John Phillips (geologist)

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John Phillips

John Phillips (born December 25, 1800 in Marden , Wiltshire , † April 24, 1874 ) was a British geologist .


His father was an officer and his mother a sister of the famous geologist William Smith , who also raised him after the early death of his parents (1807) together with the clergyman Benjamin Richards (also interested in geology). Richards took over teaching Phillips until he was 15 years old. He accompanied Smith, who had financial problems himself and lived from selling fossils, on geological mappings and excursions. After accompanying his uncle to lectures in Yorkshire in 1824, he received invitations from there to organize local collections in Yorkshire and to give lectures on them and moved to York. In 1826 he became director of the Yorkshire Museum and secretary of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society (and its draftsman). In 1831 he was involved in the founding of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in York and was its Assistant Secretary from 1832 to 1859. He gave many lectures in Yorkshire (using half of the proceeds to purchase exhibits) and published a book on the geology of Yorkshire in 1829. In 1834 he also became professor of geology at King's College London, but remained director of the Yorkshire Museum, which he only gave up in 1840 when he became a member of the Geological Survey of Great Britain. In 1844 he became a professor at Trinity College Dublin. In 1853 he became Deputy Reader and in 1856 Professor of Geology at Oxford University . From 1853 to 1870 he was also keeper of the Ashmolean Museum . In 1874 he fell down the stairs after a dinner at All Souls College and died the following day. He is buried in York.

In 1841 he published the first global geological timescale based on the fossils contained in the rock, significantly expanding and reorganizing the Paleozoic Era and introducing the characteristic trisection, which he had introduced to this day, with the terms Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic . Smith also clearly recognized significant changes in fossil groups in the respective ages, with biodiversity declines now identified as mass extinctions at the transitions.

In 1834 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society . In 1845 he was awarded the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society of London . He had honorary doctorates from Dublin, Cambridge and Oxford. He was president of the Royal Geographical Society . From 1858 to 1860 he was President of the Geological Society and in 1865 of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

In his Presidential Address as President of the Geological Society (printed as Life on the earth: its origin and succession ) he attacked the assumptions of Charles Darwin in his Origin of Species about the age of the earth in Cambridge in 1860 . Darwin came - from calculating the erosion of a valley - to 300 million years. Phillips came to around 1 billion years by looking at the construction of geological structures (sedimentation by the Ganges). Compared to Darwin, who did not base his theory of evolution on fossil studies because he considered the tradition to be too sketchy, Phillips emphasized the conservative nature of the basic blueprint of living things. He was not a believer in Darwin's theory of evolution.

The lunar crater Phillips and the Martian crater Phillips are named after him. Phillips himself also made astronomical observations, for example from Mars when it was in opposition in 1862. He built his own astronomical and meteorological instruments in York, which stood in the museum garden. He is also the namesake of Mount Phillips in East Antarctic Victoria Land.


  • Illustrations of the Geology of Yorkshire (2 parts, 1829 and 1836; 2nd edition of the first part 1835; 3rd edition, edited by R. Etheridge, 1875)
  • A Treatise on Geology (1837-1839)
  • Report on the Geology of Cornwall, Devon, and West Somerset (1839)
  • Memoirs of William Smith (1844)
  • Figures and Descriptions of Palaeozoic Fossils of Cornwall, Devon, and West Somerset (1844)
  • The Geological Survey of the Malvern Hills (1849)
  • The Rivers, Mountains and Sea-Coast of Yorkshire (1853)
  • Manual of Geology, Practical and Theoretical (1855)
  • Life on the Earth: its Origin and Succession (1860)
  • Vesuvius (1869)
  • Geology of Oxford and the Valley of the Thames (1871)

He wrote monographs on British belemnites (1865) and published a geological map of Great Britain in 1847.


Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Michon Scott: John Phillips . Strange Science