Ref NoLDGSL/57
TitleSEDGWICK, Adam (1785-1873)
Extent14 files
DescriptionPapers of Adam Sedgwick, 1816 & 1843-1854, comprising:
Two notebooks from Sedgwick's tour through the continent of Europe, June-September 1816; manuscripts of Sedgwick's papers on the geology of Britain, particularly north Wales, which were read and later published by the Society, 1843-1854.
Administrative HistoryThe Rev Adam Sedgwick was born in 1785, at the vicarage of Dent, Yorkshire, the third of seven children of the vicar Richard Sedgwick. He attended the local grammar school, under the tutelage of his father, until he was 16 after which he was sent to Sedbergh Grammar School.

Sedgwick entered Trinity College, Cambridge in 1804 where he chiefly read mathematics. He graduated in 1808 as 'fifth wrangler' [first class honours, 5th highest marks in the year], and gained his Fellowship from Trinity in 1810. Sedgwick's health broke down in 1813 due to a burst a blood vessel caused by a combination of overwork and unhappiness with his position. Whilst he did recover over the next few years, he continued to suffer from bouts of ill health throughout his life. In 1815 he became assistant mathematics tutor at Trinity, and was ordained the following year during which he also travelled for several months throughout Europe.

In 1818 he was elected Woodwardian Professor of Geology of the University of Cambridge, a post he held until his death in 1873. One of the odder duties of the chair, as set down in the will of its founder John Woodward in 1728, was to defend Woodward's views as to the nature and origin of fossils against the outdated attacks of Dr Rudolf Jakob Camerarius of Tübingen and his followers - a duty Sedgwick faithfully undertook in his inaugural lecture each year. The post was also allocated £10 a year to correspond in scientific matters with distinguished foreigners, with a view to adding to Woodward's fossil collection. Unlike the previous Woodwardian Professors, Sedgwick was expected to lecture on geology, a subject he admitted he knew little about at the time. Energetically throwing himself into the subject, he undertook his first geological field trip with John Stevens Henslow to the Isle of Wight in 1818, the findings from the excursion forming his first course of lectures. That same year he joined the Geological Society, going on to serve as its President between 1829-1831.

Sedgwick's first geological paper was on the physical structure of Devonshire and Cornwall, which was read before the Cambridge Philosophical Society in 1820, an organisation of which he was also co-founder. Sedgwick continued with his summer field trips, learning much from Henslow and William Daniel Conybeare, and in 1828 accompanied Roderick Impey Murchison on a tour of Scotland. Murchison, whom Sedgwick met at the Geological Society, was less experienced than he, but they became close friends publishing a number of joint papers on the geology of Britain and Europe between 1828-1842.

By the late 1820s, Sedgwick's main focus was to complete a book on the strata below the Old Red Sandstone, and the majority of his papers over the next 20 years were essentially progress reports on the project. He travelled around the Lake District, Wales and the southern uplands of Scotland to investigate these older rocks. In 1831, a young Charles Darwin accompanied Sedgwick on a tour of north Wales, where Darwin gained his first training in the field.

In the 1830s, Murchison and Sedgwick turned their attention turned to the geology of Wales. For the most part they worked separately - Sedgwick was in the north whilst Murchison examined the strata in the south and the borders. Their resulting findings classified two of the earliest fossil bearing rock strata. Sedgwick's system was called the 'Cambrian' after the Latinised version of Cymru, the Welsh for Wales, while Murchison's was the 'Silurian' after the ancient indigenous tribe. This friendly arrangement was threatened with the discovery of fossils by Henry De la Beche normally associated with Carboniferous strata, but which had been found in rocks which appeared to be of the same age as the ones which Murchison and Sedgwick had described. The problem was overcome, however, by their defining a further new system in 1839 - the Devonian, designated as an intermediate between the Silurian and the Carboniferous.

Unfortunately, the creation of the Devonian removed any distinctive fauna from Sedgwick's Cambrian. Other geologists, including the Geological Survey, found that most of the ‘Cambrian’ strata which should have been older than the Silurian was in fact of the same age. Despite Sedgwick’s increasingly bitter protestations, almost all geologists followed Murchison in expanding the Silurian thereby eradicating the Cambrian.

By the 1850s, with his book on the older rocks scarcely begun, Sedgwick argued the case for the Cambrian in increasingly intemperate language. He cut off links not only with Murchison, but also with the Geological Society (whose Wollaston medal he had been awarded in 1851) and the London geological community more generally. The controversy was settled only after Sedgwick's death. The discovery of a fauna below that of Murchison's oldest Silurian became the basis for a redefined Cambrian. The uppermost strata of Murchison's expanded system were called Silurian, and the strata in between were termed Ordovician.

The controversy between the once close friends has been marked by the Society, in its positioning of the busts of Murchison and Sedgwick. Both busts can be found by the main entrance, but on opposite sides.
ArrangementThe original arrangement of the LDGSL series was not hierarchical. Material by the same creator/author was not collected together, instead each file or distinct item was given a different reference (not always sequential). In order to make them easier to find, where possible the papers relating to Sedgwick are placed together, however there will be other material relating to him elsewhere in the collection.
Access ConditionsAccess is by appointment only, daily readership fee is applicable unless you are a member of the Society. Please contact the Archivist for further information.
Related MaterialThere is other material relating to Sedgwick in other parts of the collection, notably 301 letters to Roderick Impey Murchison, 1827-1869 (re: LDGSL/838/S/11).

The majority of Sedgwick's papers are held by Cambridge University, but other material includes: Correspondence with Charles Babbage and Macvey Napier, 1817-1868, British Library; Letters to Leonard Blomefield, c1850-1872, Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution; 11 letters to Lord Brougham, 1826-1854, University College London; 19 letters to General Charles Grey, 1851-1869, Durham University Library, Special Collections; 20 letters to Sir John Herschel, 1820-1869, Royal Society; 40 items of correspondence with Sir Richard Owen and William Clift, 1842-1869, Natural History Museum; 112 letters to John Phillips, 1827-1869, Oxford University: Museum of Natural History.
ArchNoteSources: Obituary by Henry Govier Seeley, 'Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London', vol 29 (1873); Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Rudwick, MJS, 'The Great Devonian Controversy', Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. Description by Caroline Lam.
CreatorNameSEDGWICK | Adam | 1785-1873 | geologist 
DS/UK/31SEDGWICK; Adam (1785-1873); geologist1785-1873
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