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SEDGWICK, Adam (1785-1873)

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 378 LDGSL/57
Held at: Geological Society of London
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Full title: SEDGWICK, Adam (1785-1873)
Date(s): 1816, 1843-1854
Level of description: Series
Extent: 14 files
Name of creator(s): Sedgwick | Adam | 1785-1873 | geologist


Administrative/Biographical history:

The Rev Adam Sedgwick was born in 1785, at the vicarage of Dent, Yorkshire, the third of seven children of the vicar Richard Sedgwick. He attended the local grammar school, under the tutelage of his father, until he was 16 after which he was sent to Sedbergh Grammar School.

Sedgwick entered Trinity College, Cambridge in 1804 where he chiefly read mathematics. He graduated in 1808 as 'fifth wrangler' [first class honours, 5th highest marks in the year], and gained his Fellowship from Trinity in 1810. Sedgwick's health broke down in 1813 due to a burst a blood vessel caused by a combination of overwork and unhappiness with his position. Whilst he did recover over the next few years, he continued to suffer from bouts of ill health throughout his life. In 1815 he became assistant mathematics tutor at Trinity, and was ordained the following year during which he also travelled for several months throughout Europe.

In 1818 he was elected Woodwardian Professor of Geology of the University of Cambridge, a post he held until his death in 1873. One of the odder duties of the chair, as set down in the will of its founder John Woodward in 1728, was to defend Woodward's views as to the nature and origin of fossils against the outdated attacks of Dr Rudolf Jakob Camerarius of Tübingen and his followers - a duty Sedgwick faithfully undertook in his inaugural lecture each year. The post was also allocated £10 a year to correspond in scientific matters with distinguished foreigners, with a view to adding to Woodward's fossil collection. Unlike the previous Woodwardian Professors, Sedgwick was expected to lecture on geology, a subject he admitted he knew little about at the time. Energetically throwing himself into the subject, he undertook his first geological field trip with John Stevens Henslow to the Isle of Wight in 1818, the findings from the excursion forming his first course of lectures. That same year he joined the Geological Society, going on to serve as its President between 1829-1831.

Sedgwick's first geological paper was on the physical structure of Devonshire and Cornwall, which was read before the Cambridge Philosophical Society in 1820, an organisation of which he was also co-founder. Sedgwick continued with his summer field trips, learning much from Henslow and William Daniel Conybeare, and in 1828 accompanied Roderick Impey Murchison on a tour of Scotland. Murchison, whom Sedgwick met at the Geological Society, was less experienced than he, but they became close friends publishing a number of joint papers on the geology of Britain and Europe between 1828-1842.

By the late 1820s, Sedgwick's main focus was to complete a book on the strata below the Old Red Sandstone, and the majority of his papers over the next 20 years were essentially progress reports on the project. He travelled around the Lake District, Wales and the southern uplands of Scotland to investigate these older rocks. In 1831, a young Charles Darwin accompanied Sedgwick on a tour of north Wales, where Darwin gained his first training in the field.

Whilst Sedgwick was researching structures in north Wales, Murchison had began examining the younger and more fossiliferous strata of south Wales and the Welsh borders. Together, their work provided the foundations for a new classification of the oldest rocks with fossils - Sedgwick's strata were called the Cambrian, while Murchison's became the Silurian. This friendly arrangement was threatened by Henry De la Beche's discovery of Coal plants in rocks which appeared to be of the same age as those which Murchison and Sedgwick had been studying. The resulting controversy, in which the two friends collaborated closely, bore fruit in their 1839 announcement of the Devonian system as a distinctive period in earth history.

However, the creation of the Devonian effectively removed any distinctive fauna from Sedgwick's Cambrian. The problem was exacerbated when John Eddowes Bowman, Daniel Sharpe, and finally the official Geological Survey extended its work into Sedgwick's territory during the early 1840. Most of the strata which had been identified as being older than the Silurian proved to be of the same age. Almost all geologists followed Murchison in wiping the Cambrian off the map, ignoring Sedgwick's attempts to create alternatives to what he condemned as a grossly over-extended Silurian.

By the 1850s, with his book on the older rocks scarcely begun, Sedgwick argued the case for the Cambrian in increasingly intemperate language. He cut off links not only with Murchison, but also with the Geological Society (whose Wollaston medal he had been awarded in 1851) and the London geological community more generally. The controversy was settled only after Sedgwick's death. The discovery of a fauna below that of Murchison's oldest Silurians became the basis for a redefined Cambrian. The uppermost strata of Murchison's expanded system were called Silurian, and the strata in between were termed Ordovician.

The controversy between the once close friends has been marked by the Society, in its positioning of the busts of Murchison and Sedgwick. Both busts can be found by the main entrance, but on opposite sides.


Scope and content/abstract:

Papers of Adam Sedgwick, 1816 and 1843-1854, comprising:

Two notebooks from Sedgwick's tour through the continent of Europe, June-September 1816; manuscripts of Sedgwick's papers, mostly on the geology of Wales, which were read and later published by the Society, 1843-1854.

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:

System of arrangement:

The original arrangement of the LDGSL series was not hierarchical. Material by the same creator/author was not collected together, instead each file or distinct item was given a different reference (not always sequential). In order to make them easier to find, the papers relating to Sedgwick are placed together for descriptive purposes but can still be located under their original references.

Conditions governing access:

Access is by appointment only, daily readership fee is applicable unless you are a member of the Society. Please contact the Archivist for further information.

Conditions governing reproduction:

Copies, subject to copyright and the condition of the original, may be supplied. Requests to publish original material should be submitted to the Archivist.

Finding aids:

Detailed online catalogue will be available soon.

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Allied Materials

Related material:

The majority of Sedgwick's papers are held by Cambridge University, but other material includes: Correspondence with Charles Babbage andMacvey Napier, 1817-1868, British Library; Letters to Leonard Blomefield, c1850-1872, Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution; 11 letters to Lord Brougham, 1826-1854, University College London; 19 letters to General Charles Grey, 1851-1869, Durham University Library, Special Collections; 20 letters to Sir John Herschel, 1820-1869, Royal Society; 40 items of correspondence with Sir Richard Owen and William Clift, 1842-1869, Natural History Museum; 112 letters to John Phillips, 1827-1869, Oxford University: Museum of Natural History.

Publication note:

Description Notes

Archivist's note:
Sources: Obituary by Henry Govier Seeley, 'Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London', vol 29 (1873); Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Description by Caroline Lam.

Rules or conventions:
Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions:
July 2012

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