skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

Adam Sedgwick


Adam Sedgwick
Adam Sedgwick by Samuel Cousins, after Thomas Phillips mezzotint, published 1833, NPG D5929Adam Sedgwick by Samuel Cousins, after Thomas Phillips mezzotint, published 1833, NPG D5929
© National Portrait Gallery, London

One of the early leaders of geology in Britain, Adam Sedgwick  was born in the Yorkshire village of Dent in 1785. Attending Trinity College Cambridge, he was ordained as clergyman and in 1818 was appointed to the Woodwardian Chair of Geology, which offered a small stipend. Despite having little prior knowledge of the subject, Sedgwick soon commenced fieldwork, offered regular annual lectures, and joined with John Stevens Henslow, William Whewell and others to build up the University's reputation in the sciences. Sedgwick's research soon centred on the older rocks of Britain, and was instrumental in establishing the 'Cambrian' and 'Devonian' divisions of the geological column. He was a liberal reformer and a strong evangelical throughout his life.

Having attended a thorough course at Edinburgh, Darwin did not attend more than a few geology lectures at Cambridge, but came to know him through informal gatherings. In the summer of 1831 Darwin accompanied Sedgwick on a tour of the older fossil-bearing rocks of Wales. This provided his main training in field geology before the Beagle voyage and 'set him up wonderfully', as he told Henslow in a letter, 'Tell Prof: Sedgwick he does not know how much I am indebted to him for the Welch Expedition.-- it has given me an interest in geology, which I would not give up for any consideration.-- I do not think I ever spent a more delightful three weeks, than in pounding the NW mountains.' Darwin and Sedgwick continued to correspond in later years, discussing matters relating to the Geological Society of London and posting their latest books.

This cordial relationship was tested to the limit when Darwin sent a copy of the first edition of Origin. Sedgwick had long battled against evolutionary theories, believing that transmutation was an unphilosophical speculation which undermined the moral status of humanity.  He read the work of his one-time pupil with an explosive mixture of anger, alarm and disappointment: 'You have deserted—after a start in that tram-road of all solid physical truth—the the true method of induction—& started up a machinery as wild I think as Bishop Wilkin’s locomotive that was to sail with us to the Moon'. However, the two men continued to exchange friendly letters.  In 1870 they met for the last time, and Sedgwick took Darwin on a long tour of the vastly expanded geological collections at Cambridge. Darwin was exhausted, lamenting to Joseph Hooker: 'Is it not humiliating to be thus killed by a man of eighty-six, who evidently never dreamed that he was killing me?'

Further information: 

In this section: