Adam Sedgwick (/ˈsɛdʒwɪk/; 22 March 1785 – 27 January 1873) was
a British Priest and geologist, one of the founders of modern geology.
He proposed the
Devonian period of the geological timescale. Based on
work which he did on Welsh rock strata, he proposed the Cambrian
period in 1835, in a joint publication in which Roderick Murchison
also proposed the
Silurian period. Later in 1840, to resolve what
later became known as the Great
Devonian Controversy about rocks near
the boundary between the
Silurian and Carboniferous periods, he and
Murchison proposed the
Though he had guided the young
Charles Darwin in his early study of
geology and continued to be on friendly terms, Sedgwick was an
opponent of Darwin's theory of evolution by means of natural
1 Life and career
2 Geological views and evolution
3 Sedgwick Club
4 Sedgwick Museum
5 Sedgwick Prize
6 Sedgwick Trail
9 External links
Life and career
Sedgwick was born in Dent, Yorkshire, the third child of an Anglican
vicar. He was educated at
Sedbergh School and Trinity College,
He studied mathematics and theology, and obtained his BA (5th
Wrangler) from the University of
Cambridge in 1808 and his MA in 1811.
On July 20, 1817 he was ordained a deacon, then a year later he was
ordained as a priest. His academic mentors at
Cambridge were Thomas
Jones and John Dawson. He became a
Fellow of Trinity College,
Cambridge and Woodwardian Professor of
Cambridge from 1818,
holding the chair until his death in 1873. His biography in the
Cambridge Alumni database says that upon his acceptance of the
position, reverend Sedgwick had no working knowledge of geology. An
1851 portrait of Sedgwick by
William Boxall hangs in Trinity's
Sedgwick studied the geology of the British Isles and Europe. He
founded the system for the classification of
Cambrian rocks and with
Roderick Murchison worked out the order of the Carboniferous and
Devonian strata. These studies were mostly carried out in
the 1830s. The investigations into the
Devonian meant that Sedgwick
was involved with Murchison in a vigorous debate with Henry De la
Beche, in what became known as the great
Sedgwick investigated the phenomena of metamorphism and concretion,
and was the first to distinguish clearly between stratification,
jointing, and slaty cleavage. He was elected to
Fellow of the Royal
Society on 1 February 1821. In 1844, he was elected a Foreign Honorary
Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Sedgwick was an owner of slaves in plantations in
Jamaica and was
awarded £3783 in compensation for 174 slaves, following the abolition
of slavery by the British government.
Geological views and evolution
The Church of England, by no means a fundamentalist or evangelical
church, encloses a wide range of beliefs. During Sedgwick's life there
developed something of a chasm between the conservative high church
believers and the liberal wing. After simmering for
some years, the publication of
Essays and Reviews
Essays and Reviews by liberal churchmen
in 1860 pinpointed the differences. In all this, Sedgwick, whose
science and faith were intertwined in a natural theology, was
definitely on the conservative side, and extremely outspoken about it.
He told the February 1830 meeting of the Geological Society of London:
"No opinion can be heretical, but that which is not true....
Conflicting falsehoods we can comprehend; but truths can never war
against each other. I affirm, therefore, that we have nothing to fear
from the results of our enquiries, provided they be followed in the
laborious but secure road of honest induction. In this way we may rest
assured that we shall never arrive at conclusions opposed to any
truth, either physical or moral, from whatever source that truth may
As a geologist in the mid-1820s he supported William Buckland's
interpretation of certain superficial deposits, particularly loose
rocks and gravel, as "diluvium" relating to worldwide floods, and in
1825 he published two papers identifying these as due to a "great
irregular inundation" from the "waters of a general deluge", Noah's
flood. Sedgwick's subsequent investigations and discussions with
continental geologists persuaded him that this was problematic. In
early 1827, after spending several weeks in Paris, he visited
geological features in the
Scottish Highlands with Roderick Murchison.
He later wrote "If I have been converted in part from the diluvian
theory...it was...by my own gradual improved experience, and by
communicating with those about me. Perhaps I may date my change of
mind (at least in part) from our journey in the Highlands, where there
are so many indications of local diluvial operations.... Humboldt
ridiculed [the doctrine] beyond measure when I met him in Paris.
Prévost lectured against it." In response to Charles Lyell's 1830
publication promoting uniformitarian geology Sedgwick talked of floods
at various dates, then on 18 February 1831 when retiring from the
Presidency of the Geological Society he recanted his former belief in
He strongly believed that species of organisms originated in a
succession of Divine creative acts throughout the long expanse of
history. Any form of development that denied a direct creative action
smacked as materialistic and amoral. For Sedgwick, moral truths (the
obtainment of which separates man from beast) were to be distinguished
from physical truths, and to combine these or blur them together could
only lead to disastrous consequences. In fact, one's own hope for
immortality may ultimately rest on it.
He stated in 1830 that
Scriptural geologists proposed "a deformed
progeny of heretical and fantastical conclusions, by which sober
philosophy has been put to open shame, and sometimes even the
charities of life have been exposed to violation." In 1834 he
continued, "They have committed the folly and SIN of dogmatizing,"
having "sinned against plain sense," and "of writing mischievous
nonsense," "Their eyes cannot bear to look upon" truth and suppose an
"ignorant and dishonest" theory. They show "bigotry and ignorance," of
nature's laws and natural phenomena. Henry Cole then responded in
1834 in a 136-page "letter," Popular
Geology Subversive of Divine
Revelation. He referred to Sedgwick's ideas as "unscriptural and
anti-Christian," "scripture-defying", "revelation-subverting," and
"baseless speculations and self-contradictions," which were "impious
While he became increasingly Evangelical with age, he strongly
supported advances in geology against conservative churchmen. At the
September 1844 British Association for the Advancement of Science
York he achieved national celebrity for his reply defending
modern geology against an attack by the Dean of York, the Reverend
William Cockburn, who described it as unscriptural. The entire chapter
house of the cathedral refused to sit down with Sedgwick, and he was
opposed by conservative papers including The Times, but his courage
was hailed by the full spectrum of the liberal press, and the
confrontation was a key moment in the battle over relations between
Scripture and science.
Sedgwick in 1867
When Robert Chambers anonymously published his own theory of universal
evolutionism as his "development hypothesis" in the book Vestiges of
the Natural History of Creation published in October 1844 to immediate
popular success, Sedgwick's many friends urged him to respond. Like
other eminent scientists he initially ignored the book, but the
subject kept recurring and he then read it carefully and made a
withering attack on the book in the July 1845 edition of the Edinburgh
Review. Vestiges "comes before [its readers] with a bright, polished,
and many-coloured surface, and the serpent coils a false philosophy,
and asks them to stretch out their hands and pluck the forbidden
fruit", he wrote in his review. Accepting the arguments in
Vestiges was akin to falling from grace and away from God's favour.
He lashed out at the book in a letter to Charles Lyell, bemoaning the
consequences of it conclusions. "...If the book be true, the labours
of sober induction are in vain; religion is a lie; human law is a mass
of folly, and a base injustice; morality is moonshine; our labours for
the black people of Africa were works of madmen; and man and woman are
only better beasts!" Later, Sedgwick added a long preface to the
5th edition of his Discourse on the Studies of the University of
Cambridge (1850), including a lengthy attack on Vestiges and theories
of development in general.
Charles Darwin was one of his geology students in 1831, and
accompanied him on a field trip to
Wales that summer. The two kept up
a correspondence while Darwin was on the Beagle expedition, and
afterwards. However, Sedgwick never accepted the case for evolution
On the Origin of Species
On the Origin of Species in 1859 any more than he did that in
Vestiges in 1844. In response to receiving and reading Darwin's book,
he wrote to Darwin saying:
"If I did not think you a good tempered & truth loving man I
should not tell you that... I have read your book with more pain than
pleasure. Parts of it I admired greatly; parts I laughed at till my
sides were almost sore; other parts I read with absolute sorrow;
because I think them utterly false & grievously mischievous —
You have deserted—after a start in that tram-road of all solid
physical truth—the true method of induction—& started up a
machinery as wild I think as Bishop Wilkins's locomotive that was to
sail with us to the Moon. Many of your wide conclusions are based upon
assumptions which can neither be proved nor disproved. Why then
express them in the language & arrangements of philosophical
Sedgwick regarded natural selection as
"but a secondary consequence of supposed, or known, primary facts.
Development is a better word because more close to the cause of the
fact. For you do not deny causation. I call (in the abstract)
causation the will of God: & I can prove that He acts for the good
of His creatures. He also acts by laws which we can study &
comprehend—Acting by law, & under what is called final cause,
comprehends, I think, your whole principle".
He emphasised his distinction between the moral and physical aspects
of life, "There is a moral or metaphysical part of nature as well as a
physical. A man who denies this is deep in the mire of folly". If
humanity broke this distinction it "would suffer a damage that might
brutalize it—& 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".
In a letter to another correspondent, Sedgwick was even harsher on
Darwin's book, calling it "utterly false" and writing that "It
repudiates all reasoning from final causes; and seems to shut the door
on any view (however feeble) of the God of Nature as manifested in His
works. From first to last it is a dish of rank materialism cleverly
cooked and served up".
Despite this difference of opinion, the two men remained friendly
until Sedgwick's death. In contrast to Sedgwick, liberal church
members (who included biologists such as George Rolleston, William
Henry Flower and William Kitchen Parker) were usually comfortable with
The Sedgwick Club, the oldest student-run geological society in the
world, was set up in honour of him in 1880.
On the death of Sedgwick it was decided that his memorial should take
the form of a new and larger museum. Hitherto the geological
collections had been placed in the
Woodwardian Museum in Cockerell's
Building. Through the energy of Professor T. McK. Hughes (successor to
Sedgwick) the new building, termed the Sedgwick Museum, was completed
and opened in 1903.
In 1865, the University of
Cambridge received from A. A. Van Sittart
the sum of 500 pounds sterling "for the purpose of encouraging the
study of geology among the resident members of the university, and in
honour of the Rev. Adam Sedgwick". Thus was founded the Sedgwick Prize
to be given every third year for the best essay on some geological
subject. The first Sedgwick Prize was awarded in 1873.
To celebrate the bicentenary of Sedgwick's birth a geological trail
was created near Dent, the village where he was born. The Sedgwick
Trail follows the River Clough, highlighting rock features and
exploring the Dent Fault.
^ Background note on
Adam Sedgwick Archived 21 February 2014 at the
^ Ray Spangenburg, Diane Moser, The Age of Synthesis: 1800–1895.
Infobase Publishing. p. 94
^ Bernard V. Lightman, Bennett Zon.
Evolution and Victorian Culture.
Cambridge University Press, p. 292
^ a b c "Sedgwick, Adam (SGWK803A)". A
Cambridge Alumni Database.
University of Cambridge.
^ a b Bonney 1889.
^ "Trinity College, University of Cambridge". BBC Your
^ von Zittel, Karl Alfred 1901. History of geology and palaeontology
to the end of the nineteenth century. Scott, London. p432
^ Rudwick M.S.J. 1985. The great
Devonian controversy. Chicago.
^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter S" (PDF). American Academy of
Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 9 September 2016.
^ "Summary of Individual Legacies of British Slave-ownership".
www.ucl.ac.uk. Retrieved 2016-09-01.
^ Browne 1995, p. 129, Sedgwick, Adam (1830). "Geological
Society, Feb. 19 – At the Annual General Meeting of the Society,
held on this day, the President, Professor Sedgwick, delivered the
following Address from the chair: –". The Philosophical Magazine: Or
Annals of Chemistry, Mathematics, Astronomy, Natural History and
General Science. 7. Richard Taylor. p. 310.
^ Herbert 1991, pp. 170–174, Sedgwick, Adam (April 1831).
"Address to the Geological Society, delivered on the Evening of the
18th of February 1831, by the Rev. Professor Sedgwick, M.A. F.R.S.
&c. on retiring from the President's chair". Philosophical
Magazine. 9. Taylor & Francis. pp. 312–315. Retrieved 13
^ Sedgwick 1830, p. 310
^ Sedgwick, Adam (1834). On the Studies of the University.
^ O’Connor 2007, p. 371
^ Cole 1834, pp. 52, 113
^ James Secord, Victorian Sensation (2000), pp. 232–233.
^ James Secord, Victorian Sensation (2000), pp. 233, 246.
^ Letter of
Adam Sedgwick to Charles Lyell, 9 April 1845, in The Life
and Letters of the Rev.
Adam Sedgwick vol. 2 (1890), pg. 84.
^ a b "Darwin Correspondence Project – Letter 2548 – Sedgwick,
Adam to Darwin, C. R., 24 Nov 1859". Retrieved 24 January 2009.
^ Letter to Miss Gerard from Adam Sedgwick, 2 January 1860, in The
Life and Letters of the Rev.
Adam Sedgwick vol. 2 (1890), pgs.
^ 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica Archived 20 June 2011 at the Wayback
J.W. Clark and T.M. Hughes, The Life and Letters of the Reverend Adam
Cambridge University Press, 1890, vols. 1–2. (Reissued by
Cambridge University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-108-01831-9)
Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Charles Scribner's Sons:
1970–1990; vol. 12, pp. 275–279.
A Biographical Dictionary of Scientists, Williams, T. I., Ed., Wiley,
1969, pp. 467–468.
Isaac Asimov, I. Asimov's Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and
Technology (2nd Ed.), Doubleday: 1982, p. 299.
Quart. J. Geol. Soc., 1873, 29, pp. xxx–xxxix.
Bonney, Thomas George (1889). "Sedgwick, Adam". In Stephen,
Leslie. Dictionary of National Biography. 17. London: Smith, Elder
& Co. pp. 179–182.
Adam Sedgwick –
Geologist and Dalesman" Colin Speakman Broad Oak
"Adam Sedgwick's Dent" A facsimile reprint of 'A Memorial by the
Trustees of Cowgill Chapel (1868) and 'Supplement to the Memorial
Adam Sedgwick with introduction by David Boulton Hollett,
Sedbergh and David Boulton Dent 1984.
"A Discourse on the Studies of the University"
Adam Sedgwick The
Victorian Library, Leicester University Press 1969
Browne, E. Janet (1995), Charles Darwin: vol. 1 Voyaging, London:
Jonathan Cape, ISBN 1-84413-314-1
Herbert, Sandra (1991), "
Charles Darwin as a prospective geological
author", British Journal for the History of Science, 24,
pp. 159–192, doi:10.1017/s0007087400027060, archived from the
original on 8 February 2009, retrieved 24 January 2009
Secord, James A. (2000), Victorian Sensation: the extraordinary
publication, reception, and secret authorship of Vestiges of the
natural history of creation, Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
Wikisource has original works written by or about:
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Adam_Sedgwick.
Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge
Adam Sedgwick at Project Gutenberg
Works by or about
Adam Sedgwick at Internet Archive
The life and letters of the Reverend
Adam Sedgwick Vol.1 by J.W.Clark,
The life and letters of the Reverend
Adam Sedgwick Vol.2 by J.W.Clark,
Obituary in: "Obituary". Popular Science Monthly. 2. April
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