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Wednesday, 11 January 2012

William Buckland: an eccentric geologist

William Buckland (1784 - 1856) was one of several nineteenth-century geological pioneers associated with Lyme Regis (the bust shown on the left is on display in Lyme Regis Museum). He was born a few miles away in Axminster, and visited Lyme frequently while studying as an undergraduate at Oxford University. In 1818 he became the first Professor of Geology at Oxford.

Buckland was the son of a parish priest, and in his early work he tried to reconcile his geological discoveries with the Biblical accounts of the Creation and the Flood, although later in his career he became a convert to the glacial theory. By all accounts he was an eccentric character, becoming famous in non-scientific circles as the man who ate everything!

Buckland was a pioneer of the experimental method in geology, and it was in this way that he made one of his most famous discoveries, concerning coprolites. On the Dorset coast, pebbles are occasionally found which when broken open contain a distinctive structure and what appear to be small bones and fish-scales.
Buckland speculated that these objects were fossilized excrement, deposited by large marine creatures such as ichthyosaurs—a theory he proved to his own satisfaction by dissecting a number of fish and injecting their intestines with quick-drying cement! Buckland coined the word "coprolite" to refer to these fecal fossils... and he liked them so much he had a special table made to display his best specimens. The table is now on display in Lyme Regis Museum.

Not all Buckland’s experiments were successful. Another topic he looked at was the phenomenon of “entombed animals”: trapped frogs or toads that are supposedly found alive when solid rock or masonry is broken open. An ideal topic for experimental research! Buckland's experiments were rigorous, using two types of rock and a selection of toads of different ages and sizes, but within two years all the toads were dead. You can read more about Buckland’s toad experiments here.


Anonymous said...

For a small town, Lyme Regis certainly had its share of unique and eccentric individuals. Thanks for posting this.

Andrew said...

If anyone is interested in the technical details of Buckland's coprolite table, they can find all they want on this page.