Product has been added to the basket

The ultimate excuse

John Phillips, Courtesy, Oxford University Museum

As geologist and science writer Nina Morgan discovers, procrastination rules OK – so long as you've got a good excuse

Geoscientist 20.05 May 2010

In the 19th Century, and as it remains today, peer reviewing was an essential part of academic life. A series of four letters written between winter of 1836 and the spring of 1837 and found bound into a copy of Roderick Murchison's great work, The Silurian System, provides an insight into just how seriously the geologist John Phillips took this obligation. Even an injury to his right hand, sustained during the winter of 1836, did not deter Phillips from corresponding with Murchison in very great detail about an early draft of The Silurian System. While Phillips was prevented from holding a pen, his sister Anne served as his amanuensis. Murchison seems to have been suitably grateful for this Phillips' heroic effort to respond, and quoted large sections of the Phillips' letters nearly verbatim in his book.

Nevertheless, on some occasions Murchison seems to have expressed impatience at having to wait for answers – provoking Phillips to turn to the weather for an excuse. On 30 March 1837, while based near Lancaster and engaged in fieldwork of his own, Phillips wrote to Murchison to excuse a delayed response by saying: "I suppose you will shoot me in the marketplace for keeping this proof: but in fact I only got it late last night having been snowed up among these mountains for many days in search of Coal. (Snow!)."

But, of course, snow could never serve as justification for a late reply during the summer. Perhaps this was why Phillips and his sister decided to acquire a pet dog. Their first, Prince, took up residence in 1838. He was succeeded in the summer of 1839 by an equally loved canine companion, Cholo, who, like Prince, shared a liking for gingerbread; but research so far has failed to turn up any examples of these canines’ taste for manuscripts. We still await the discovery of a Philips letter to Murchison concluding "The dog ate my homework".


I am grateful to Bernard J Shapero Rare Books for permission to quote from the 1837 letter from John Phillips to Roderick Murchison. The references to the dogs Prince and Cholo occur in the series of 234 letters written by John Phillips to his sister Anne which are held in the archives in the Hope Library in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

  • If the past is the key to your present interests, why not join the History of Geology Group (HOGG)? For more information and to read the latest HOGG newsletter, visit the HOGG website at: