Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
William Buckland (12 March, 1784 - 24 August, 1856) was a prominent English geologist and palaeontologist who wrote the first full account of a fossil dinosaur, a proponent of Old Earth creationism and Flood geology who later became convinced by the glaciation theory of Louis Agassiz.
Early life and university
Buckland was born at Axminster in Devon, and as a child would accompany his father, the Rector of Templeton and Trusham, on his walks where interest in road improvements led to collecting fossil shells, including ammonites, from the Jurassic lias rocks exposed in local quarries.
He won a scholarship in 1801 to study for the ministry at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, also attending the lectures of John Kidd on mineralogy and chemistry, as well as developing an interest in geology and carrying out field research on strata during vacations. Having taken his BA in 1804 he went on to obtain his MA degree in 1808. He then became a Fellow of his college and was ordained as a priest, and continued to make frequent geological excursions on horseback to various parts of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. In 1813 he was appointed reader in mineralogy in succession to John Kidd, giving lively and popular lectures with increasing emphasis on geology and palaeontology. As (unofficial) curator of the Ashmolean Museum he built up collections, touring Europe and coming into contact with scientists including Georges Cuvier.
In 1818 Buckland was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. That year he persuaded the Prince Regent to endow an additional Readership, this time in Geology, and he became the first holder of the new appointment, delivering his inaugural address on 15 May 1819. This was published in 1820 as Vindiciae Geologiae; or the Connexion of Geology with Religion explained, both justifying the new science of geology and reconciling geological evidence with the biblical accounts of Creation and Noah's Flood. At a time when others were coming under the opposing influence of James Hutton's theory of uniformitarianism, Buckland developed his Flood geology introducing the new hypothesis that the word "beginning" in Genesis meant an undefined period between the origin of the earth and the creation of its current inhabitants, during which a long series of extinctions and successive creations of new kinds of plants and animals had occurred. Thus his catastrophism theory incorporated a version of Old Earth creationism or Gap creationism.
From his investigations of fossil bones at Kirkdale Cave in Yorkshire he concluded that the cave had actually been inhabited by hyaenas in antediluvian times rather than the fossils being remains of animals that had perished in the Flood and then carried from the tropics by the surging waters as was then thought. He developed these ideas into his great scientific work Reliquiae Diluvianae, or, Observations on the Organic Remains attesting the Action of a Universal Deluge which was published in 1823 and became a best seller.
Megalosaurus and marriage
He continued to live in Corpus Christi College and in 1824 he became president of the Geological Society of London. Here he announced the discovery at Stonesfield of fossil bones of a giant reptile which he named Megalosaurus (great lizard) and wrote the first full account of what would later be called a dinosaur.
In 1825 he resigned his college fellowship to take up the living (post as a clergyman) of Stoke Charity in Hampshire, but before he could take up the appointment he was made a Canon of Christ Church, a rich reward for academic distinction without serious administrative responsibilities. In December of that year he married Mary Morland of Abingdon, Oxfordshire, an accomplished illustrator and collector of fossils. Their honeymoon was a year touring Europe with visits to famous geologists and geological sites. She continued to assist him in his work as well as having nine children, five of whom survived to adulthood. On one occasion she helped him decipher footmarks found in a slab of sandstone by covering the kitchen table with paste while he fetched their pet tortoise and confirmed his intuition that tortoise footprints matched the fossil marks.
He was commissioned to contribute a section to the set of eight Bridgewater Treatises "On the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation". This took him almost five years work and was published in 1836 with the title Geology and Mineralogy considered with reference to Natural Theology. His section was a detailed compendium of his theories of day-age, gap theory, and theistic evolution. In response computing pioneer Charles Babbage produced his "Ninth Bridgewater Treatise".
By this time Buckland was a prominent and influential scientific celebrity, and a friend of the Tory prime minister Sir Robert Peel. In co-operation with Adam Sedgwick and Charles Lyell he prepared the report leading to establishment of the Geological Survey of Great Britain.
Having become interested in the theory of Louis Agassiz that polished and striated rocks as well as transported material had been caused by ancient glaciers, he travelled to Switzerland in 1838 to meet Agassiz and see for himself. He was convinced, and reminded of what he had seen in Scotland, Wales and northern England but had previously attributed to the Flood. When Agassiz came to Britain for the Glasgow meeting of the British Association in 1840 they went on an extended tour of Scotland and found evidence there of former glaciation. In that year Buckland had become president of the Geological Society again, and despite their hostile reaction to his presentation of the theory he was now satisfied that glaciation had been the origin of much of the surface deposits covering Britain.
In 1845 he was appointed by Sir Robert Peel to the vacant deanery of Westminster, and was soon after inducted to the living of Islip , near Oxford, a preferment attached to the deanery. Buckland became involved in repair and maintenance of Westminster Abbey and in preaching suitable sermons to the rural population of Islip while continuing to lecture on geology at Oxford. In 1847 he was appointed a trustee in the British Museum; and in 1848 he was awarded the Wollaston Medal by the Geological Society of London. Around the end of 1849 he contracted a debilitating illness which increasingly invalided him until his death in 1856. The plot for his grave had been reserved, but when the gravedigger set to work it was found that an outcrop of solid Jurassic limestone lay just below ground level and explosives had to be used for excavation. This may have been a last jest by the noted geologist, reminiscent of Richard Whatley’s Elegy intended for Professor Buckland written in 1820:
- Where shall we our great Professor inter
- That in peace may rest his bones?
- If we hew him a rocky sepulchre
- He’ll rise and break the stones
- And examine each stratum that lies around
- For he’s quite in his element underground
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