Adam Sedgwick

22 March 1785 – 27 January 1873
Adam Sedgwick by Thomas Phillips, R.A.

Image: Adam Sedgwick by Thomas Phillips, R.A.

Adam Sedgwick was one of the founders of modern geology. He is known particularly for his work on classifying rocks from the Devonian and Cambrian eras, and his work was central to developing understanding of the geological time-line. He was also deeply involved in university teaching and academic structures, providing inspiration for the development of science courses in Cambridge and elsewhere. Within Cambridge his legacy is commemorated in the Sedgwick Museum which houses a huge collection of rocks and fossils. Mount Sedgwick in British Columbia, Canada is named after him.

Adam Sedgwick was born in Dent, Yorkshire, the third son of the local vicar and schoolmaster. He came to Cambridge to study mathematics at Trinity College, finding a very different world from what he had known. Coming from humble origins and with a strong Yorkshire accent he was now in a strange environment, surrounded by sophisticated and often wealthy students. But he was personable, energetic and keen, so he quickly gained acceptance and settled in well.  He worked hard, graduating in 1808 as fifth wrangler (i.e. fifth on the mathematical class list).

He became a Fellow of Trinity College in 1810 and the college was his base for the rest of his life: he was Vice- Master 1844-62, died there in 1873 and is buried in the chapel. His Fellowship provided him with accommodation and an income, and carried the duty of teaching mathematics to undergraduates in the College. This was essentially tutoring: repetitive teaching of mathematics that was generally regarded as old-fashioned and that he increasingly found uninspiring. He was ordained in 1817, which was common practice at that time and was a requirement for him to retain his Fellowship. The associated duties were not onerous, the main one being the post of Prebendary at Norwich which he accepted in 1834.

Sedgwick was one of several applicants for the Woodwardian Chair of Geology which became vacant in 1818. His formal knowledge of the subject was slight: he had collected rocks and fossils as a child, attended some lectures on mineralogy at Cambridge and had read a little about the current theories. But he was popular and engaging, had been making his intellectual mark within the University and was gaining respect, and he came from a powerful College. He was appointed to the Chair, and threw himself into learning about geology: going down mines, examining rock strata and collecting huge numbers of specimens. 

At this time, geology was very much at the cutting edge of science. Men like James Hutton (1726-1797), often referred to as the founding father of modern geology, were overturning the biblical view, based on the book of Genesis, that the earth had been created in 4004BC. They argued that the evidence of the rocks required the earth to be far, far older than this. Sedgwick would come to make major contributions to this debate.

Unusually for those times, he had ambitious plans not only for researching the subject but also for teaching it, with regular lectures coupled with hands-on experience of practical geology including field trips.  In January 1819 he started his first lecture course, with weekly lectures delivered to great acclaim not only to members of the University but also to townspeople, including women (who had no part in the University at that time). He aimed to spark the imagination by opening up new ways of thinking, and became known as a forceful and charismatic lecturer. 

Amongst those attending was John Stevens Henslow, who had completed his BA the previous year and had remained in Cambridge to study natural history. A friendship formed between the inexperienced but energetic and inspirational professor and the fresh graduate ten years his junior, and Sedgwick invited Henslow to join him on a field trip to the Isle of Wight that spring. The two of them worked intensively, developing field techniques, gathering geological specimens and fossils, and puzzling over how the pattern of rock strata had evolved. 

They catalogued and analysed, but were frustrated by the fact that there was no forum in Cambridge where they could present their research. When they returned to Cambridge they determined to remedy the situation and explored the idea of setting up an independent society for the purpose of promoting and communicating research. With the help of Edward Daniel Clarke, Professor of Mineralogy, they enlisted the support of influential members of the University and founded the Cambridge Philosophical Society on 19 November 1819. The Society’s activities still retain some of the pattern established from the start: it holds regular lectures to communicate research, and it produces two journals to enable publications. Sedgwick remained closely involved with the CPS, holding the office of President twice (1831 and 1853).

The science of geology was embryonic and the findings from the Isle of Wight trip fed into the development of new and radical theories. Accepted geological theory at that time was embedded in religious beliefs, so that surface deposits were thought, in the diluvial theory, to have originated in worldwide floods (Noah’s Flood). Observations did not altogether support these theories, but to contradict them was disturbing and problematic for a deeply religious academic community. Sedgwick’s views evolved, reflecting his increasing knowledge of geological structures, and by 1831 he was ready to make public his move away from the diluvial theory.

Sedgwick did not publish extensively, but was very active and influential within professional organisations outside Cambridge. He was made a Fellow of the Geological Society in London in 1819, serving as President 1829-1831, and was awarded their Wollaston Medal in 1851. He helped to found the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1831, serving as its President in 1833 and leading its geological section. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1830 and was awarded its Copley Medal in 1863 for his original observations and discoveries in the geology of the Palaeozoic Series of rocks. This is the most prestigious scientific award in the UK ‘for outstanding achievements in research in any branch of science’; Charles Darwin was awarded this medal in the following year, 1864.

Sedgwick’s passion for teaching and his frustration with Cambridge academic structures led him  to seek reform of Cambridge undergraduate courses, broadening beyond mathematics and classics and introducing other subjects as a formal part of the Tripos. He worked with Henslow to create what became the Natural Sciences Tripos, finally introduced in 1851, and serving as inspiration for other Universities to develop science teaching programmes. In the course of this he became interested in academic structures more generally, and in 1850 a Royal Commission was set up under his guidance which made many recommendations for reform of the governance of Cambridge University as well as academic matters. The University did not choose to act upon the recommendations, but a parliamentary commission on which Sedgwick also sat drew up a bill to enforce change by putting legislation in place.

Adam Sedgwick continued to nurture geological research and teaching in Cambridge throughout his life, and the geological collection in Cambridge grew. He gathered specimens from around the world himself, supplementing these with purchased material.  The collection was housed in a new building in 1840, but continued expansion required the construction in 1903 of what is now the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences.

Charles Darwin’s interest in geology brought him, during his time as a student in Cambridge,  into contact with Sedgwick, whom he joined on a field trip to Wales in 1831. Sedgwick encouraged and supported Darwin, corresponding with him about his discoveries during his Beagle voyage, and communicating some of his work to the Geological Society. However, he was harshly critical of Darwin’s theory of evolution of species, primarily because of a perceived conflict with his profound religious beliefs. The two nevertheless remained on cordial terms throughout Sedgwick’s lifetime.

Within Cambridge, Sedgwick was a powerful member of the establishment. Although generally regarded as genial, he had strong views which he could express forcefully. He was vociferously opposed to women as full members of the University, notably referring to them (in about 1863) as ‘nasty, forward minxes’. He was a bachelor, as required by holding the Woodwardian Chair.

Adam Sedgwick was powerful and effective; a forceful, colourful and engaging figure who achieved change through hard work and meticulous preparation.  His contribution to geology is recognised internationally, building on that of men such as James Hutton and Charles Lyell (1797-1875). Sedgwick was a powerful advocate for the new ideas in the public and professional worlds and not afraid to stir controversy. He was also very influential in the reform of higher education, and his thoughtful approach and insights helped lay the foundations of our current university courses and structures. He himself remained a dedicated and inspirational teacher, delivering his last lecture in 1870 when he was 85 years old, three years before his death.


Society Timeline

  1. 1819

    Cambridge Philosophical Society Founded

  2. 1846

    New Botanic Garden opens

  3. 1848

    New Fitzwilliam Museum building opens

  4. 1851

    Natural Sciences Tripos starts

  5. 1874

    Cavendish laboratory opens

  6. 1884

    Balfour laboratory for women opens

  7. 1914

    Women first eligible as honorary fellows of CPS

    Marie Curie
    Marie Curie
  8. 1929

    Women eligible to be full fellows of CPS

  9. 1948

    Women first awarded degrees

  10. 1967

    Philosophical Library becomes Scientific Periodicals Library

  11. 2010

    Henslow Fellowship scheme launched

  12. 2019

    Society’s Bicentenary

    Blue Plaque, Saints Passage, Cambridge
    Blue Plaque, Saints Passage, Cambridge

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