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The Lyell Geoscience Society

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Home Events Lyell Day Links Sir Charles Lyell


Charles Lyell was born 14th November 1797 at Kinnordy House (nr Kirriemuir Scotland) a Scottish estate at the foot of the Grampian Hills south of the Highland Boundary Fault. After a few years the family moved to England and Lyell spent much of his childhood at Bartley Lodge, New Forest. Lyell grew up in comfortable surroundings and encouraged by his parents, developed a keen observation of the natural world around him. His father, a naturalist, achieved fame in his own right as a botanist and translator of Dante. Lyell was educated at Exeter College Oxford where he graduated in classics and was called to the bar in 1822 and he practiced as a barrister until 1827. During this time he was asked to survey part of Forfarshire in 1824 to help compile the geological map of Scotland. This resulted in Lyell’s first two scientific papers :

  • Lyell (1825) “On a Dike of Serpentine, Cutting Through Sandstone, in the county of Forfar,” Edinburgh Journal of Science, 3, 112, 126
  • Lyell (1826) “On a recent formation of freshwater limestone in Forfarshire, and on some recent deposits of freshwater marl; with a comparison of recent with ancient freshwater formations; an Appendix on the Gyrogonite or seed-vessel of the Chara.” Trans. Geol. Soc. London,73-96

A growing interest in geology led to his hobby becoming his life. After reviewing Scrope’s ‘Memoir on the Geology of Central France’, Lyell headed for France in 1828 and explored the volcanic region of the Auvergne with Murchison and his wife. He visited Naples and Mount Etna to gather supporting evidence for a theory of geology he was developing. Lyell became a great traveller, field geologist and academic. In 1831 he married the daughter of a Scottish geologist, Mary Horner, and became professor at King’s College.

University of London Publications Contribution Recognition Westminster Abbey

Lyell (1830) " The Principles of Geology: Being an Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of the Earth's Surface, by Reference to Causes now in Operation” (3 vols reprinted 1830-33)
Lyell’s knowledge and ideas from his own field observations and from fellow geologists were the foundations for his great work. The central argument was that “the present is the key to the past”. This book illustrated his awareness of the importance of relative sea level changes in sedimentary processes, which forms the basis for modern sequence stratigraphy. Lyell believed that given sufficient time, millions of years, geological change was slow and gradual and not subject to inexplicable catastrophe such as Noah’s Flood. A copy of Principles of Geology was given to Charles Darwin by Captain FitzRoy, the captain of the HMS Beagle and an acquaintance of Lyell.

Lyell (1837)“The Elements of Geology”
Lyell was the first to discuss metamorphic rocks and their age so he published a textbook for serious students of the science.

“Travels in North America” “A second visit to the United States”
Published in 1845 & 1849 from Lyell’s visits to the United States.

“The geological evidence for the Antiquity of Man”
Lyell’s final work in 1863 was a wide-ranging study of the human fossil record. During his later years he was troubled by the necessity of accepting Darwin’s evolutionary theory, which he felt, conflicted with his religious faith. Lyell was not a firm believer in evolution. In this book he combined Darwin's Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection and his own ideas rooted in Geology. Lyell's staunch Christianity was apparent in his treatment of the Theory of Evolution as a possibility, but not a certainty.


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