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Geoscientist Online

Wedded to the Rocks: the Life and Work of Adam Sedgwick

ghjTimed to coincide with the bicentenary of Adam Sedgwick’s election to the Woodwardian professorship, Chris Park’s Wedded to the Rocks is an eminently readable introduction to the life and work of one of the most famous geologists of the mid-19th Century.

Son of a Cambridge educated vicar, born and bred in Dent, Cumbria, Adam Sedgwick rose through the ‘ranks’ of Trinity College Cambridge to become a Fellow in 1810 and tried to settle into teaching mathematics. However, when the Woodwardian professorship fell vacant in 1818 and despite knowing little geology, Sedgwick thought that the profession of geology would improve his health and provide an opportunity for intellectual advance in a way that teaching mathematics would not. Although, poorly remunerated at 100 pounds a year and with a prerequisite of bachelordom or ‘domestic sterility’, as Sedgwick called it, he applied and was elected.

Park ably shows how Sedgwick did indeed become ‘Wedded to the Rocks’ and used his 55 year-long tenure of the Woodwardian chair to transform the study of geology in Cambridge and build a major collection of geological materials, now housed in the Sedgwick Museum, which was opened as a memorial to him in 1904.

From 1890, the main source of information on Sedgwick’s life and work has been the Clark and McKenny Hughes monumental two-volume ‘Life and Letters etc’. Being Sedgwick’s successor as Woodwardian professor, Hughes wrote a rather uncritical work designed to rescue of Sedgwick’s geological reputation and especially his work on the Cambrian, which had been all but obliterated from the record by his erstwhile collaborator Murchison.

Since then, the most notable popular account has been Speakman’s 1982 ‘Adam Sedgwick: Geologist and Dalesman’, which gave new information about Sedgwick’s upbringing in the Dales. Long out of print, this useful little book is now republished by the Yorkshire Geological Society and Gritstone Writers Co-operative Ltd (145p. ISBN 9780995560949).

More recently, several historians of science have discussed Sedgwick and his work in various different contexts. And while Park uses many of these sources, Wedded to the Rocks’ follows a fairly traditional chronological approach. This focuses successively on Sedgwick the Dalesman, Cambridge man, the Geologist, Churchman and old man, which is ideal for readers wanting a readable and not overly academic account.

Although Sedgwick was a major contributor to the development of British geology in the early decades of the 19th Century he did not perhaps contribute as much as he could have. He was always promising to write a major work on the Palaeozoic geology of Britain but never managed to do so.

Reviewed by Douglas Palmer

WEDDED TO THE ROCKS: THE LIFE AND WORK OF ADAM SEDGWICK (1785-1873) by CHRIS PARK, 2017. Published by Chris Park, 329p (pbk) ISBN 9781548851705. List price £7.50, available from W: www.amazon.co.uk.