Roderick Impey Murchison

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

Among the best known geologists of his time, Roderick Impey Murchison had no aversion to fame, wealth, priority or mixing with European nobility. Upon being elected to the Royal Society in 1826, he got the blunt news that his election had nothing to do with his science and everything to do with his connections and his money. He also had a well-earned reputation for browbeating his colleagues.

Based on rock layers along the Wales-England border, Murchison named the Silurian, now understood to be one of the earlier rock formations deposited in the Paleozoic Era. Once named, Murchison expected the Silurian to get its due — from everyone. In an 1839 letter to a colleague, Murchison complained that a fellow geologist failed to "do justice to my Siluriana." A few years later, he recounted giving John Phillips "my mind for suppressing the title of my work in his new book." People who knew Murchison well could see this coming. When he presented a paper announcing the Silurian, a fellow geologist dryly remarked, "I can foresee the fate of geology for the next eight years — half of the globe will become Silurian."

From moderately wealthy Scottish roots, Murchison moved on to the army, though it has been suggested that he somewhat overstated his military accomplishments later in life. After hostilities ceased, he married a very intelligent heiress and started his life as a country gentleman. That mostly entailed fox hunting, and after his wife lost patience with his expensive hobby, he sold his hunting dogs and horses and took up rock hunting. One of his first fossil finds was, rather fittingly, a fossil fox.

Foxes aside, Murchison's contributions to science were hardly trivial. In addition to serving as the president of the Geological Society of London, he made extensive excursions through remote, difficult terrain, including two lengthy trips to Russia, which he documented in a ponderous, expensive tome. (Czar Alexander II rewarded Murchison's geologic efforts with a jewel-encrusted gold snuffbox in 1867, about as nice a reward as a gentleman could want.) Besides the Silurian, he co-named the Devonian — both of them geologic time periods preceding any significant forests (and consequently any economically important coal seams). He also named the Permian, the last system of the Paleozoic Era that ended approximately 251 million years ago. Murchison sided with Charles Lyell against the highly influential William Buckland to argue for uniformitarianism over the Noachian flood. Likewise, though Murchison was among the last prominent 19th-century scientists to accept the theory of the Pleistocene Ice Age, he was a great supporter of the explorer Elisha Kent Kane, whose Greenland expedition and succeeding accounts fostered acceptance of the Ice Age theory.

Even more than his friend-turned-enemy Adam Sedgwick, Murchison made astute use of fossils in identifying rock formations. In fact, though he felt (as did his peers) that gentlemen scholars like himself could contribute more to science than working men, he championed the recognition of William Smith, a self-made geologist who pioneered the use of fossils in geology. Murchison and his wife hosted fossil finder Mary Anning, who had been born to a poor, Dissenting family at the end of the 18th century. And he eventually took over as head of the geological survey, following his long-time nemesis Henry De la Beche. In short, he made the transition from gentleman geologist to paid professional.

By late 2022, jawed fish fossils had been collected from Ordovician, Silurian and Devonian rocks. From "Fossils Reveal the Deep Roots of Jawed Vertebrates" by Matt Friedman in Nature

The Paleozoic Era was colloquially known as the Age of Fishes, and Murchison's fossils identifying the Silurian fit well with that name. When he first named the Silurian, its known fish fossils were fragmentary. Murchison characterized the fossils as distinctly different from younger fossils, and "the most ancient beings of their class." He was right about the difference from later fossils, but wrong about their status as the earliest fish. In the roughly two centuries since he named the Silurian, paleontologists have found more complete fossils from that geologic period, and found fish fossils from the previous geologic period: the Ordovician. In Murchison's defense, modern paleontologists have been able to scour a much larger area than he could; many new finds turned up in China.

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