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Bust of Sir Roderick Impey Murchison (1792-1871)

R I Murchison   

Marble portrait bust of Sir Roderick Impey Murchison, by Richard Westmacott, 1848. (GSL/POR/26) Photograph by Alistair Fyfe, 2009.

Provenance: Presented to the Society by Lady Murchison, 1853.


Elected a Member of the Geological Society on 3 December 1824 (no.624) and twice served as President between 1831-1833 and 1841-1843. Awarded the Wollaston Medal in 1864.

Murchison was born in Tarradale, Easter Ross, Scotland and was educated at Durham Grammar School and the Royal Military College. When Murchison met his future wife Charlotte Hugonin (1788-1869) in 1815, it was she who was studying science, Murchison being far more interested in hunting and horses. After many years of encouragement from Charlotte and latterly Sir Humphrey Davy, the Murchisons moved to London in 1824 where he began to attend lectures on geology and chemistry.

Murchison’s most important geological achievements were as a stratigrapher, particularly his work determining the order of Palaeozoic rocks.  His researches in Wales in the 1830s with his friend Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873) identified the oldest (then known) fossil bearing rocks.  Murchison called his system the ‘Silurian’ after the ancient indigenous tribe.  Sedgwick named his ‘Cambrian’ after the Latinised version of Cymru, the Welsh for Wales.  The Devonian system, the intermediate between the Carboniferous and Silurian, was defined by the two men in 1839.  Finally, Murchison’s travels around the Russian empire in the early 1840s led to his description of a third system, the Permian (named after the province of Perm in Russia) which marked the end of the Palaeozoic era.

Murchison attained many honours in his lifetime.  He was awarded a KCB in 1843, knighted in 1846 and made a baronet in 1866.  In the bust, Murchison is wearing two of the many foreign honours bestowed up on him.  The star is the Russian Order of St Stanislau, 1st Class (1845), the cross is the Danish Order of Dannebrog (1846/7).

Murchison medal obv
Murchison medal rev

The Society’s Murchison Medal, established in 1871 under the will of Sir Roderick Impey Murchison. The reverse shows two geological hammers in saltire, between them a series of fossils surrounded by a border of Graptolites, under the legend ‘Siluria’, the system which Murchison was the first to identify.  The fossils are:  trilobites Encrinurus punctatus & Ampyx nudus; brachiopod Pentamerus Knighti; and gastropod Euomphalus rugosus.

Another portrait image of Murchison can be seen in our painting The British Association at Newcastle.