Famous Personalities – Unknown Geologists -1

  • by Pramod Kumar, former Addl Director, AMD

As a study of the solid earth, its age, volcanoes, mountains, rocks and minerals, fossils etc. the science of Geology is relatively new. Many famous personalities were enamored with the geology for its simple and alluring natural attraction. Though all of them did not receive any formal education in geology but nevertheless their curiosity and desire to unravel the mysterious ways of mineral kingdom led to many interesting discoveries and big contributions to the understanding of geology. History is replete with many examples, some are detailed here.

Leonardo-da-Vinci the Italian painter of Mona Lisa fame, a 15th century polymath of the High Renaissance was a prolific genius.  He is known for his art, painting, anatomy, literature, math, science and everything. He also gave his observations on geology, fossils sedimentation, sea bed, forming of rocks and minerals in addition to his ideas on almost all known subjects.  This way he is known as a pioneer in geology. His various sketches/drawings/paintings on various possible scientific inventions speak of his genius. Though much is not available of his sketches on geological aspects but his ideas bridged the gap between the unscientific medieval world and the modern thoughts expressed with the trusty approach on the range of topics such as anatomy, zoology, geology, aerodynamics etc. He conceived ideas vastly ahead of his time including a rudimentary theory of sedimentation and plate tectonics. It was only after some 250 years when

James Hutton, a farmer and naturalist came to believe that the earth was perpetually being formed. Based on his deductive reasoning and scientific enquiry, Hutton gave the famous “theory of the earth”…. composition, dissolution and restoration of land upon the globe… Hence James Hutton is known as father of modern geology. Rest of course is history of Geology.

Mark Twain–well known American English writer is famous for his humor, wit and satire. But we may not be aware that he was lured into gold prospecting in order to find big fortunes quickly. During the period of peak of “Gold Rush”, (around 1850’s) Mark Twain ventured to do prospecting for gold in Nevada, in a fit of discovering big bucks and big fortunes. He has abundantly described about his geological surveys and his disappointed when he picked up something very shining in a drainage, thinking it as silver or gold mix but which turned out be only mica flakes, as told to him by his friends. He did carry out trenching, pitting, drilling, digging on a quartz vein but much needed fortune always eluded him. He realized that mining/prospecting was no easy job and hence abandoned all his adventures and became widely acclaimed novelist. His famous quote, speaks about his frustration and also about the devils of mining business… “A mine is a hole in the ground with a liar standing next to it”

William Smithwho made the first geological map. He is called father of English geology because his first ever geological map changed the history. When Warren Hasting – de facto first governor general of India (1773-1785), went back to Churchill town, he purchased a big estate and employed a professional surveyor – Edward Webb to map this land. William Smith – a local boy deprived of higher education because of his humble background, was assisting the surveyor’s work. Smith, learned the basics of surveying by reading books. Soon he picked up the practical techniques of surveying and became a self-taught surveyor. Later he took up the job of surveying many canal digging assignments. It was during this time that he observed the coal beds formed in different layers and concluded that these are formed one over the other in different time and form a strata. Interestingly it is Smith who coined the term ‘stratification’. He was then fondly called as Strata Smith. He examined large number of coal mines, canal diggings and excavation and depicted them on a map in an arrangement of strata. In this way he was keen to see the trend of the stratum so as to predict the new blocks of coal. This made him curious to map the whole of UK, for which he walked extensively – some 10000 miles a year – at his own expense. After 14 years of hard work in 1815, he made a beautiful hand painted map of 8 feet by 6 feet size — a first true geological  map of anywhere in the world. Unfortunately instead of bringing any financial return, the map was stolen and pirated. Then newly formed Geological society ignored his work. Smith lived in poverty, homeless and under big debt for which he was jailed. Later a scientific journal recognized his work and this proved a turning point in his life. Young officials of Geological society, valued his work and bestowed first Wollasten medal–the highest honor to Smith in 1831. A whole new science of geological mapping emerged by his monumental work.

Manual of the geology of India was first published around 1880, by H.B.Medlicott and W.T.Blanford. While Blanford studied geology in many parts of the country, his yet another passion was study of birds. So he is known as an ornithologist who also authored Fauna of India and Ceylon” – a marvelous feat by all accounts accomplished during his total stay of 27 years in India. His contribution is well referred in the books of Dr.Salim Ali — award winning ornithologist. Before Blanford, A.O.Hume  British civil servant – and co-founder of Indian National Congress,  compiled four volumes (Stray Feathers) with graphic depiction and had a  vast collection of taxidermies (skin stuffed ) birds, at his home in Shimla, which he later donated to British Museum, London. The account of Blanford, however, is acclaimed for being the first scientific classification of Indian birds. Geologists are creative genius. Geologists always rock.

Sir Proby Thomas Cautley is the name that must be familiar with every student of IIT Roorkee where one hostel exists in his name and a marble bust statue in Administrative hall. Cautley, a civil engineer of East India Company was the architect for construction of Ganga canal from Hardwar to Kanpur (1854). Three major civil structure upstream of Roorkee constructed by him can be seen – first, the canal passing below a river, second the canal meeting at level crossing with another river and finally the canal flowing over an aqueduct over Sailani River near Roorkee town. Based on his recommendations first institute named Thomason College of Civil Engineering, (later raised to University of Roorkee and finally IIT Roorkee) was established. While excavating the canal alignment, Cautley found many animal bones (fossils.). Curious and observant Cautley used to carry these fossils on horse carts to his friend Dr Hugh Falconer (a surgeon, botanist, student of natural science) then posted at Saharanpur. Fossils of elephants, tortoise, crocodile, hippopotamus etc. were painstakingly compiled, studied and arranged in a methodical manner by both of them. Later they compiled their description with photographs, in many volumes of Asiatic Society of Bengal. Geological description of Siwalik Hills and the paleoenvironment too finds mention in their work. Cautley was awarded the prestigious Wollaston medal of the Geological Society of London and FRS for his stupendous work of Paleontology. He was later knighted. Thus, Cautley, an engineer turned paleontologist is a fine and unique example as to how much fascinating is the science of Geology to any curious mind.

Charles Darwin and Theory of Evolution are as common and intimately known as Einstein and his Theory of Relativity. But what is less commonly known is the link of geology and Darwin’s attachment and attraction to it. As a boy Darwin was enamored with stones and rocks that he collected them in various forms and colors with intense desire to know “every detail about every pebble”. He pursued medical science, but his curiosity never dimmed. Later he came in contact with many great geologists of that time…like Sedgwick, Charles Lyell – (author of the book Principles of Geology). He got a chance to go with them on a voyage to South America where he understood that the changes in earth take place in a very slow and gradual process and not as believed to be catastrophic (biblical floods, apocalyptic). This idea, perhaps germinated in his mind to think of species to have developed in the same slow process. Later in his autobiography he described more about it. Though he was student of medical science but geology remained his passion. He was elected fellow of the Geological Society of London. No wonder, how much geology has influenced the mind of great thinkers! 

Henry Wesley Voysey was a physician with the East India Company. He studied medicine in London. He was inspired to learn geology in his younger years. He served in the company to assist many officers, including George Everest, for the great Trigonometric Survey of India. Because of his degree in medicine, Voysey was never promoted, (much the same way as D.N.Wadia was never promoted in GSI in his entire service as he had no degree in geology). Voysey prepared the first geological map in India, of an area around Hyderabad and later an entire geological map of India–though it was a sketch map only with barely 4/5 types of rocks depicted on it. This was in 1821! that is much before the establishment of GSI (1851). In 1824, during his journey from Nagpur to Kolkata, he described the rocks of Singhbhum. This contribution of his work in and around Singhbhum Thrust Belt, now known as Singhbhum Shear Zone, finds mention in the classic memoir of Dunn & Dey (GSI 1942) and also referred by T.M.Mahadevan in his book on the Geology of Jharkhand (Geological Society of India, Bengaluru). While moving on to his journey, he was inflicted by the jungle fever and was found dead in his palanquin on reaching Kolkata. The geological map prepared by Voysey and his other contribution was published by the Asiatic Society of Bengal, after 20 years of his death. Sadly the copy of his map is not available. He is referred as Father of Indian geology…!!!

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