Home  »  Scientific Papers  »  . Introductory Note

Charles Lyell (1797–1875). Scientific Papers.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

. Introductory Note

SIR CHARLES LYELL was born near Kirriemuir, Forfarshire, Scotland, on November 14, 1797. He graduated from Exeter College, Oxford, in 1819, and proceeded to the study of law. Although he practised for a short time, he was much hampered in this profession, as in all his work, by weak eyesight; and after the age of thirty he devoted himself chiefly to science.

Lyell’s father was a botanist of some distinction, and the son seems to have been interested in natural history from an early age. While still an undergraduate he made geological journeys in Scotland and on the Continent of Europe, and throughout his life he upheld by precept and example the importance of travel for the geologist.

The first edition of his “Principles of Geology” was published in 1830; and the phrase used in the sub-title, “an attempt to explain the former changes of the earth’s surface, by reference to causes now in action,” strikes the keynote of his whole work. All his life he continued to urge this method of explanation in opposition to the hypotheses, formerly much in vogue, which assumed frequent catastrophes to account for geologic changes. The chapters here printed give his own final statement of his views on this important issue.

Lyell’s scientific work received wide recognition: he was more than once President of the Geological Society, in 1864 was President of the British Association, was knighted in 1848, and made a baronet in 1864. He possessed a broad general culture, and his home was a noted center of the intellectual life of London. He twice came to the United States to lecture, and created great interest. On his death, on February 22, 1875, he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Persistent as were Lyell’s efforts for the establishment of his main theory, he remained remarkably open-minded; and when the evolutionary hypothesis was put forward he became a warm supporter of it. Darwin in his autobiography thus sums up Lyell’s achievement: “The science of geology is enormously indebted to Lyell—more so, as I believe, than to any other man who ever lived.”