Advent calendar

Door 6: Four geologists you didn’t know were geologists

six new

As we are always keen to point out, geology pops up all over the place – sometimes in the most unexpected of ways. Here are four famous faces who have more to do with geology than you might think…



220px-Charles_Darwin_seated_crop1. Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882)

Justly famous in the world of biology, it’s always worth pointing out that one of Britain’s best known scientists would have probably considered himself primarily a geologist. Of course, in Darwin’s day such divisions weren’t so well drawn as they are now, and the science of geology was still relatively young. In July 1836, while still on the Beagle, Darwin wrote to his old tutor John Stevens Henslow;

I am going to ask you to do me a favor. I am very anxious to belong to the Geolog: Society. I do not know, but I suppose, it is necessary to be proposed some time before being balloted for, if such is the case, would you be good enough to take the proper preparatory steps…

Darwin’s notes from the voyage are full of observations on geology, and his geological ideas are undoubtably linked to his evolutionary theory – taxomony, comparative anatomy and slow, incremental changes.

In 1842, Darwin published a monograph on the structure of coral reefs, proposing that coral atolls are formed by the slow subsidence of the islands on which they formed. It was a theory which remained unproven until the 1950s – and his reference to ‘subterranean motive power’ foreshadows the theory of plate tectonics by over a century.

2. Sherlock Holmes (1854 – ?) (sort of)

Untitled‘Practical but limited’ seems an unfair assessment – geology pops up all over the place in Conon Doyle’s short stories and novels. When he’s not using mud and soil samples to determine a location, or tracing footprints, Holmes is waxing lyrical on the merits of Georges Cuvier’s comparative anatomy:

“As Cuvier could correctly describe a whole animal by the contemplation of a single bone, so the observer who has thoroughly understood one link in a series of incidents should be able to state all the other ones, before and after.”

It’s not only his knowledge of mud and soil which marks Holmes out as a geologist – he uses the scientific method to solve crimes. ‘I make a point of never having any predjudices’ he boasts, ‘and of following docilely wherever fact may lead me.’  ‘He was’ says Watson, ‘the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen.’

FGGSome have credited the Sherlock Holmes stories as the birth of ‘Forensic Geology’ – a science which is now well established in reality. The Geological Society even has a Forensic Geoscience Specialist Group – with Holmes as its logo.


3. Marie Stopes (1880 – 1958)

Marie Stopes in her lab in 1904

Marie Stopes in her lab in 1904

Famous for her work in family planning and women’s reproductive rights, Marie Stopes’ first degree was in biology and geology – gained at University College London in 1902, in only two years, after working literally day and night. By 1904 she had a PhD in palaeobotany and was lecturing in the subject, and by 1910, with her popular textbook ‘Fossil Plants’ on the shelves, she was a rising star in the world of geology.

As we’ve already recounted in this advent series, Stopes travelled to Japan in 1907, spending a year and a half at the Imperial University, Tokyo, and discovered some of the earliest fossilised angiosperms – the first flowering plants.

Although Stopes had left the world of geology for her work in birth control and women’s health by the 1920s, she had already made her mark. As Howard Falcoln Lang says in a post for the University of Bristol,

One cannot seriously talk about missed opportunities when discussing an iconoclastic figure like Marie Stopes, but it is only natural to wonder what she might have achieved had she devoted her whole life to geology. Equally, of course, I wonder what kind of society we might live in today, if she had.


Lorde_in_Seattle_2013_-_24. Lorde (1996 – )

Yes, we were surprised too. According to the most reputable sources (South Park), the 18 year old pop star is in fact a 45 year old male geologist in disguise. We can confirm, though, not an FGS.

(You have to make it to the end of the video for this to make ANY sense at all.)


Who have we missed? There must (by definition) be lots of geologists we didn’t know were geologists out there!

10 thoughts on “Door 6: Four geologists you didn’t know were geologists

  1. Jawahar Lal Nehru had a degree from Cambridge. Nirmal Bose who headed the Anthropological Survey of India was a geologist too. These are if your list extends so far as India.

  2. Pingback: » What’s up? The Friday links (62)

  3. Pingback: Lady Woodward’s tablecloth | Geological Society of London blog

  4. Pingback: Door 4 – more favourite fictional geologists! | Geological Society of London blog

  5. Pingback: Door 1 – 1.5 billion years of Plate Tectonic Stories | Geological Society of London blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s