UCL Earth Sciences


Geology at UCL: a Brief History

*Cuncti adsint meritaeque expectent praemia palmae: 

 Let all come who by merit most deserve reward (UCL motto)

The present thoroughly modern and still growing Department of Earth Sciences at University College can take a justifiable pride in its unique historic past and its long contribution to the Science of Geology. If we look right back to one of the very founding fathers of College itself, GEORGE BELLAS GREENOUGH, whose name our Student Society proudly bears to this day, we can trace our roots even as far back as the 18th century and link ourselves with a man who took part in debates as to whether granite had a molten origin or was formed as a crystalline precipitate on the floor of a primeval ocean. These were ideas he had heard when a student in the University of Goettingen and when he travelled to the main centre of the debate, the Freiberg Mining Academy.

Debate and active discussion were what drew Greenough to the dining club that in 1807 was to become the Geological Society of London, and whose first President he was to become. In this capacity he commissioned one of the earliest maps of the Geology of England and Wales, conducting the survey largely in person, by means of many lengthy journeys through the countryside, where he met clergymen, country gentlemen, and any person who might possess important facts to complete his map. The map was published in 1819 and is renowned for the fine detail of its draughting and engraving, which was the work of Thomas Webster, of whom more later. Greenough was a co-founder of the College in 1828, and was very anxious that Geology, one of the newer sciences, should be included in the curriculum offered by the College. He was supported by other geologists on the early Council, including Horner, Aikin, Turner and Lindley.

Geology was at first offered in a series of subscription lectures, presented as one part of the courses in Chemistry, Botany and Zoology, in 1830, by JOHN PHILLIPS, and it was not till 1841 that our first Professor was appointed and courses provided on a regular basis. THOMAS WEBSTER, the genius of the 1819 map and in consequence of his architectural training a natural structural geologist, was our first Professor. He made distinguished contributions on the structure and successions of the Isle of Wight and the Hampshire Basin. After his death in 1844 Webster was succeeded by ANDREW CROMBIE RAMSAY, a geologist of wide horizons whose outstanding work on Arran won him the Directorship of the new Geological Survey of Great Britain. Before he left University College he mapped what were in those days some almost impossibly problematical areas in North Wales. University College was always in the forefront in providing learning for the layman at minimal cost, through penny encyclopaedias and popular lectures. This was very much the field of JOHN MORRIS, who eventually succeeded Ramsay in 1857. Morris published a major work called British Fossils, but perhaps more importantly he helped launch the illustrated monographs of the Palaeontographical Society which remain to this day a highly important tool of the British palaeontologist. He also helped identify fossils for Charles Darwin from his Beagle voyages, and he may even have tutored Karl Marx, who had a hobby interest in Geology. During the 1870s T. C. BONNEY, our next Professor, began a long association with the College. He pioneered the use of the petrological microscope in teaching to identify rocks. He also led a tradition of geologist-mountaineers, as he worked upon Alpine structures and successions. Students were generally few in number during this period, but several famous geologists emerged from the Bonney years. The Greenough spirit of debate and disputation lived on in Bonney, who as Canon of Ely Cathedral vigorously defended Darwinian evolution in the face of very stiff opposition from churchmen as distinguished as Lord Shaftesbury. He upheld another College tradition, the popularisation of our science, by writing for the layman, amongst many other works, a regular science column for the London newspaper the Evening Standard.

Modern geology and the growth of our Department arrived with the new century and the appointment of EDMUND GARWOOD to the chair in 1901. He was another alpinist who, to add to his early crossing of Spitzbergen, had also completed one of the first ascents of Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas. He applied this same vigour to mapping the Carboniferous of northern England - a project in which he involved many of the undergraduate student classes. One of these students was the Marie Stopes who in 1904 founded what later became the GREENOUGH CLUB, with the inspiring motto of Fun, Fieldwork and Fitness. She later became an eminent palaeobotanist and a celebrated, and highly controversial, pioneer in the field of female emancipation and family planning. By 1912 Garwood had mapped from Craven to Cumberland and had initiated a long-running research team of postgraduate studies. The success of the Garwood years depended to a great degree on the dedicated teaching of Miss Edith Goodyear, who remained in the Department until the Second World War. She it was who reorganised the old Departmental museum, a part of which survives today. This was based on Greenough's magnificent collection, together with donations by Murchison, Morris and (later) Garwood himself. To this was added in 1920 the unique collection of vulcanological specimens, books, photographs and prints left in trust by H. Johnston-Lavis, a physician practising in Naples and an intrepid amateur vulcanologist, who had formerly been influenced by John Morris. 

Garwood's successor was W. R. B. KING, a highly distinguished military geologist, who came to University College in 1931. He was a tunnelling and mining strategist on the Western Front and later went on to serve as technical adviser to the War Office on the Normandy Landings. During the War years and after, the Department was evacuated to Aberystwyth, and L. J. CHUBB deputised as acting Head of Department. 

In 1950 SYDNEY HOLLINGWORTH came to Gower Street from the Geological Survey, and thus was established a pattern of teaching built upon his flair for field mapping and challenging debate. A field geologist par excellence, Hollingworth's research culminated in his work on the geomorphology of the Chilean Andes, on which he worked right up until his death in 1966, and indeed his ashes were scattered in the Atacama Desert. 
Changing times and new directions in Geology meant fresh challenges for Hollingworth's successors, DESMOND DONOVAN, a palaeontologist, and, from 1982-92, MIKE AUDLEY-CHARLES, another field geologist, whose special study was the structure and evolution of South East Asia. As a result of an extensive rationalisation of the provision of geology within the University of London, the Department of Geology at Queen Mary College, merged with the UCL department on the Bloomsbury site in 1983.

This merger was the first stage in the expansion of the Department, which has continued over the past two decades. The Department has grown both in personnel and student numbers, and in the scale and scope of its research work. The traditional forms of Geology that were the staples in the days of Garwood and his predecessors are now augmented by fundamental research work in a much wider range of "Earth Science" disciplines. Our great diversity of scientific activity, has been further enhanced by the arrival in 1990 on campus of the Geology (now Earth Sciences) Department of Birkbeck College (with whom we now constitute a joint Research School). Today the School is one of the largest groupings of Geologists and Earth Scientists in the UK, with over 35 Academic Staff, 30 Research Fellows and 70 PhD Students. Our research strengths now lie in a very wide range of areas including: Crystallography and Mineral Physics, Climate Change, Environmental Geoscience, Geochemistry, Geohzards, Hydrogeology, Ice Physics, Micropalaeontology, Palaeomagnetics, Petrology, Planetary Sciences, Neotectonics, Rock Physics, Sedimentology, Seismology, Solid Earth Geophysics, Stratigraphy and Basin Analysis, Structural Geology, Thermotectonics and Lithospheric Evolution, and Volcanology. The Department underwent a name change in September 2002 to Earth Sciences, reflecting the diversity of the research and teaching.

Thomas Webster (1841-1844)
Andrew Ramsay (1847-1851)
John Morris  (1854-1877)
T .C. Bonney   (1877-1901)
Edmund Garwood (1901-1931)
W.B.R. King   (1931-1950)
Sydney Hollingworth (1950-1966)
Desmond Donovan (1966-1982)
M.G. Audley-Charles (1982-1992)
G. David Price (1992-2002)
J.P. Platt (2002-2004)
G. David Price (2004-2005)
Duncan Wingham (2005-2009)
Phil Meredith (2009-2013)
 Lars Stixrude current HoD