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James Geikie
Chapter XII. Educational and Administrative Work


With his appointment in 1882 to the Murchison Chair of Geology and Mineralogy in Edinburgh University to succeed his brother Sir Archibald Geikie, a new epoch began in James Geikie's career. For some years he had been District Surveyor on the Scottish Survey, a post of considerable responsibility, and requiring the exercise of tact and firmness, but one which presented most valuable opportunities to a keen geologist. The Scottish Survey at that time had an exceptionally strong personnel, and in pure field geology was setting a standard of excellence which has rarely been surpassed. Several of his colleagues came to be recognised in the course of a few years as scientific men of the highest distinction, and among them there was a spirit of camaraderie and of friendly emulation in research which made their daily tasks a constant source of novelty and of unflagging interest. To many of his colleagues, such as Peach, Home, Jack, Croll, Skae, and Irvine, James Geikie had been indebted for important information and for the most searching criticism, combined with unselfish appreciation of the value of his work. The ground surveyed had most of it been previously examined only in a quite unexhaustive way, and had consequently the attraction of novelty ; it was also of very varied structure, and, more important from his point of view, it was rich in evidence of glacial action. No better training ground for a field-geologist who intended to devote himself to the study of glaciation could well be imagined.

Among the Scottish geological staff James Geikie's position as a field-geologist and as a glacialist was fully recognised, and he had the unquestioning support of his colleagues. His life was full of variety and interest. No doubt, like other men, he had made mistakes and had been severely handled by some of his critics. Some of his early work on the Silurian volcanic rocks of Ayrshire, for example, had suffered greatly from his insufficient knowledge of the chemical and mineralogical foundations on which geology rests.

Probably this criticism taught him to be more careful in speculation and more critical in accepting evidence. But his field work, as a whole, was of the highest standard. His field maps of Carboniferous and Devonian ground proved to be exceptionally thorough and accurate. In these early years, of course, it was not intended to execute a survey on a very minute scale. The large area upon which each surveyor was expected to report each year prevented him from spending more than a limited time on a small district. Moreover, the literature of the geology of Scotland was as yet by no means large. Many of the more specialised branches of geology, such as petrology, were as yet in a very rudimentary state. Perhaps on that account the field-geologist was expected to be more of an all-round geologist, and to rely less on the guidance of specialists than his successors at the present time.

The opportunities presented to him he had made use of to the fullest. He was a born observer. The retentiveness of his memory for localities and for geological details was extraordinary ; but that he did not trust to it exclusively his well-filled note-books bear witness. What distinguished him specially, however, was his power of maintaining his interest in the abstract questions of geology and the indomitable perseverance and industry with which he pursued his researches in spite of the distractions of field work. Not many geologists after an arduous day in the open air could sit down, as, was his habit, and spend many hours in literary work, or in the task of mastering the papers, in many foreign languages, in which the progress of glacial geology was recorded. Even admitting that he was a ready writer, we must acknowledge that his power of work at this time was enormous, and we cannot wonder that at times he felt on the verge of a breakdown.

The testimonials which he had printed when making application for the Professorship of Geology in Edinburgh show how thoroughly his reputation as a scientist was established in Europe and America. His book on The Great Ice Age receives high praise from Norwegian, Swedish, Swiss, German, Italian, and American geologists, and among his British supporters he could number Darwin, Evans, and Hooker.

It was not, as already seen, without reluctance that James Geikie decided to leave the Geological Survey. The earnest scientific spirit in which its work was conducted, the intimate fellowship with scientific men of kindred spirit, and the free open-air life had great attractions for him. The academic life was new to him, and must have seemed at first a cabined and cribbed existence compared with that of a field-geologist. Yet there is no doubt the choice was a wise one. In the higher departments of Survey work his duties would have been mostly of an administrative nature, and much of his time would have been taken up by routine business, very largely of a non-geological character, which would certainly have proved uncongenial. His opportunities of visiting the field would also have been much curtailed. Residing in Edinburgh, he could keep in intimate touch with his former colleagues of the Survey, and glean the most valuable results of their work when they returned to the office each year. They were now beginning the survey of the North and West Highlands, and were to undertake investigations of a kind with which he was quite unacquainted. A good deal of new information on glacial geology was being collected by them year by year, and of course communicated to him regularly. But the main work in hand was the unravelling of the intricate history of the Highlands and the palaeontology and petrology of the older rocks of Scotland. This was destined to yield most brilliant results, and the Scottish Survey was to become more famous even than it had been in the days of Sir Andrew Ramsay; but these fields of investigation were not those which he had chosen for his own especial study, and there can be no doubt that as a university professor, with ample time for research in any branch of his subject which appealed to him, he was able to follow out his own line of work far more untrammelled than he would have been as an officer of the Geological Survey.

To the execution of the duties of his Chair he devoted himself with characteristic thoroughness and energy. His brother had combined the office of Director of the Geological Survey of Scotland with the Murchison Professorship, but James Geikie was free to give his whole time to university work. At first, at any rate, he had little spare time on his hands. Well versed in Scottish geology and in the physical and structural divisions of the science, he had also a wide knowledge of stratigraphical geology and of the geological structure of Europe and North America. He worked hard to increase his knowledge of mineralogy, petrology, and palaeontology, even setting up a laboratory to carry out mineral assays. Ever a skilful draughtsman, he prepared with his own hand many drawings of landscapes, geological sections, and the microscopic structure of rocks. He was always rather averse to the use of the lantern to illustrate his lectures, and preferred large wall diagrams, many of which had cost great pains to make. From every available source he collected specimens of rocks, minerals, and fossils. He was unsparing in his efforts to make his subject as interesting to his students as possible, and to relieve them of the tedious work of taking voluminous manuscript notes. For this purpose he prepared long series of memoranda, and had copies of them struck off by a primitive duplicating apparatus.

As a lecturer he had rather an easy-going, colloquial style, which undoubtedly had the merit of catching and holding the attention of even the least intellectual of his audience. He spoke fast, and covered a very large part of his subject in the course of the one hundred lectures which constituted the work of the winter class, but by the help of the memoranda above mentioned his students had little difficulty in keeping abreast of his progress. Brimful of humour and of fun, he was not above making an occasional joke to his audience ; but this aspect of his character was far more in evidence on his Saturday excursions. However long the walk and however unpropitious the weather, there was always a circle of admiring students around him, intent on catching every detail of the amusing stories, reminiscences, and snatches of old ballads or songs, of which he had an unfailing supply. From the first he proved a very successful professor. His course was at that time optional, in the sense that candidates for the recognised degrees of the University did not require to take it. Only students desirous of studying geology for its own sake were to be found on the benches of his class-room. He had always also a fair number of men who were not regular students but engaged in professional work, who desired to widen the range of their intellectual vision, and took an occasional class at the University. Many of these were teachers occupied all day in the schools of the city; and to meet the needs of such men he fixed his hour for lecturing at four o'clock in the afternoon, so as to give them a chance of attending after their day's work. Many of these students afterwards became his attached personal friends, and in this group were included missionaries home on leave, army men, journalists, doctors taking postgraduate courses at the University, and planters and mining engineers enjoying a long holiday at home after years spent in foreign countries.

At first he conducted all the classes himself, but after a time the University granted him an assistant, and he started a regular practical or laboratory course. His relations with his assistants were of the most sympathetic character. Always ready to take more than his fair share of the drudgery of elementary teaching, he showed the most kindly interest in the progress of his assistants, and encouraged them to carry out original research on their own account. His fine library and wide knowledge of the literature of geology were always at their service, and as the University in those days was by no means liberally endowed with funds for the purchase of scientific apparatus, he often provided at his own expense the instruments necessary for special researches. The rooms assigned to the geological department were miserably inadequate — dark, half - furnished attics, draughty, cold, and uncomfortable—but much good work was done there.

James Geikie lived to see the conditions of university teaching in Edinburgh greatly altered for the better. The courses qualifying for degrees were made much less restricted, and geology became a subject in the curriculum for the Arts as well as the Science degree. The number of students increased, and the status of the Chair was improved. Better-paid assistants were provided, increased grants for the purchase of apparatus, and a higher stipend for the professor. A very important addition to the department was the provision of a library of geological books, the gift of Sir Archibald Geikie and James Geikie in the first place, subsequently taken over and maintained by the University Library authorities. The prestige of geology in the University and the condition of the department in 1914 when he resigned were incomparably superior to those which existed in 1882 when he was appointed to the Chair.

In 1894 he became Dean of the Faculty of Science in the University, and continued to hold this responsible appointment till a year before his retiral. Although he did not by any means suffer fools gladly, he had much sympathy with students and with his colleagues, the professors, lecturers, and assistants, in the difficulties which they encountered in their work, and he had good business faculties, being careful, prompt, and industrious. The great esteem in which he was held by all who came in contact with him was clearly proved by his long tenure of this exacting post, and his success in smoothing the difficulties inevitable in university life where so many interests have to be considered. The time required for this work he gave ungrudgingly ; but as he was at the same time Honorary Editor of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society's Magazine, and eventually President of that Society, and served on the Council of the Royal Society of Edinburgh for many years, he felt that his time for research and literary work was very seriously curtailed.

If we consult the list of Prof. Geikie's contributions to scientific literature which appears as an appendix to this volume, it becomes evident that with his appointment to the Edinburgh professorship he began to write on several topics which previously had not specially engaged his attention. The voluminous notes from which his lectures were delivered were abridged, rearranged, and ultimately published as his Outlines of Geology. This work was expressly meant for the use of his own students, and served to relieve them of a large part of the tedious note-taking which was in those days a heavy burden on members of the University classes. It found acceptance, however, in a wider circle, and in time three large editions of the book were sold. Its most distinctive feature is the ample space devoted to physical geology, especially the processes at work to-day which throw light on the structures and origin of rocks. The more technical portions of the subject, such as petrology and palaeontology, he considers in much less detail. In fact, the book is quite as suitable for the general reader as for the university student. This book appeared in 1888, and seventeen years later his second and most successful text-book was published, the Structural and Field Geology for Students. His natural abilities as an observer, and his thorough training as a field-geologist, made him especially competent to handle this subject effectively, and he made judicious use of photographs taken by the Geological Survey to illustrate the volume. The success of the book was also in large measure due to his long experience as a teacher and his clear and easy style; in fact, the foundations of the text-book were laid in the courses of lectures on structural geology which he used to deliver in the summer sessions. Something also, no doubt, was due to there being no really good work on this subject for English and American students. He was much gratified by its success, for he felt that he had done something to stimulate accurate field surveying by students of geology, and field work he always considered the most educative part of geological training.

Here we may mention also his contributions to Chambers's Encyclopaedia, for which he wrote many of the geological articles. In 1875 ne had prepared a small Elementary Manual for the well-known Edinburgh firm of publishers, and as successive editions of the Encyclopedia were printed he continued to revise his geological articles, so that he had a continuous connection with Messrs Chambers lasting over forty years.

His work as a geographer next claims our attention. The fields of geological research which he especially cultivated have a very close connection with geographical science. In the Scottish Geographical Society, as already stated, he took a deep interest from the start. For many years his face was a familiar one on the platform at the lectures delivered by eminent geographers and distinguished travellers in Edinburgh, and as these lectures are always very well attended, probably his connection with the Society made him better known to the general public than any other of his numerous activities. These functions also brought him into contact with many explorers and scientists who came to Edinburgh to lecture, and were the source of many friendships which he valued highly. During the latter years of his life the Geographical Society claimed almost as much of his attention as his academic duties, and as he was fortunately assisted by very competent lecturers in the University, he could spare the time required to fulfil both functions.

His studies in geography were always in those fields which form the border-land between geology and geography. The history of the development of scenery and of earth-forms in general, and the relation between geological structure and geographical configuration, were favourite subjects for his pen. In this, he was a true follower of Playfair. He delighted also to prepare short notices for the Society's magazine, describing the results of recent work on prehistoric man, on changes of climate in recent geological periods, and the action of ice in the production of surface features. The magazine proved a useful vehicle for conveying to the public the results of his wide reading on topics such as these. Many of the articles which first appeared in its' pages were subsequently issued in book form, or were used in the preparation of the third edition of The Great Ice Age, and the other scientific treatises which he produced.

In 1893 he collected the most important and interesting of his scientific lectures and addresses into a volume to which he gave the title Fragments of Earth Lore. The book was published by his friend Dr Bartholomew of the Edinburgh Geographical Institute, and served to introduce the results of some of his researches to a wider circle of readers than they would otherwise have reached, as they had originally appeared in publications as widely different in purpose as Good Words and the Transactions of the Geological Society of Edinburgh. Most of the papers, as was to be expected, treat of the progress of glacial geology, and one of these is of special importance. It is entitled "The Glacial Succession in Europe," and was reprinted from the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. It shows considerable progress along the lines which his work on glacial and inter-glacial periods had previously followed, and was the precursor of the third edition of The Great Ice Age, in which the new developments of this branch of science were to be more fully expounded. Among the other papers are several which are excellent popular scientific articles, such as the sketch of the "Geology of the Cheviot Hills," originally issued in Good Words in 1876. These essays show him at his best as an exponent of the simpler and more attractive themes of geological literature. He had an easy, fluent style, and had he chosen to do so, might have attained great popularity as an exponent of science for the million. The fine illustrations of this book deserve special mention, especially the maps, which owe much to the skill and artistic taste of Dr Bartholomew, who in this matter had the cordial support and co-operation of Prof. Geikie. Ever since his days on the Geological Survey he had set a very high standard in the preparation of maps, and paid the greatest attention to their artistic qualities as well as to their excellence as scientific documents.

His book on Earth Sculpture followed in 1898, and in this particular field soon came to be recognised as a standard work. It was published as one of a series, and the limitations of space probably did not allow very complete discussion of so large a subject: in fact, it is only a sketch of the relations between geology and surface features; but the subject was one for which he had a great liking, and he dwelt on it lovingly in the lectures which he delivered each winter to the University students. In this, of course, he followed the Scottish tradition, which since the days of Hutton and Playfair had assigned to this branch of geology a special importance. The writing of this little book accordingly was a real pleasure to him, and he drew nearly all the illustrations for it with his own hand, feeling that the only difficulty was to keep himself within the limits which necessity imposed. His immense knowledge of geographical literature supplied him with abundant material to illustrate the operation of natural agents in giving rise to modifications of topographical form, and the change of subject-matter from the always more or less controversial questions of the glacial history of the northern hemisphere afforded stimulus to his pen.


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