22 November 2010

Real Life Heroes: William Strata Smith

By Michelle Styles

How do we date sedimentary rock and why? How do we know that dinosaur fossils only appear in certain layers of rock? How do geologists explore for gas and oil? Why do geological surveys exist?

The answers lie with one self taught man born in humble circumstances in late 18th century Oxfordshire who made it his life's work to make sense of Britain's fossils, and in doing so completely changed the way rocks and the timeline of geology were perceived. In many ways, his work laid the foundation for Darwin.

William Strata Smith was the first person to recognise that certain groups of fossils appear in only in certain layers of rock or strata. For example Tyrannosaurus rex bones only appear in those layers from what is now called the Jurassic period. He also noticed that sedimentary rock always occurs in the same succession. Know your fossils and your rock, you know where to dig for coal. Strata Smith's scheme of ordering remains in use today. Using his knowledge of the strata, Smith proved adept at being able to drain bogs and convert them to valuable agricultural land as being able to figure out where to dig canals. His first map of the geology of Bath which was produced in 1801 is acknowledged to be the first geological map in the world and has earned Bath the title as the cradle of geology.

Furthermore, his systematic map of England and Wales which appeared in 1815 is the foundation for all other geological survey maps. His map shows the depth of the various strata. It is a map of great beauty as well as of huge scientific interest. Knowing the underlying geology means people can know where to dig for coal, or oil for example or they can work out the depth of the seam and therefore the productivity.

And what is more, unlike other great endeavours such as the Oxford English Dictionary or the Ordinance Survey maps, it was a solitary endeavour. Strata Smith did all the survey, calculations and minute detail work without any assistance.

Unfortunately, when the map of England and Wales was first published, he was not given the recognition he deserved and was made bankrupt. He was even accused of plagiarising the map for a time as various members of the establishment had trouble believing a self-taught man could have produced such things. To clear his debts, Smith sold his precious collection of fossils to the British Museum. They reside in the Palaeontology Department of the Natural History museum and each has a unique number to signify that they were from his collection. It is possible to see these fossils today. As part of the condition of the sale, he had to produce a catalogue of the fossils and it was the first time that coloured tables showing the distribution in the layers was published. His nephew Joseph Phillips, who later became a noted professor of geology at Oxford, helped him with the tables. Phillips' refinement of the table led to the publication in 1841 of the geological table which remains in use today.

Eventually the establishment was forced to recognise his achievements. In 1831 he was the first recipient of the Wollaston Medal from the Royal Geographical Society and in 1832, King William IV awarded him a state pension for his services to the country. Among other things he became a member of the commission who selected the stone for the Houses of Parliament.

Because of his dogged persistence and his dedication, I think Strata Smith deserves to be called a true hero. If you wish to learn more about William Smith, I recommend the 2001 book by Simon Winchester, The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology.

Michelle Styles is passionate about history and passionate romance. An author over 16 books for Harlequin Historical, she writes in a variety of time periods from Roman and Viking through to early Victorian. A QUESTION OF IMPROPRIETY will be a December 2010 Harlequin Historical release.