Ward's Book of Days.

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What happened on this day in history.

MARCH 22nd  

On this day in history in 1785, was born Adam Sedgwick. 

Sedgwick became the founder of modern geology by creating the framework for the classification of paleontological periods.  

Sedgwick was born in Dent, Yorkshire, and the son of an Anglican clergyman. He was educated at Sedbergh Grammar School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied mathematics. In 1810, the Woodwardian chair in geology became vacant and, although he had no particular training or aptitude for the position, Sedgwick was appointed to the post on the principle that the most senior fellow receives the next vacant position.   

Sedgwick was expected to hold the chair as an administrator but, not being one to shirk what he perceived to be his responsibilities, began to take an active interest in the subject. He remarked to a colleague Hitherto, I have never turned a stone. Henceforth, I will leave no stone unturned.” Sedgwick embarked on field research, starting in the Lake District, where he became acquainted with the poets, Wordsworth and Southey, and from there, to the northern and westerly reaches of Scotland.  

In 1829, Sedgwick was appointed president of the Geological Society. This position enabled him to obtain funding for the most important part of his career. Together with Roderick Murchison, he completed a study of the shale and sandstone of Devonshire and concluded that they were formed in a period, which he named the Devonian, now known to be between 400 and 360 million years ago. After a similar research in Wales, Sedgwick applied the name Cambrian, the Latin name for Welsh, to a time scale of between 570 and 500 million years ago. The evidence for these classifications lay in fossil deposits within the rocks. Sedgwick found that the two areas contained different types of life forms, the ones in Devonian area being more developed and therefore later in the time scale.  

One of Sedgwick’s assistants on the Welsh field trip was the young Charles Darwin. Sedgwick was enthusiastic when Darwin later produced his experiences of the voyage on the Beagle, but when Darwin published Origin of Species, the two disagreed fundamentally. Sedgwick wrote to Darwin: ‘ I have read your book with more pain that pleasure. Parts of it, I admired greatly. Part, I laughed at till my sides were sore.” Darwin also scoffed at Sedgwick’s belief that much of the earth’s alluvial deposits had been laid down by the Biblical Flood. Darwin suggested that the earth was millions of years old, the exact time was not computed until the Twentieth Century, but Sedgwick opined that the great changes in the earth’s condition had occurred by great catastrophes. Darwin cynically remarked: “What a capital hand is Sedgwick for drawing large cheques upon the Bank of Time”. Sedgwick wrote to Darwin “The view of nature which you have stated…might sink the human race into a lower grade of degradation than any into which it has fallen since its written records tell us of its history” Despite these strong words, Darwin kept up a friendship with Sedgwick until he died in 1873.  

Sedgwick was buried in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge. [Trinity College, Trinity Street, Cambridge, CB2 3RF]. A geological museum was opened in Cambridge in 1902, to house Sedgwick’s vast collections, and was named in Sedgwick’s honour. It is open to the public, free of charge. [The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge, CB2 3EQ]

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