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Of their time

6 April 2021

Dear Editors,

In the informative article ‘Decolonising Geoscience’ (Geoscientist, Spring 2021), the piece rightly concludes that ‘All people are products of their time’. To this statement, one might add ‘organisations’ since these are the institutions in which people carry out their work.

Clearly, organisations like the Geological Society of London and the British Geological Survey have evolved over their long histories. In the case of the Survey, it has had many different masters and changes of name. I believe it is useful to refer to contemporary organisational terminology when discussing the past. The article notes that Sir Henry De la Beche, who had holdings in the West Indies, later became the first Director of the British Geological Survey. More accurately this should read: ‘… the Geological Survey of the United Kingdom (presently the British Geological Survey)’.

The name British Geological Survey (BGS) was introduced in 1984 and that of its predecessor the Institute of Geological Sciences (IGS) in 1965.  By the 1980s, the BGS was a very different organisation from that started by De La Beche 150 years earlier, wide-ranging in its activities, both onshore and offshore, and of global extent. Let us be clear that De la Beche began officially colouring in Ordnance maps of Devonshire for the Board of Ordnance in 1835, thus initiating the Geological Survey of the United Kingdom.  Subsequently the Geological Survey Act of 1845 was passed to ‘facilitate the Completion of a Geological Survey of Great Britain and Ireland’. Sir Roderick Murchison was appointed Director in 1855.

All this might seem irrelevant or simply a matter of semantics, but in the context of exploring past patronage and practice it is wise not to conflate, by implication, the culture and actions of a modern organisation with those of its 19th century predecessors.

Andrew McMillan

Andrew McMillan was a Principal Geologist with the BGS for 36 years and retired in 2010.


Dear Editors,

I notice that ‘the winds’ are finally blowing through our Society resulting in the ‘toppling’ of De la Beche, Murchison and Agassiz. This follows hot on the heels of the removal of De la Beche’s name from those great institutions he founded: the British Geological Survey and the Royal School of Mines (now part of Imperial College London).  It seems De la Beche’s mistake was to have inherited a slave plantation in Jamaica, and, ironically, when he lost its income, he made himself the first paid geologist, essentially establishing our profession as we know it today: no more a hobby of the ‘idle rich’.

Ironic too, in the ongoing battle against misogyny, is the role played by our ‘toppled heroes’ in the Mary Anning story, shortly to be portrayed in the film Ammonite. In that early 19th century society, where  women were essentially either adornments or drudges depending on their social standing, Henry De la Beche was a true friend from Mary’s youth, encouraging her in the science and helping her financially with the proceeds of Duria Antiquior, his all-action painting—the first ‘paleoart’—which brought Mary’s fossils to life. Roderick Murchison introduced Mary to his wife Charlotte and they formed a close friendship based on geologising—apparently even closer in the film; and Louis Agassiz, realising that Mary would not be acknowledged academically, named two species of fossil fish after her.

Martin Litherland

Dr Martin Litherland OBE worked as a field geologist for the British Geological Survey in Botswana, Bolivia and Ecuador, before returning to the Keyworth office to launch a series of popular publications.

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