Roderick Murchison

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Sir Roderick Murchison, Bt
Murchison Roderick.jpg
Sir Roderick Murchison
Born (1792-02-22)22 February 1792
Tarradale House, Muir of Ord, Ross-shire,
Died 22 October 1871(1871-10-22) (aged 79)
Nationality Scottish
Fields Geology
Known for Silurian System
Devonian System[1]
Notable awards Copley Medal (1849)
Wollaston Medal (1864)
Founder's Medal (1871)
Spouse Charlotte Hugonin

Sir Roderick Impey Murchison, 1st Baronet KCB DCL FRS FRSE FLS PRGS PBA MRIA (22 February 1792[2] – 22 October 1871) was a Scottish geologist who first described and investigated the Silurian system.

Early life and work

Murchison was born at Tarradale House, Muir of Ord, Ross-shire, the son of Kenneth Murchison. His wealthy father died in 1796, when Roderick was 4 years old, and he was sent to Durham School 3 years later,[3] and then the military college at Great Marlow to be trained for the army. In 1808 he landed with Wellesley in Galicia, and was present at the actions of Roliça and Vimeiro. Subsequently under Sir John Moore, he took part in the retreat to Corunna and the final battle there.

After eight years of service Murchison left the army, and married Charlotte Hugonin (1788–1869), the only daughter of General Hugonin, of Nursted House, Hampshire. Murchison and his wife spent two years in mainland Europe, particularly in Italy. They then settled in Barnard Castle, County Durham, England in 1818 where Murchison made the acquaintance of Sir Humphry Davy. Davy urged Murchison to turn his energy to science, after hearing that he wasted his time riding to hounds and shooting. Murchison became fascinated by the young science of geology and joined the Geological Society of London, soon becoming one of its most active members. His colleagues there included Adam Sedgwick, William Conybeare, William Buckland, William Fitton, Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin.

Sir Roderick Impey Murchison posing with cane, not dated

Exploring with his wife, Murchison studied the geology of the south of England, devoting special attention to the rocks of the north-west of Sussex and the adjoining parts of Hampshire and Surrey, on which, aided by Fitton, he wrote his first scientific paper, read to the Geological Society of London in 1825. Turning his attention to Continental geology, he and Lyell explored the volcanic region of Auvergne, parts of southern France, northern Italy, Tyrol and Switzerland. A little later, with Sedgwick as his companion, Murchison attacked the difficult problem of the geological structure of the Alps. Their joint paper giving the results of their study is a classic in the literature of Alpine geology.

Silurian system

Artist's impression of Silurian fish

In 1831 he went to the border of England and Wales, to attempt to discover whether the greywacke rocks underlying the Old Red Sandstone could be grouped into a definite order of succession. The result was the establishment of the Silurian system under which were grouped, for the first time, a remarkable series of formations, each replete with distinctive organic remains other than and very different from those of the other rocks of England. These researches, together with descriptions of the coalfields and overlying formations in South Wales and the English border counties, were embodied in The Silurian System (1839).

The establishment of the Silurian system was followed by that of the Devonian system, an investigation in which Murchison assisted, both in the south-west of England and in the Rhineland. Soon afterwards Murchison projected an important geological campaign in Russia with the view of extending to that part of the Continent the classification he had succeeded in elaborating for the older rocks of western Europe. He was accompanied by Edouard de Verneuil (1805–1873) and Count Alexander von Keyserling (1815–1891), in conjunction with whom he produced a work on Russia and the Ural Mountains. The publication of this monograph in 1845 completes the first and most active half of Murchison’s scientific career.

In 1846 he was knighted, and in the same year he presided over the meeting of the British Association at Southampton. During the later years of his life a large part of his time was devoted to the affairs of the Royal Geographical Society, of which he was in 1830 one of the founders, and he was president 1843–1845, 1851–1853, 1856–1859 and 1862–1871. He served on the Royal Commission on the British Museum (1847–49).[4]


Roderick Impey Murchison, 1st Baronet.jpg

The chief geological investigation of the last decade of his life was devoted to the Highlands of Scotland, where he wrongly believed he had succeeded in showing that the vast masses of crystalline schists, previously supposed to be part of what used to be termed the Primitive formations, were really not older than the Silurian period, for that underneath them lay beds of limestone and quartzite containing Lower Silurian (Cambrian) fossils. James Nicol recognised the fallacy in the Murchison's extant theory and propounded his own ideas, in the 1880s these were superseded by the correct theory of Charles Lapworth, which was corroborated by Benjamin Peach and John Horne. Their subsequent research showed that the infraposition of the fossiliferous rocks is not their original place, but had been brought about by a gigantic system of dislocations, whereby successive masses of the oldest gneisses, have been torn up from below and thrust bodily over the younger formations.

In 1855 Murchison was appointed director-general of the British Geological Survey and director of the Royal School of Mines and the Museum of Practical Geology in Jermyn Street, London, in succession to Sir Henry De la Beche, who had been the first to hold these offices. Official routine now occupied much of his time, but he found opportunity for the Highland researches just alluded to, and also for preparing successive editions of his work Siluria (1854, ed. 5, 1872), which was meant to present the main features of the original Silurian System together with a digest of subsequent discoveries, particularly of those that showed the extension of the Silurian classification into other countries.

Later life

Funerary monument, Brompton Cemetery, London

In 1845, whilst visiting Carclew in Cornwall, he met several Cornish miners who were going to Australia. Believing that there may have been gold there he asked them to send back likely samples. They did this and thus Murchison knew of the existence of gold in Australia before Edward Hargraves' discovery.[5]

In 1863, he was made a KCB, and three years later was created a baronet. The learned societies of his own country bestowed their highest rewards upon him: the Royal Society gave him the Copley medal, the Geological Society its Wollaston medal, and the Royal Society of Edinburgh its Brisbane Medal. There was hardly a foreign scientific society of note without his name among its honorary members. The French Academy of Sciences awarded him the prix Cuvier, and elected him one of its eight foreign members in succession to Michael Faraday. In 1855, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and in 1871 awarded the Founder's Gold Medal of the Royal Geological Society.[6]

One of the closing public acts of Murchison’s life was the founding of a chair of geology and mineralogy at the University of Edinburgh. Under his will there was established the Murchison Medal and a geological fund (The Murchison Fund) to be awarded annually by the council of the Geological Society in London.

Murchison died in 1871, and is buried in Brompton Cemetery, London near the north end of the arcade on the west side of the central path.


The crater Murchison on the Moon and at least fifteen geographical locations on Earth are named after him.

These include: Mount Murchison in the Mountaineer Range, Antarctica; Mount Murchison, just west of Squamish, British Columbia, Canada; tiny Murchison Island in the Queen Charlotte Islands in the same province; Murchison Falls (Uganda); and the Murchison River in Western Australia.[7] Unusually, Murchison has two other rivers named after him in Western Australia: the Roderick River and the Impey River, both tributaries of the Murchison.


Memorial tablet

A memorial tablet of Murchison was installed on 3 November 2005, in front of School #9 in Perm in Russia.[8] It consists of a stone base, irregular in form, about 2 meters long, and bearing a dark stone plate with the Russian inscription:

To Roderick Impey Murchison, Scottish geologist, explorer of Perm Krai,

who gives to the last period of Paleozoic era the name of Perm.

The decision to perpetuate the explorer's name was accepted by the school administration and pupils in connection with a discussion to establish in Perm a pillar or an arch devoted to Roderick Murchison.

In 2009, the Ural-Scottish Society erected a memorial to Murchison on the banks of the Chusovaya River.[9]

There is a commemorative 'blue plaque' on his residence in Barnard Castle (County Durham) at 21 Galgate.


  • Geology of Cheltenham (1834)
  • The Silurian System (1839)
  • On the Geological Structure of the Northern and Central Regions of Russia in Europe (1841)
  • Geology of Russia in Europe and the Ural Mountains (1845)


  2. Amodeo, Christian (June 2005). "Sir Roderick Impey Murchison: Pioneering Scottish geologist Roderick Murchison was instrumental in the identification and naming of several geological time periods". Geographical.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Bonney, T. G.; rev. Robert A. Stafford. "Murchison, Sir Roderick Impey, baronet (1792–1871)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004, online edn, May 2009). Retrieved 9 September 2009. In 1799 Roderick was placed at the grammar school, Durham, where he led in mischief more often than in his class.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. The Life of Sir Anthony Panizzi, Volume 1, by Louis Alexander Fagan, p257
  5. John Langdon Bonython, Address of the President, Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, Volume XXIV, Parts 1 and 2, 1933–34, p5.
  6. "List of Past Gold Medal Winners" (PDF). Royal Geographical Society. Retrieved 24 August 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. BCGNIS listing "Mount Murchison"
  8. (in Russian) Retrieved 27 March 2010. Missing or empty |title= (help)CS1 maint: unrecognized language (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "A memorial to Sir Roderick Impey Murchison, the Scottish geologist who established the Permian archaeological period of the Mesozoic Era, has been unveiled on the bank of the Chusovaya River in the Ural Mountains". Daily Telegraph. 24 February 2009. Retrieved 27 March 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Author Query for 'Murch.', International Plant Names Index Invalid |mode=CS1 (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. Missing or empty |title= (help)CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Geikie, Archibald (1875). Life of Sir Roderick I. Murchison. London: John Murray.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Hestmark, Geir 2008. ”A primitive country of rocks and people” – Roderick I Murchison’s Silurian Campaign in Norway 1844. Norwegian Journal of Geology 88: 117-141.
  • Morton, John L., King of Siluria — How Roderick Murchison Changed the Face of Geology (Brocken Spectre Publishing, 2004, ISBN 0-9546829-0-4)
  • Rudwick, Martin J. S., The Great Devonian Controversy: The Shaping of Scientific Knowledge among Gentlemanly Specialists (University of Chicago Press, 1985) — the rise of Murchison to power
  • Secord, James A., Controversy in Victorian Geology: The Cambrian-Silurian Dispute (Princeton University Press, 1986) — documents the battle between Murchison and Adam Sedgwick
  • Murchison's Wanderings in Russia: His Geological Exploration of Russia in Europe and the Ural Mountains, 1840-1841 / Ed. M. Collie, J. Diener. Buckinghamshire: Halstan & Co., 2004. 474 pp. (British Geological Survey Occasional Publication No. 2.)
  • Murchison, Arthur, "War Before Science: Sir Robert Impey Murchison's Youth, Army Service and Military Associates During the Napoleonic Wars" (Academica Press, 2014, 2014, ISBN 978-1-936320-74-5)

External links