School of GeoSciences

Birthplace of the GeoSciences

A number of well known scientists with an Edinburgh connection have influenced the development of the Geosciences.

James Hutton, 1726-1797 An Edinburgh University trained lawyer and doctor, Hutton pursued Geology as a gentleman farmer. Perhaps the most famous of his discoveries was Siccar Point, Berwickshire, about 50Km east of Edinburgh. From this and other observations he developed the principle of Uniformitarianism and recognised the great age of the earth. He is widely regarded as The Father of Modern Geology. 


John Playfair, 1748-1819 Playfair was with Hutton on the voyage of discovery to Siccar Point in 1786. He later became Professor of Natural History, as the subject of Geology was taught in Edinburgh until 1871. Playfair is best known for presenting Hutton's theories in a comprehensible manner.


Sir James Hall of Dunglass, 1761-1832 A student of Chemistry and Natural History at Edinburgh University, Hall accompanied Hutton, along with John Playfair and John Clerk, at the discovery of Siccar Point. He later went on to conduct melting experiments on a variety of rocks, including some at high pressure in welded gun barrels. He would not publish his results during Hutton's lifetime for fear of being ridiculed. However, his results and insights were remarkably prescient - he carried out equilibrium reversal experiments. The monument near his tomb at Dunglass Collegiate Church looks remarkably like a diamond anvil press, not invented until the 1950's.


William Nicol, 1770-1851 A geologist and philosopher from Humbie, East Lothian, who settled in Edinburgh and developed the art of making thin sections of rocks for microscopic study in transmitted light. In 1828 he invented the Nicol Prism, a device for examination of minerals in polarised light. Although the Nicol prism has been replaced by modern polarising materials the term crossed Nicols is still often used in polarised light microscopy, and generations of students have struggled to understand the physics of mineral optics.


Hugh Miller, 1802-1856 A stonemason and writer from a humble background in Cromarty, Miller had little formal education. Despite this, he became the leading authority on the Old Red Sandstone rocks of Scotland, including its fossils. At the end of his life he lived in a cottage just outside Edinburgh and is buried in Grange Cemetery, about a mile from the King's Buildings Science Campus.


Louis Agassiz, 1807-1873 in 1840, with William Buckland, one of the leading geologists of the 19th century, Agassiz visited Scotland to look for evidence of glaciation, which they found in many locations. One such location is just over the golf course to the south of the King's Buildings Science Campus. Known as Agassiz Rock, a crag of Devonian volcanics polished smooth by glacial action was, until the 1980s, guarded by an iron railing fence and a plaque. Sadly, in the interests of public safety, the overhanging rock and fence have now gone, as has the latest plaque. According to David Land: What makes the Blackford Quarry rock face so important and significant, not merely locally or even nationally, but internationally, is that it marks the first recognition in the world of the reality of former ice sheets where now there is no ice.


Charles Darwin, 1809-1882 A medical student at Edinburgh University from 1825 to 1827, Darwin developed a keen interest in Natural History under the tutelage of Robert Grant and also took courses in Natural Philosophy (geology) under Robert Jameson. However, he neglected his medical studies and eventually left to purse a clerical course at Cambridge.


James Croll, 1821-1890 Born in Perthshire and self-educated, Croll became Keeper of Maps at the Edinburgh Office of the Geological Survey of Scotland. In the latter part of the 1860s he developed a theory of ice ages based on orbital eccentricity. Although parts of his theory were later found to be erroneous, the idea of climate variation controlled by orbital characteristics was taken up and perfected by Milankovitch 70 years later.


John Muir, 1838-1914 Born at Dunbar, East Lothian, Muir emigrated to The United States at the age of 11, where he later became a pioneering conservationist, helping save for posterity the Yosemite Valley and other wilderness areas. He founded the Sierra Club, now one of the most important conservation organisations in the United States. The John Muir Country Park near Dunbar is the site a geological excursion and sometimes the annual students' BBQ.


Sir John Murray KCB, 1841-1914 Ostensibly a student of medicine at Edinburgh University, Murray joined a whaler as surgeon for a seven month voyage to the Arctic. He took no examinations and on his return studied as he pleased, in particular zoology and geology (with Geikie). He participated as an assistant scientist on the Challenger Expedition (1872-6) and contributed to the first volume of the Challenger Report, which was published in 1880. Murray collaborated with many leading ocean scientists of his day and edited the final Challenger report. In 1883, he set up the Edinburgh Marine Laboratory at Granton, the first of its kind in Britain. Herdman (Natural History, Liverpool) wrote in about 1900, that "for about twenty years Edinburgh was the centre of oceanographic research and the Mecca towards which marine scientists from all over the world turned". Besides coining the name "oceanography", Murray is noted today as the founder of modern oceanography.


Arthur Holmes, 1890-1965 Regius Professor of Geology at the University of Edinburgh (1943-1956), Holmes Principles of Physical Geology is regarded by many as the defining Geology text book of the 20th century. He pioneered work in the use of uranium-lead geochronology for dating rocks and was an early proponent of the theory of continental drift using mantle convection as the driving force.