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Reference group
Founders of the Geological Society of London (act. 1807) came together at a series of informal mineralogical meetings held at the London house of the physician and mineralogist William Babington at 17 Aldermanbury. The meetings, which usually took place early in the morning, had been initiated to recruit subscribers to a three-volume mineralogical memoir entitled Traité complet de la chaux carbonatée et de l'arragonite by the French émigré Jacques-Louis, comte de Bournon (1751–1825). The group continued to meet to discuss mineralogy and related subjects after sufficient subscribers had been recruited (the memoir was published in 1808), and Humphry Davy suggested that it would be more convivial to hold the meetings over dinner rather than breakfast. The founding dinner was held at the Freemasons tavern in Great Queen Street, London, on 13 November 1807. Present were Babington, Davy, and de Bournon, along with Arthur Aikin, William Allen (1770–1843), James Franck (1768?–1843), George Bellas Greenough, Richard Knight (1768–1844), James Laird (d. 1840), James Parkinson (1755–1824), and Richard Phillips (1778–1851). Although unable to be present at this meeting, William Hasledine Pepys and Richard Phillips's brother William Phillips (1773–1828) were also considered to be founder members of the society since they had been attending the gatherings at Babington's house and were enthusiastic about continuing the meetings.

Aside from interests in mineralogy and geology there was no one particular social or religious characteristic shared by the thirteen founders of the Geological Society. There were, nevertheless, several pre-existing connections between various members of the group. An interest in chemistry and its connections with mineralogy was shared by most, if not all, of the founders, and eight of them (Aikin, Allen, Babington, Davy, Knight, Pepys, and Richard and William Phillips) had been members of, or closely associated with, the British Mineralogical Society, which had been founded in 1799 to pursue a national programme of mineralogical knowledge gathering. This had been intended to bring greater general knowledge of the mineral wealth of Britain and to be of benefit to British mining, although the society was not as successful as it might have hoped. The members of the British Mineralogical Society merged with those of the Askesian Society, another philosophical society located in the City of London, in 1806, and by 1808 most of its mineralogically interested membership had transferred their work to the Geological Society.

Most of the founders had occupational or professional interests in chemistry, and some in how it related to mineralogy. Davy was already a well-known chemist at the Royal Institution, and Allen had a chemical establishment in Plough Court, on the eastern side of the City of London. Richard Phillips had trained under Allen as a chemist. In the same area of London were William Phillips's printing business, Knight's ironmongery and scientific instrument manufactory, and Pepys's surgical instrument making business. Aikin lived by scientific writing and lecturing. The medical men among the founders tended to share these interests in chemistry. Babington was a physician at Guy's Hospital and Franck was an army physician, although little else is known about him. Laird, the society's first secretary, was an Edinburgh-educated physician in practice in London and James Parkinson was a surgeon with a private practice in Hoxton. Parkinson is probably better remembered for his medical writing than his geological work, since the ‘shaking palsy’ on which he wrote is now known as Parkinson's disease. His geological writings include his major work, Organic Remains of a Former World, the first volume of which was published in 1804.

A wide range of religious positions were held by the founders of the Geological Society. Allen and Richard Phillips were both part of the Gracechurch Street Quaker community, and William Phillips was also a Quaker. Knight and Aikin were Unitarians, and Davy and Pepys Anglicans. Greenough, who was an independently wealthy man, was apparently also a dissenter, although at the time of the society's foundation he was MP for Gatton, Surrey. He was the society's first president, from its inception until 1813.

The founders of the Geological Society encouraged the society to grow very rapidly from the outset, bringing in new members from all over Britain. At the second meeting, in December 1807, they admitted over forty honorary members from across the country, including provincial mineralogists and men with mining interests, as well as chemists and mineralogists from the universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh, and Oxford. By the end of its first session, in June 1808, the society boasted 112 members from every part of Britain. Honorary members were not expected to attend regular meetings, since they did not reside in London, and therefore they did not pay a subscription. They were, however, expected to communicate recent geological news and findings from their area to the society whenever possible. Those residing in or near London during the social season were expected to pay their dues and attend the monthly meetings regularly.

The Geological Society's early programmatic and organizational aims were varied. Most of the founders approached geology from a mineralogical and chemical background, and the society as a body was thus keen to avoid becoming involved too deeply in geological theorizing and speculation, which was contentious in this period. They were content for the time being with a programme of data collection and organization of geological knowledge. This included the collection of mineral specimens, along with their local names in different districts, the recording of mining terminology, and the acquisition of local geological information from the honorary and provincial members of the society. Aikin and Greenough were largely responsible for the production of a pamphlet entitled Geological Inquiries in 1808, which was intended to instruct and assist the inexperienced honorary and provincial members of the society in the correct identification and collection of geological data.

Such methods, however, led quickly to a dispute between Greenough, representing the society, and Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society. Banks had joined the Geological Society early on, but he soon came to realize that the society was not content to be a geological fact gathering adjunct to the Royal Society, but rather desired an entirely independent existence, with activities that might eventually include the publication of a journal, potentially removing important geological articles from the Philosophical Transactions produced by the Royal Society. This led to the resignation of both Banks and Davy, a loyal member of the Royal Society, from the Geological Society in 1809.

Greenough was also principally responsible for the society's mapping project. He was keen to produce a geological map of Britain, and this desire was enhanced still further by the publication in 1815 of a geological map of England and Wales by the surveyor and pioneer of stratigraphy, William Smith. There was, however, one particular obstacle to the project. Smith had used stratigraphical principles like the identification of strata by their characteristic organic fossil content in making his map, and Greenough was still unconvinced of the validity of such methodology for the geological map maker. The Geological Society's map of England and Wales was published in 1820, and was mostly the work of Greenough himself using the data the society had gathered, as well as drawing heavily on earlier geological maps (including Smith's). Copies of each of these maps now hang together on a staircase in the Geological Society's current premises.

The founders of the Geological Society thus started a small dining club that grew rapidly into a large society and survived early years of turmoil and uncertainty, including conflict with the powerful Sir Joseph Banks and the Royal Society. By the 1820s its programmatic aims were undergoing alteration as a result of an influx of university-educated gentlemen natural philosophers, some of whom became the geological luminaries of the period. By the end of the 1820s the society had over 500 members across the British empire, as well as a substantial foreign membership, and its leading members, such men as William Buckland, Adam Sedgwick, William Daniel Conybeare, and Charles Lyell, had international geological reputations.

Leucha Veneer


G. L. Herries Davies, Whatever is under the earth: the Geological Society of London, 1807 to 2007 (2007) · R. Laudan, ‘Ideas and organizations in British geology: a case study in institutional history’, Isis, 68 (1977), 527–38 · M. J. Rudwick, ‘The foundation of the Geological Society of London: its scheme for co-operative research and its struggle for independence’, British Journal for the History of Science, 1 (1963), 325–55 · P. Weindling, ‘The British Mineralogical Society: a case study in science and social improvement’, Metropolis and province: science in British culture, 1780–1850, ed. I. Inkster and J. Morrell (1983), 120–50 · S. Wilks and G. T. Bettany, A biographical history of Guy’s Hospital (1892) · H. B. Woodward, The history of the Geological Society of London (1907) · J. F. Wyatt, ‘George Bellas Greenough: a romantic geologist’, Archives of Natural History, 22 (1995), 61–71 · L. B. Hunt and P. D. Buchanan, ‘Richard Knight (1768–1844): a forgotten chemist and apparatus designer’, Ambix, 31 (1984), 58–67 · Munk, Roll, 3.11, 32–3