Adam Sedgwick
From The Great Devonian Controversy by Martin J.S. Rudwick

In his 1860 book Life on the Earth, the geologist John Phillips remarked:

While speaking of the Lower Palæozoic Strata and the beautiful system of Life which they contain — a system of the highest importance in the inquiry now on hand — I find it convenient to employ the combination of Siluro-Cambrian, or Cambro-Silurian, as the occasion suggests; and have pleasure in thus commemorating in my phrase the gigantic labours, sometimes independent, sometimes associated, but always successful, by which, first of all men, Murchison and Sedgwick laid open for us these deeply-buried monuments of the earliest Life on the Earth.

What Phillips tactfully avoided stating was that he, like all other British geologists, had to tread carefully since these "first of all men" now hated each other. But he was right in praising their achievements.

For the first 80 to 90 percent of the Earth's history, there is no rich record of fossil life, though some fossils have been found. The really good fossils start to show up in a geologic time period known as the Cambrian, and Cambridge Woodwardian Professor Adam Sedgwick originally named this period. Twentieth-century research has uncovered so many excellent fossils in Cambrian sediments, especially the Burgess Shale in Canada, that this geologic period is sometimes referred to as the "Cambrian Explosion." It's to Sedgwick's credit that he recognized and named the Cambrian almost a century before paleontologists found the best fossils. His identification was largely based on rock structures as he identified the Cambrian System based on rock layers in North Wales. The strata he studied weren't rich in fossils.

Sedgwick was born in 1785 in Dent. About 20 years later, he wound up at Trinity College, Cambridge, and stayed there for the rest of his life. He became the Woodwardian Professor of Geology, and quickly went to work collecting specimens for the Woodwardian Museum. In 1904, Cambridge replaced the diminutive Woodwardian Museum with the larger Sedgwick Museum, and it remains open to the public today.

Main entrance to the Sedgwick Museum at the University of Cambridge (top). Vintage label (bottom left) and watermelon tourmaline (bottom right) on display at the museum. Photos by Michon Scott.

For much of his life, Sedgwick was regarded as a plain-spoken, respected gentlemanly geologist who could hold an audience spellbound. At other times, he was regarded as quite the opposite. Sedgwick helped a fellow geologist, Roderick Impey Murchison, identify the geologic time period known as the Devonian. Murchison and Sedgwick were good friends for years, but their priority dispute ended the friendship for good. While Sedgwick claimed certain rock strata for the Cambrian, Murchison claimed the same rocks for a period he named, the Silurian. In 1879, geologist Charles Lapworth settled the dispute by assigning the older rocks to the Cambrian, the newer rocks to the Silurian, and carving out a new period in between: the Ordovician. By then, however, both Sedgwick and Murchison were dead.

Rejecting a literal reading of Genesis in terms of time, Sedgwick took on the scriptural geologists — the creationists of their day — especially William Cockburn. In his 1849 book entitled A New System of Geology: Dedicated to Professor Sedgwick, Cockburn argued that his own interpretation of Earth history fit nicely with knowledge handed down from Moses. Sedgwick responded. Then Cockburn responded. The argument became national news.

Although Sedgwick accepted a long-lived Earth, he didn't accept evolution. When Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation was anonymously published in 1844 arguing for transmutation of species, Adam Sedgwick wrote a searing 90-page critique. In fact, Vestiges did contain a number of scientific errors, but Sedgwick's reaction to it concerned other matters. He predicted "ruin and confusion in such a creed" that would "undermine the whole moral and social fabric" of society. Several years later, unencumbered by the restraints of an editor, Sedgwick expanded his critique to a several-hundred-page tome. Shortly before embarking on the Beagle, the young Charles Darwin did fieldwork with Sedgwick, but when Darwin's book was published in 1859, Sedgwick wrote his younger friend:

I have read your book with more pain than pleasure. Parts I laughed at till my sides were sore; others I read with absolute sorrow, because I think them utterly false and grievously mischievous.

Going after Darwin, however, Sedgwick had fewer supporters. Despite his anger over Darwin's support of evolution, the two remained friendly, and even in his eighties, Sedgwick could wear out the younger man with a tour of museum collections.

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