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Geology at the University of Manchester: A Brief History 1851-2004

Vaughan Manchester UniversityOne of the ‘big names’ of British university geology for decades, ‘Manchester’ has led research in a number of fields, especially the ‘hard-rock’ side of mineralogy, petrology, geochemistry etc. British geology departments are not great at historical retrospection, somehow it seems to go against the grain, but Geology at the University of Manchester sets a good example. David Vaughan and Jack Zussman are to be congratulated on producing this ‘Brief History’ of a department that has played a significant role in the development of geology in Britain.

The development of Manchester geology reflects the history of industrialization in Britain. Unplanned urbanisation in the first decades of the 19th century led to Manchester, nicknamed ‘cottonopolis’, becoming the world’s first great industrialised city. The best and the worst of its industrialisation was described by reforming industrialists, such as Friedrich Engels and John Owens. The latter left nearly 100,000 pounds in his will to found a college for non-sectarian education, which opened in 1851 and was modelled on educational principles established in Germany.

Geology, part of the curriculum from the start, was taught by the eminent naturalist and palaeobotanist W.C. Williamson FRS (1816-95). He had been curator of Scarborough’s Rotunda Museum and his family had given a home to William Smith. In 1880, the college became the first affiliate of Victoria University, joined by University College Liverpool (1884) and Yorkshire College Leeds (1887), before separating again as independent universities in the early 1900s. Graduates of Owens College included the famous chemist Henry Roscoe and the physicist J.J. Thomson.

Vaughan and Zussman focus mostly on Manchester’s important role in the post-1950 boom in British geology, which was further strengthened by the 1991 formation of a Geoscience Research Institute (GRI) and the merger in 2004 with the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST). Manchester’s graduates have not only entered all aspects of geology, at home and abroad, from industry and the survey to academe, but many have also become high achievers and their career movements have helped stimulate many other geology departments.

Hopefully other departments will follow Vaughan and Zussman’s example and write up their history. Now that the 20th century is history, we need a clearer picture of what happened to British geology in recent decades, so that future generations can learn from it.

Reviewed by Douglas Palmer


GEOLOGY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MANCHESTER: A BRIEF HISTORY 1851-2004 by David Vaughan & Jack Zussman, 2019. Published by Matador 165 pp. ISBN 978 1789017 106 List price: £15.00 W: https://www.troubador.co.uk/