Sir Charles Lyell, a British geologist, born at Kinnordy, Forfarshire, Nov. 14, 1797. He graduated at Exeter college, Oxford, and in 1821 entered upon the practice of the law, but soon abandoned it in order to devote himself to geological pursuits, his natural taste for scientific studies having been stimulated by the lectures of Dr. Buckland, professor of geology at Oxford. At this period mere geological speculations, for which the previous half century had been distinguished, had given place to systematic investigation of nature. Lyell entered earnestly into this work, and his early papers, published in the " Transactions of the Geological Society " and in Brewster's "Journal of Science" in 1826 and 1827, chiefly upon the recent deposits of Forfarshire, Dorsetshire, and Hampshire, display remarkable powers of observation; while his use of the phenomena to illustrate and explain the mode of formation of similar deposits in more ancient periods exhibits a readiness to detect points of resemblance for which his subsequent writings are especially distinguished.
In 1830 appeared his "Principles of Geology," which rapidly went through several editions, and was received with the greatest interest for the variety of instructive facts brought together from the observations of the author and from others gathered from" all parts of the world, for the clear and attractive style in which these were presented, and more than all for the skill with which operations now going on were made to explain those of past periods, and to account for the present condition of the surface of the earth. In successive editions the work so increased, that in 1838 the author divided it into two distinct treatises, retaining in one, which he called "Elements of Geology," the description of the formations of past periods, and giving in the other, "The Principles," the description of processes now going on by which the phenomena of the older formations are explained. In the edition of 1851 the "Elements " appeared with the title of " Manual of Elementary Geology," which, after passing through many editions, was replaced in 1870 by his "Student's Manual of Geology." These works placed their author in the first rank among geologists, and gave to the science itself a new character, removing from it all dependence upon visionary speculations by showing how its principles should be deduced in the true system of inductive philosophy from well observed facts. - In 1841 Lyell visited the United States, having been invited to deliver a course of lectures on geology in Boston. He availed himself of the opportunity to travel over a large portion of the northern and middle states, and as far south as Kentucky, giving special attention to the geological features of the country, and learning also by intercourse with the geologists and naturalists of the several states the results of their investigations.
He also studied the different institutions of the country, particularly those of learning; and in a year thus spent in the United States, Canada, and Nova Scotia, he gathered a vast fund of information, some of the fruits of which are presented in his work entitled " Travels in North America in the years 1841-'2 " (2 vols., London, 1845; 2d ed., 1855). The scientific matter contained in this book was prepared chiefly for the general reader; his more extended observations were presented in numerous papers published in the "Proceedings" and " Transactions" of the geological society of London, the " Reports of the British Association," and the " American Journal of Science." This work contained the most complete geological map of the United States published up to that time, in the compilation of which Lyell was greatly aided by Prof. James Hall of Albany. In September, 1845, he again embarked for the United States, and remained in the country till June, 1846. He visited portions of the northern states which he had not before seen, and devoted nearly six months to a tour through the southern states.
He examined the most interesting localities of the tertiary formations in the states bordering on the Atlantic and the gulf of Mexico, passed up the Mississippi river, making many observations of the deposits upon its banks and its influence as a geological agent, and in southern Missouri visited the sunk country of New Madrid devastated by the earthquake of 1811-'12. In 1849 he published " A Second Visit to the United States" (2 vols., London; 3d ed., 1855). Everywhere his observations were extended beyond the geological structure of the country, and included the manners and customs of the people he met with, and their various institutions; his criticisms upon these are expressed in a liberal and philosophical spirit. - In the modern progress of geology Lyell's name is more identified with the arrangement of the tertiary formations than with any other department. He first classified them into groups distinguished by the relative proportion of living and extinct species of fossil shells which they contained, and gave them the names of eocene, miocene, and pliocene, founded on this distinction, as described in the article Geology. He has investigated with special care those great natural phenomena in progress which involve long periods of time, and has undertaken to give approximate estimates of the time elapsed, based upon the results produced and the rate at which these are now proceeding.
Thus, in visiting active volcanoes, he has sought to determine the age of the accumulations of lava from data afforded in modern times of their rate of increase. In examining the region of extinct volcanoes of central France, he applied the same method of reasoning to show that vast periods must have elapsed while the successive volcanic and fluviatile deposits were produced; and in his second visit to the United States he found in the Mississippi river, and the great delta of its sediments deposited near the gulf, materials for another class of calculations of the same general character. In 1863 appeared his "Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man," a work in which he brought together a great amount of research with regard to prehistoric times. Lyell had previously opposed the doctrine of development, but in this remarkable work gave his adhesion to the theories of Darwin, on the origin of species. Lyell was elected president of the geological society in 1836 and again in 1850, knighted for his services to science in 1848, in 1855 received from Oxford the degree of D. 0. L., and in 1864 was created a baronet.