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He was educated at the high school, Dumfries, and afterwards (1833-1834) at the university of Edinburgh where he acquired an interest in geology from the teachings of Robert Jameson and JD Forbes. Returning to Ormskirk he worked zealously at the local geology, especially on the Coal-measures and New Red Sandstone, his first paper (read before the Manchester Geol. Soc. in 1843) being on The Climate of the Coal Epoch.
In 1848 his family went to reside in Dumfries and there he commenced to work on the Silurian rocks of the SW of Scotland, and in 1849 he carried his investigations into Cumberland. In these regions during the next few years he added much to our knowledge of the strata and their fossils, especially graptolites, in papers read before the Geological Society of London. He wrote also on the New Red rocks of the north of England and Scotland.
In 1853 he was appointed professor of geology in Queen's College, Cork, and in 1856 he was elected fellow of the Royal Society. During this period he wrote some articles on the geology of parts of Ireland, and exercised much influence as a teacher, but he returned to England during his vacations and devoted himself assiduously to the geology of the Lake district. He was also a constant attendant at the meetings of the British Association. In 1876 the syllabus for the Queen's Colleges in Ireland was altered, and Professor Harkness was required to lecture not only on geology, palaeontology, mineralogy and physical geography, but also on zoology and botany. The strain of the extra work proved too much, he decided to relinquish his post, and had retired but a short time when he died, on the 4th of October 1878.
Memoir, by JG Goodchild, in Trans. Cumberland Assoc. No, viii. (with portrait). In memory of Professor Harkness his sister established two Harkness scholarships. One scholarship (of the value of about £5 a year, tenable for three years) for women, tenable at either Girton or Newnham College, Cambridge, is awarded triennially to the best candidate in an examination in geology and palaeontology, provided that proficiency be shown; the other, for men, is vested in the hands of the university of Cambridge, and is awarded annually, any member of the university being eligible who has graduated as a B.A., provided that not more than three years have elapsed since the 19th day of December next following his final examination for the degree of bachelor of arts.
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