William Smith

On this date in 1769, William Smith, known as the "Father of Geology," was born in Oxfordshire, England. Smith, who trained as an apprentice surveyor, single-handedly produced the world's first geological map in 1815 (of England, Wales, and part of Scotland), spending 15 years on the project. Smith, "whose agnosticism was well known," according to biographer Simon Winchester (The Map That Changed the World), produced a "map that heralded the beginnings of a whole new science . . . a map that laid the foundations of a field of study that culminated in the work of Charles Darwin. It is a map whose making signified the start of an era, not yet over, that has been marked ever since by the excitement and astonishment of scientific discoveries that allowed man at last to stagger out from the fogs of religious dogma, and to come to understand something certain about his own origins and those of the planet." [page 2] Winchester also noted: "For the first time the earth had a provable history, a written record that paid no heed or obeisance to religious teaching and dogma, that declared its independence from the kind of faith that is no more than the blind acceptance of absurdity. A science . . . had now at last broken free from the age-old constraints of doctrine and canonical instruction." [page 139] Smith went bankrupt, spending weeks in a debtor's prison, and was denied membership in the Geological Society until he was old. His ideas were right, and his methods are still used today. He won the first Wollaston Medal, which is the "Nobel Prize" for Geology. (There is no Nobel Prize for Geology, an unfortunate oversight.) His fossil collection is currently housed in the Natural History Museum (formerly part of the British Museum) in London. D. 1834.

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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