Patrons of Paleontology: How Government Support Shaped a Science

By Jane P. Davidson | Go to book overview

4
PALEONTOLOGY IN
MID-NINETEENTH-CENTURY
SURVEYS OUTSIDE THE UNITED
STATES

Geological Surveys
Within the British
Empire: The
Surveys of Great
Britain, Scotland,
and Ireland

Writing about the Geological Society of London in a history of the Geological Survey of Great Britain at its centenary in 1935, the survey director, John Smith Flett, commented about the composition of the Geological Society at its beginnings. This institution he clearly saw as instrumental in the development of the Geological Survey, chiefly due to the role played in both institutions by Henry De la Beche. And he also felt that the Geological Society of London had played a definitive role in the development of paleontology. Flett (1937) noted:

In the advancement of the knowledge of geology in Great Britain a prin-
cipal part must be assigned to the Geological Society of London.
Founded in 1807, its membership [in 1807] included practically every
man in England who was taking part (in) or who was interested in the
increase of geological science. Although the Royal Society attempted to
strangle it in its cradle [this was his opinion, and is not that of the cur-
rent author] the Geological Society thanks to the sturdy independence
of its members, survived and prospered. Its ‘Transactions’ contain a
series of classic memoirs which are the foundation stones of British
Geology. (13–14)

He remarked further that between 1830 and 1840 “the Geological Society of London had on its list of members probably the most brilliant assemblage of distinguished geologists that has ever participated in its activities” (Flett 1937, 14). Flett went on to further note important papers in paleontology published by the Transactions. He remarked, “The study of minerals actually preceded the investigation of organic remains and of rocks, or was at any rate more clearly established on a scientific basis about the beginning of the nineteenth century” (15). Again, this is probably a shortsighted remark, as paleontology was not new in 1800, but he was correct in stating that it began to flourish and be more of an actual a scientific discipline at that point. This Flett attributed in part to geologists and paleontologists like De la Beche and Conybeare, but also to Charles Lyell, whose Principles of Geology was published in 1830. He was in accord with Edward Bailey, who later noted in his history of the survey that De la Beche “constituted its [Survey] whole scientific staff” (Flett 1937, 21) during the early years of 1835–1839. This is when the survey was still called the Ordnance Survey of Great Britain. The term “ordnance” seems best explained as meaning “military.” Bailey’s book itself was printed by authority and financial support of

The Lords of the Treasury
having sanctioned the
preparation of this
Catalogue.

—Henry White and Thomas
W. Newton, A Catalogue of
the Library of the Museum of
Practical Geology and
Geological Survey

The services of
palaeontologists were called
upon almost from the start of
the Survey in Scotland.

—H.B. Wilson, A History of
the Geological Survey in
Scotland

-110-

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