, dwelling more particularly on the lower part; another deals with the corresponding rocks, breccias and conglomerates, with sandstones, marls and thin calcareous bands, on the western side of the same range, more especially in the valley of the Eden. The part of the new red sandstone more particularly worked out by Sedgwick has since been termed Permian, but his diagnosis of the relations of the strata, their marked discordancy from the underlying carboniferous and their closer affinity with the overlying red rocks, since called Trias, has proved to be correct.

3. A third group deals with a yet more difficult question—the geology of the lake district and its environs. The researches just named were carried downwards through the underlying carboniferous rocks, and then the intricacies of the great central massif were attacked. This task more especially occupied the summers from 1822 to 1824, and its results were published in papers, dating from 1831 to 1857. A more popular account was also given in five letters addressed to Wordsworth, published afterwards in Hudson's ‘Complete Guide to the Lakes’ (1853).

4. A fourth group includes a large number of miscellaneous papers, published at various dates and on different geological topics. Among the more important of these may be noted ‘On Trap Dykes in Yorkshire and Durham’ (1822); ‘On the Association of Trap Rocks with the Mountain Limestone Formation in High Teesdale’ (1823–4); two in 1828, written in conjunction with Murchison—one on the Isle of Arran, another on the secondary rocks in the north of Scotland; one (with the same coadjutor) on the Eastern Alps (1829–30); and last, but not least, the classic paper ‘On the Structure of Large Mineral Masses, &c.,’ read before the Geological Society of London, and published in their ‘Transactions’ (iii. 461).

5. The fifth and largest group deals with the geology of Wales. Sedgwick first took this in hand in the summer of 1831, when he was working for part of his time with Charles Robert Darwin [q. v.] Commencing with the rocks of Anglesey for a base, he worked over Carnarvonshire, and in 1832 carried on his researches into Merionethshire and Cardiganshire. In 1834 he accompanied Murchison over the district on the eastern border of the principality, on which the latter had been engaged. The results of these and of later visits, more especially in 1842 and 1843, were described from time to time in verbal communications to the Cambridge Philosophical Society and to the British Association, but the first systematic papers were read to the Geological Society in 1843 (Proc. Geol. Soc. vol. iv. pt. i. pp. 212; Quart. Journal Geol. Soc. i. 5). Others followed in 1844 and 1846. Soon after Murchison had published his ‘Silurian System,’ in 1839, it became evident that difficulties existed in correlating the work done by the two geologists in their several districts, and a controversy gradually arose concerning the limits of the Cambrian system as established by Sedgwick and of the Silurian system of Murchison (names which were first used about 1835). The general structure of north Wales had been determined by Sedgwick as early as 1832, and subsequent investigation in this region has confirmed the general accuracy of the order in which he placed the beds and of the main divisions which he established; while it has been proved that Murchison had confused together two distinct formations, the Caradoc (Bala of Sedgwick) and that now called Upper Llandovery (the May Hill sandstone of Sedgwick), and had also fallen into serious error as to the stratigraphy of his own Llandeilo beds. The dispute reached an acute stage in 1852, when Sedgwick read two papers to the Geological Society of London. He considered that in regard to these, especially the former, the council of this society had dealt unfairly with him; and from 1854, after another dispute over a paper ‘On the May Hill Sandstone,’ &c., he ceased to be on terms of friendship with Murchison and was estranged from the society. By these papers, which embodied the results of investigations in 1852–3, the distinction of the true Caradoc and of the May Hill sandstone was established.

Sedgwick was also author of a ‘Discourse on the Studies of the University of Cambridge.’ This book originated in a sermon, preached in the chapel of Trinity College at the commemoration of benefactors on 17 Dec. 1832. Next year it was published, by request, after several months' delay. It ran through four editions in two years, and in 1850 was republished as a bulky volume, with a very long preface (cf. Notes and Queries, 8th ser. xii. 344).

[There are frequent references to Sedgwick in the lives of Buckland, C. Darwin, Lyell, and Murchison, and obituary notices appeared during 1873 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, and other scientific periodicals; but these have been superseded by the above-named Life and Letters of the Reverend Adam Sedgwick, by J. W. Clark and T. McK. Hughes (2 vols. Cambridge, 1890).]

T. G. B.