Smith was born in the village of Churchill in Oxfordshire, England. Orphaned at the age of eight when his blacksmith father died, Smith grew up with relatives and was too poor as a child to get a first-class education. He was, however, an avid collector of fossils and rocks.
Some of William |
As a young man, when others with more money were going to college, Smith had to earn his living as a surveyor. But this situation, though forced upon him, led him to make fundamental discoveries he might otherwise have missed.
During the six years he worked surveying a major canal being dug in the county of Somerset in southwestern England, he made observations and collected fossils that led him to certain fundamental, new conclusions about the nature of the earth's past.
Up to Smith's day, people had generally thought of fossils as curiosities, things that looked like living things, but with no actual connection with anything that had ever lived. As Smith himself put it in one of his notebooks in 1796: "Fossils have been long studied as great curiosities, collected with great pains, treasured with
Smith was, in fact, the first Englishman to realize and to document that certain characteristic fossils are associated with particular geological strata, and that strata overlie each other in the same order in different geographic locations. As Smith described it,
This phenomenon was documented by Smith in England, and at the same time, and independently, in France by Cuvier (in the first decade of the 19th century).
Smith referred to the fact that fossil assemblages succeed each other vertically in the same order in different, often widely separated locales, as the principle of faunal succession, a rule now recognized as basic to the determination of the relative ages of rocks, strata, and fossils. The fact that this principle held true also raised the question of why and how there been this succession of organisms that had changed over time. That is, Smith's work, together with that of Cuvier, prompted the first discussions of evolutionary theory.
|Geological map of England and Wales, created by William Smith|
Smith traveled back and forth across the face of Britain collecting mineral samples and fossils, and eventually prepared the first geological map of the island (see picture, right), published in 1815.
For a time, he succeeded in making a living selling his maps. However, his prices were undercut by plagiarists. He was forced into bankruptcy and was sent to King's Bench Prison in London, a prison for debtors. His house and property were seized.
Although Smith made his discoveries at the same time as did Cuvier, he lacked Cuvier's upper-crust education and imposing professional standing. These two factors, together with his financial misfortunes, caused a long delay in Smith's receiving the recognition he deserved. After his release from prison in 1819, he was able to continue his work as a surveyor, but his seminal insights into the history of life on earth long went unrecognized.
Finally, in 1831, the Geological Society of London gave credit where credit was long past due, awarding Smith the first Wollaston Medal, its highest honor. Adam Sedgwick, the society's president, calling William Smith the "Father of English Geology," said the following of the vast contributions of a lonely, impoverished surveyor:
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