Sedgwick, Adam, 1785-1873

Alternative names
Birth 1785-03-22
Death 1873-01-27

Biographical notes:

Adam Sedgwick was one of the founders of modern geology. He proposed the Devonian period of the geological timescale. Later, he proposed the Cambrian period, based on work which he did on Welsh rock strata. Though he had guided the young Charles Darwin in his early study of geology, Sedgwick was an outspoken opponent of Darwin's theory of evolution by means of natural selection.

From the description of Letter to Richard Owen, [1860?], January 8. (Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens). WorldCat record id: 704627926

English geologist.

From the description of Note to "My dear sir, " [18--] Nov. 6. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 122500343

Adam Sedgwick was a British geologist and was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1860.

From the description of Correspondence, 1825-1870. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122540836

Adam Sedgwick was born on 22 March 1785 in the vicarage at Dent, Yorkshire, the third of seven children of Richard Sedgwick (1736-1828), the local vicar, and his second wife and cousin, Margaret (nee Sturgis). Sedgwick first attended the grammar school at Dent and then between the ages of eight and sixteen was under the instruction of his father. In 1801 he was sent to the grammar school at Sedbergh conducted by the Revd William Stevens.

In 1804 Sedgwick entered Trinity College, Cambridge, as a sizar, a position which allowed poorer students to pay reduced fees in exchange for carrying out a number of duties. Despite a near-fatal attack of typhoid in 1805 Sedgwick was elected to a college scholarship in 1807, and graduated fifth wrangler in the following year. He took private pupils and read for a Trinity fellowship, which he obtained in 1810. In 1813 he burst a blood vessel and his health broke down completely. Sedgwick recovered during the next few years, but suffered thereafter from poor health. He became an assistant tutor in mathematics at Trinity in 1815, and was ordained a year later, when he also travelled for several months on the continent.

In 1818 Sedgwick was elected to the Woodwardian Professorship of geology at the University of Cambridge, a post which he held for the next fifty-five years. He had previously attended the mineralogical lectures of Edward Daniel Clarke and read a few works on the subject. He undertook his first geological excursion in that summer and became a fellow of the Geological Society of London. In 1819 he delivered his first course of lectures, and joined with John Stevens Henslow and others to encourage scientific pursuits within the university by founding the Cambridge Philosophical Society.

Sedgwick was concerned to build up the geological collections of the university. He collected rocks and fossils during systematic tours in the British Isles and elsewhere in Europe, and also purchased rare specimens, either with his own funds or through public appeals for the then Woodwardian Museum from collectors such as Mary Anning and by the acquisition of complete collection such as that of Georg Graf von Munster. He acquired about 40,000 to 50,000 specimens by the 1840s.

The collection however outgrew its original accommodation, and in 1841 spacious new quarters were made available. The Woodwardian had a reputation as one of Europe's outstanding geological museums.

Sedgwick became an accomplished field geologist, learning much from Henslow and William Daniel Conybeare. His earliest papers, read in 1820 before the Cambridge Philosophical Society, discussed the structure of the ancient rocks of Devon and Cornwall.

In 1828 Sedgwick accompanied Roderick Murchison, whom he had met at the Geological Society, on a tour of Scotland. Opposing the work of John MacCulloch, they concluded that the ancient sandstones of the north-west highlands could be correlated with the Old Red Sandstone to the east.

Two presidential addresses to the Geological Society in 1830 and 1831 expressed his theoretical views. Discussing Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830-33), Sedgwick agreed that geologists had demonstrated the need for a vastly expanded time-scale. He abjured his support for fellow cleric William Bucklands attempt to find empirical evidence for a universal flood, and attacked those, like Andrew Ure and William Cockburn, who interpreted geology in the light of scripture. However, Sedgwick rejected what he saw as Lyell's gratuitous assumption that geological processes had been uniform in intensity throughout all time. He argued that the empirical record of the strata bore witness to catastrophic events without parallel in forces currently shaping the face of the earth.

From the late 1820s, Sedgwick's chief goal in geology was to complete a big book on the strata below the Old Red Sandstone. Most of his papers over the next two decades were progress reports on this project, as Sedgwick toured the Lake District, Wales, and the southern uplands of Scotland to add to his knowledge of the older rocks.

In 1831 he entered north Wales with a young Charles Darwin, who thereby gained his first training in the field. Sedgwick, with his grounding in mathematics, had an ability to work out the complex geological structures characteristic of these strata. Particularly important was a distinction, which he emphasized from the late 1820s, between stratification, jointing, and slaty cleavage. Sedgwick was also guided by Leonce Elie de Beaumont's theory of the elevation of mountain chains, which he believed would provide a key to unravelling the older rocks.

While Sedgwick was in north Wales, Murchison independently began examining the younger and more fossiliferous strata of south Wales and the Welsh borders. Together, their work provided the foundations for a new classification of the oldest rocks with fossils: Sedgwick's strata were called the Cambrian, while Murchison's became the Silurian. This amicable arrangement was threatened when Henry De la Beche discovered Coal plants in rocks which appeared to be of the same age as those which the two friends had been studying. The resulting controversy, in which the two friends collaborated closely, bore fruit in their 1839 announcement of the Devonian system as a distinctive period in earth history.

The creation of the Devonian, however, also removed any distinctive fauna from Sedgwick's Cambrian. The problem was exacerbated when John Eddowes Bowman, Daniel Sharpe, and finally the official Geological Survey extended its work into Sedgwick's territory during the early 1840s; most of the strata which had been identified as being older than the Silurian proved to be of the same age. Almost all geologists followed Murchison in wiping the Cambrian off the map. Sedgwick believed that the question involved nothing less than the foundations of proper scientific method.

By the 1850s Sedgwick argued the case for the Cambrian, cutting off links not only with Murchison, but also with the Geological Society (whose Wollaston medal he had been awarded in 1851) and the metropolitan geological community more generally. The controversy was settled only after Sedgwick's death. The discovery of a fauna below that of Murchison's oldest Silurians, first in Bohemia and then in Wales, became the basis for a redefined Cambrian. The uppermost strata of Murchison's expanded system were called Silurian, and the strata in between were termed Ordovician.

Throughout his life, Sedgwick was an advocate of the moral basis of scientific enquiry. His Discourse on the Studies of the University (1832), originally delivered as a sermon in Trinity College chapel, argued for the place of geology within natural theology, opposing what he condemned as the misuse of the science by scriptural literalists.

Sedgwick opposed all attempts to explain the origin of new species through natural laws. He was particularly concerned about Robert Chambers's anonymous best-seller, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), which introduced an evolutionary cosmology to a wide public. By the time Darwin sent him a copy of the Origin of Species in 1859, Sedgwick's reaction was one of dismay.

Sedgwick's lectures, like all those in the natural sciences at Cambridge in the first half of the century, were extracurricular and aimed to make geology an appropriate study for the Christian gentleman. When Sedgwick set his first examination questions in 1851 after the introduction of the natural sciences tripos, he asked students to show that the fossil evidence does not support evolution.

Sedgwick was a major performer at the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), serving as president at its third meeting in 1833 at Cambridge. In this capacity he voiced his belief that science should be extended to working-class audiences. He gave lectures throughout the country, serving as an example of the compatibility of truths of religion and science. In 1820 he became a fellow of the Royal Society of London, which awarded him its Copley medal in 1863 as part of an anti-Darwinian campaign.

Sedgwick was active in university politics and administration. He was appointed senior proctor in 1827, and in 1847 he served as secretary to Prince Albert in his capacity as university chancellor. In politics Sedgwick strongly supported reform of the ancient universities and the abolition of religious tests, and for two years from 1850 he sat on the royal commission appointed to investigate the affairs of the university.

His income from his chair was supplemented by his college fellowship at Trinity and by his appointment in 1825 to the vicarage of Shudy Camps, Cambridgeshire. In 1832 the whig government offered Sedgwick the valuable living of East Farleigh, which he turned down. Two years later he accepted a prebendal stall at Norwich, which required absence from Cambridge for only two months of each year. Sedgwick had strong evangelical views and opposed innovations in Anglican ritual.

Sedgwick never married. He died in his rooms at Trinity College on 27 January 1873, and was buried in the college chapel on 1 February. The Sedgwick Museum in Cambridge was established by his successor, Thomas McKenny Hughes, as a memorial to house the collections he had brought together. He is memorialized in the Sedgwick prize, given at Cambridge for a student essay; the Sedgwick Club, the undergraduate geological society; and by a granite memorial fountain in Dent.

From the guide to the The Papers of Professor Adam Sedgwick, 1818-1856, (Cambridge University: Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences)

Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873, APS 1860), geologist, was an important figure in the development of the modern discipline of geology. He was educated at Cambridge, being ordained in 1817. An excellent field geologist, he did significant work interpreting complex old rock in such places as Devonshire (naming the Devonian Period after that location), Cornwall, and the Lake District, correlating his findings with strata in other places such as Germany. Sedgwick first interpreted strata from the period he named Cambrian. He served in many professional organizations and was honored for his work with the Wollaston and Copley medals. Sedgwick, a Liberal in politics, served on the committees that reformed the administration of university education. Despite being a friend of Charles Darwin's, Sedgwick was critical of the materialist bent of Darwinian thought.

Sedgwick was born in Dent, Yorkshire, England, on March 22, 1785. He had a stable and happy home life in Dent, where his father was vicar. Dent lies in one of the Yorkshire Dales, famous even today for its picturesqueness. In the late 18th century it was the home to self-sufficient farmers referred to as statesman. While never the rural paradise that Sedgwick and others such as his friend William Wordsworth could imagine it to be, Dentdale was nevertheless a prosperous place, producing cottage knitted goods, Galloway ponies, farm products (especially butter), and cooperage. Sedgwick spent most of his life beyond Dentdale but all his life sustained a relationship with it and its people. For instance, in 1868 he wrote A Memorial by the Trustees of Cowgill Chapel, which is one of the best sources about life in Dentdale. More profoundly, Dentdale formed Sedgwick's character. Colin Speakman writes of him, "[Sedgwick's] forthrightness, his Broad Church radicalism, his sometimes rather simplistic way of distinguishing right from wrong, . . . his generosity, his warmth, his vivid and homely descriptive powers" might have seemed somewhat out-of-place in Cambridge but would have seemed typical in Dentdale. Sedgwick also remained close to his family, especially his sister Isabella and a niece, also named Isabella, who was his companion and nurse in his later years.

Like other 19th century English geologists, Sedgwick spent his youth rambling over the countryside, where he also collected rocks and fossils. Following attendance at the Dent grammar school, he went to the nearby Sedbergh School, boarding at a farm whose owner was a relative of the Fosters of Hebblethwaite Hall, good friends of the Sedgwick family. Among the school's pupils was the mathematician George Peacock (1791-1858), who became a colleague of Sedgwick's at Trinity College.

Sedbergh School was run by the Rev. William Stevens, a competent but stern and apparently troubled man. In Sedbergh, however, resided the surgeon and mathematician John Dawson, a man of remarkable intellectual and moral integrity. Dawson practiced medicine, worked in mathematics, and tutored students drawn to him by his reputation as a mathematician and teacher. (Among his achievements, Dawson had demonstrated that it was possible to determine the distance to the sun by observing the orbit of Venus, a fact confirmed during Cook's voyage to Tahiti in 1768.) Dawson was an inspiration and model for Sedgwick throughout his life.

Despite his modest family means, Sedgwick was able to attend Trinity College, University of Cambridge, as a sizar, a type of scholarship student, chosen from a group of subsizars by examination. A recognizable type as the poor, hardworking, ambitious scholarship student, Sedgwick was graduated with distinction in mathematics in 1808. He did not receive a much-needed Fellowship in 1809, but successfully qualified through examination in 1810. The Fellowship offered a measure of financial security but the relentless intellectual work, decreasing interest in mathematics, increasing loneliness as his friends were graduated, and drudgery of teaching uninterested students wore him down; his health broke following a river trip in 1813. Rest and country living restored his health. However, although amazingly strong and untiring, Sedgwick never completely recovered from his breakdown. Outdoor exercise remained a physical and emotional necessity, but he suffered frequent bouts of ill health and grew increasingly hypochondriacal as he aged.

An amiable, generous, well-liked person who applied himself to university life, Sedgwick became an assistant tutor in 1815. He was ordained in 1817, not because of theological conviction but because of economic necessity: he would have lost his Fellowship if he had not taken orders. It was a rather surprising start for a churchman who became identified with the anti-materialist, god-centered critics of Darwin's evolutionary theories. Sedgwick nevertheless became a conscientious minister and excellent preacher. His chief theological duty was a prebendary at Norwich, which he accepted in 1834.

Sedgwick's great opportunity came when the Woodwardian Professorship of Geology became vacant in 1818. Endowed by John Woodward (1665-1728), the position carried with it relatively light responsibilities (guardianship of the geology collection and the requirement of delivering four lectures a year) but was less remunerative than being an assistant tutor, was not prestigious (as endowed chairs would be later in the 19th century) and required that the professor be unmarried. The intellectual challenge, chance at an outdoor life, and freedom from the drudgery of teaching undergraduates attracted Sedgwick. He was overwhelming elected more for his potential than for his existing expertise. Never having systematically studied geology and never having done field work, Sedgwick legendarily (and probably apocryphally) remarked, "Hitherto I have never turned a stone; henceforth I will leave no stone unturned." He was, however, likely familiar with the geologic issues of the day, having been formally "introduced" to the Geological Society of London in 1816, an unlikely event for a complete tyro. Sedgwick never married and remained at Trinity College the rest of his life.

Sedgwick quickly set about becoming a geologist. He took his first field trip in the summer of 1818. In 1822 he first tackled the famously complex geology of the Lake District, where he met William Wordsworth. Sedgwick's pioneering work on the Cumbrian Mountains was not published until 1835. His time in the District also produced "Three Letters Upon the Geology of the Lake District Addressed to W. Wordsworth, Esq." (1842). The "letters," later increased to five, appeared with Wordsworth's "Guide to the Lakes" in a volume edited by John Hudson.

Sedgwick also immediately became active in professional organizations. He was made a Fellow of the Geological Society of London in 1818 and was an officer and active member for decades, serving as president from 1829 to 1831. Sedgwick played a leading role in founding the Cambridge Philosophical Society, an organization of the same type as the APS, in 1819. Following the pattern begun earlier in his career, Sedgwick helped found the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1831, serving as president in 1833 and as a leading member of its geology section. And Sedgwick's organizing activities were not confined to "professional" organizations ("professional" and "amateur" were not distinct terms in Sedgwick's time, when a figure such as Darwin was a gentleman scientist without academic appointment and with an independent income). Sedgwick even organized a geological society during his residence as prebend at Norwich.

In 1819 Sedgwick began the series of lectures that led to his renown as a forceful, accessible, inspiring teacher with a commanding presence. His language was strong and picturesque. Sedgwick saw lectures as an introduction to details found in textbooks. Rather than burden an audience with minutia, Sedgwick sought to spark the imagination by opening up ways of thinking. In a time when lectures were not required of students and frequently not about what they needed to know for graduation, Sedgwick's drew colleagues and townspeople as well as undergraduates, his lectures becoming a feature of Cambridge life. Sedgwick gave his last lecture in 1870 when he was 85 years old -- his 52nd series.

Care of the geologic collection at Cambridge was another of Sedgwick's duties. The collection grew substantially under Sedgwick's care, becoming one of the best in the world. Sedgwick added specimens he gathered from the field and purchased collections with university and his own money as well as funds solicited for the purpose. Catalogs of the collection were published, such as a systematic description of the Paleozoic fossils in 1855. Through Sedgwick's constant effort a new building was erected for the collection in 1840. This building was already inadequate by the time of Sedgwick's death; a new one was erected in 1904, and the museum was named in Sedgwick's honor. Today it is called The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences.

One of Sedgwick's most lasting contributions to higher education was his work in university reform. A Liberal in politics and a firm believer in the value of a balanced curriculum, Sedgwick was a forceful proponent of political reform in England and educational reform at Cambridge. For example, he supported the Reform Bill, not a popular stance in the Cambridge community, that was passed in 1832. Also, in 1834 Sedgwick led a then-unsuccessful campaign to abolish the religious tests that effectively kept Dissenters and Catholics out of Cambridge. Sedgwick's understanding of and commitment to broad, liberal education was laid out in his 1833 work, A Discourse on the Studies of the University.

Real reform at Cambridge began in 1847 with the election of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's Consort, to the office of Chancellor. The Prince asked Sedgwick to be his Secretary. Sedgwick's position was difficult. Although a member of the Cambridge Establishment, having been made Vice-Master of Trinity in 1845, he was also a reformist, as was the Prince, for whom Sedgwick would work. Some reform came in 1848, when two new tripos (undergraduate examinations) were established, one in the natural sciences, which Sedgwick wrote from 1851 to 1860, and a system was established to ensure that undergraduates attended at least one professional lecture before graduating.

A Royal Commission was set up in 1850, with Sedgwick as a Commissioner. The Commission's report, largely written by Sedgwick, recommended many reforms: democratizing the University Senate, abolishing archaic privileges, reforming examinations, awarding scholarships and fellowships by merit only, having colleges contribute to the salaries of lecturers and professors (who were dependent upon student lecture fees). The University did not act on the recommendations, however, so a parliamentary commission, on which Sedgwick also served, had to be established, which drew up a bill to enact into law many of the reforms.

It was of course as a geologist that Sedgwick made his name. Although Sedgwick disliked writing professional papers and never produced a geological text such as his contemporary Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, he nevertheless produced some classic short works in a career that spanned the Heroic Age of geology.

Early in his career, Sedgwick followed the ideas of Abraham Gottlieb Werner (1749-1818) who believed rocks were created entirely by the action of primeval seas. His followers were termed Neptunists, and their theories were easily reconciled with Biblical creation. An opposing school was developed by James Hutton (1726-1797), who emphasized the action of volcanic forces and fires over great spans of time. These Plutonists posited a more mechanistic view of geology that seemed a denial of the Old Testament. Lyell was a Plutonist who emphasized the idea that forces that shaped the past are identical to the ones at work now, thus creating the idea of Uniformitariansim, a term coined by William Whewell (1794-1866). Sedgwick, antithetical to the atheistic tendencies of the mechanistic view but believing in the overwhelming evidence of the age of the earth, discarded his early Neptunism and adopted the theories of Georges Cuvier (1769-1856), William Buckland (1784-1856), and Elie de Beaumont (1798-1874) who were Catastrophists, believing in periods of sudden cataclysmic changes, such as those that had perhaps raised the Alps.

Such were the geologic theories at the time Sedgwick was doing his most important field work. In the field, Sedgwick had a flair for grasping the regional significance of local details, developing ideas on stratigraphical continuity that effectively showed links between formations. Among the important field work he did was to explain the nature of the New Red Sandstone (a term no longer used) by using the distinctive Magnesia Limestone of northeastern England and them to correlate the Sandstone with classic successions in Germany. In his "Remarks on the Structure of Large Mineral Masses" (1835) Sedgwick used his mathematical training along with his skill in the field to clearly analyze the effects of diagenesis; in the same paper he provided the crucial technical key to interpreting complex folding by distinctively explaining stratification, jointing, and cleavage. Also, in collaboration with Robert Impey Murchison (1792-1871), Sedgwick discovered that some rocks in Devonshire were lateral equivalents of the well-known Old Red Sandstone and in so doing named a new geologic period: Devonian.

A long and often bitter controversy with Murchison was a significant feature of Sedgwick's career. Both men desired to be the discoverer of the strata where the first fossils were to be found. Sedgwick's Cambrian System, which he was first to define, was very thick, and its upper reaches contained fossils of invertebrate fauna. The fossil record seemed to begin in the Cambrian. Murchison began to assert, however, that the Upper Cambrian was in reality part of "his" Silurian System of younger rock; he eventually added almost all of the fossiliferous Cambrian to the Silurian System. The dispute was aggravated by what Sedgwick viewed as editorial tampering by the Geological Society with one of his papers. In a display of temper (Sedgwick's least attractive characteristic) Sedgwick broke off ties with the Society.

Sedgwick eventually discovered that Murchison had confused strata in two places, which in one instance created a spurious uniformity in Silurian fossils. Murchison, however, would not admit his errors, so the two men remained estranged. Later, other geologists discovered more fossils that were defined as Cambrian and added a geologic age with representative fossils named the Ordovician that comprised Sedgwick's Upper Cambrian and Murchison's Lower Silurian.

Sedgwick's most famous student was Charles Darwin, who accompanied Sedgwick on a trip to Wales. The lessons in practical geology provided great dividends when Darwin put them to work during his Beagle voyage. Sedgwick also furthered Darwin's career by reading some of his work to the Geological Society. However, Sedgwick did not believe in the transmutation of species as laid out in Darwin's Origin of Species.

The root of Sedgwick's opposition was that in removing God from the origin of flora and fauna, and thus removing intelligent design from the natural world, human moral responsibility is undermined. The universe is governed by an active intelligence, present in the design and purpose observable in the natural world of mutual dependence. The world is old, as the geologic evidence shows, but that does not preclude species coming and going over time due to catastrophes originating from the Creator, a force beyond human comprehension. Contemplating nature leads one closer to the mind God. Sedgwick was far from a fundamentalist. He attacked simple Mosaic interpretations of natural history, but he also believed that materialists ignored evidence of design.

Despite all the controversies, and despite being viewed late in his long life as a superannuated figure, Sedgwick was widely admired as a warmhearted and noble person. His contributions to geology were recognized with the award of the Wollaston Medal from the Geological Society in 1833 and the Copley Medal from the Royal Society in 1863. His greatest legacy might be his role in developing university science education. He died in 1873.

From the guide to the Adam Sedgwick Collection, 1825-1870, (American Philosophical Society)


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