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Aspects of the Life and Works of Archibald Geikie

Betterton Life of GeikieThis book examines the life of Sir Archibald Geikie. It includes non-specialist accounts of field excursions and meditations on the compatibility of the fossil record with the biblical account of creation. The book provides an introduction to the archive at Haselmere Museum that includes unpublished papers, correspondence and works of art that will be an invaluable source for researchers.

Geikie was fortunate in his mentors. The young Geikie’s geological interest was nurtured by Hugh Miller, who gave him access to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, where he presented the results of his early geological research. While still a young geologist, Geikie developed a close friendship with Murchison that opened up big career opportunities for him. However, this appears to have come at some cost of scientific integrity and the book could have explored these aspects of Geikie’s career further.

It would have been interesting to enlarge on the Survey’s mapping of the Southern Uplands. In a premonition of his work on NW Scotland, Geikie failed to recognise stratigraphic repetition by faulting and it was Charles Lapworth who pointed out the Survey’s errors. Today, no one would argue that Murchison was right about NW Scotland, but to describe his interpretation as a blunder raises the question of whether a scientific theory can be right or wrong. I would argue that major gaps in geological knowledge at the time of Murchison’s death prevented him from coming to a complete understanding of the geology. The endowment of the Chair of Geology at Edinburgh University by Murchison for Geikie would have been worthy of larger treatment in the book, because Murchison’s motivation was apparently to ensure the continuing support of his flawed hypothesis.

Geikie also made important contributions in areas of igneous and glacial geology, continental erosion in the USA, mineralogy and petrology; perhaps significantly—all areas in which Murchison did not have a prior interest. At a time when pencil and water colour sketches were the only way for geologists to record field observations, Geikie stood out as a talented artist with his own style of landscape painting and his depiction of rural scenes shows the influence of his uncle and Scottish Academician, James Geikie. Geikie also passed on his experience, doing much to popularise geology and to promote women geologists. Other people, including the gifted mineralogist Matthew Forster Heddle, benefitted from his support; however, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that underneath it all lay a single-minded careerist.

Reviewed by Peter Gutteridge


ASPECTS OF THE LIFE AND WORKS OF ARCHIBALD GEIKIE, by J. Betterton, J. Craig, J.R. Mendum, R. Neller & J. Tanner (eds) 2019, Geological Society of London SP 480, 406 pp. (hbk.) List price: £ 110.00 Fellow's price: £ 55.00 W: https://www.geolsoc.org.uk/SP480