The Silurian System, Founded on Geological Researches in the Counties of Salop, Hereford, Radnor, Montgomery, Caermarthen, Brecon, Pembroke, Monmouth, Gloucester, Worcester, and Stafford; With Descriptions of the Coal-Fields and Overlying Formations. [With:] ALS from Murchison to Henri Milne-Edwards. London: December 1836.

London: John Murray, 1839.

First edition, and a fine copy, complete with the very rare hand-coloured engraved folding three-sheet geological map. This work is considered to be Murchison’s masterpiece, placing him among the founders of modern geology. “An important milestone in geology, for it established the oldest fossil-bearing classification then known” (ODNB). “The publication of this splendid monograph forms a notable epoch in the history of modern geology, and well entitles its author to be enrolled among the founders of the science. For the first time, the succession of fossiliferous formations below the Old Red Sandstone was shown in detail. Their fossils were enumerated, described and figured. It was now possible to carry the vision across a vast series of ages, of which hitherto no definite knowledge existed, to mark the succession of their organisms, and thus to trace backward, far farther than had ever before been possible, the history of organised existence on this globe … The Silurian system was found to be developed in all parts of the world and Murchison's work furnished the key to its interpretation” (Geikie, pp. 420-21). The Silurian is a geologic period and system that extends from the end of the Ordovician Period, about 443 million years ago, to the beginning of the Devonian Period, about 416 years ago. The base of the Silurian is set at a major extinction event when 60% of marine species were wiped out. “The culmination of twenty years of geological research, Murchison’s stratigraphical studies, begun in the Welsh Borderland and continued in South Wales, created a new epoch in earth history from what had hitherto been a confused, poorly understood complex of so-called ‘Transition’ rocks, so named because of their position between the unfossiliferous Primary and the highly fossiliferous Secondary strata. Murchison was the first to establish a uniform sequence of Transition strata, to which he gave the name ‘Silurian’ after an ancient British tribe; these strata constituted a major system with uniform fossil remains, displaying an abundance of invertebrates and a complete lack (except in the youngest strata) of the remains of vertebrates or land plants. By the time Murchison published his Silurian system, Silurian fossils had been discovered throughout both hemispheres and the system’s validity had been accepted by most geologists. Murchison’s work was primarily responsible for undermining Lyell’s ‘steady-state’ uniformitarianism: the uniformity of the Silurian fauna demonstrated the greater uniformity of the global climate in Silurian times, and the temporal sequence of fossil faunas and floras over all stratigraphical systems supported a directional interpretation of the history of life” (Norman). “Although the map is a rarity today, every copy of the text was published with a map” (Thackray, p. 69) – Thackray consulted 25 institutional examples of the work, with only 11 containing the map. Murchison’s great work is here accompanied by an ALS from him to the eminent French invertebrate geologist Henri Milne-Edwards (1800-85), who studied under Georges Cuvier. Murchison requests a description he had been promised of a “Serpuline formed shelly body”, and which is necessary for him to complete the description of the Ludlow rocks in the present work; the fossil in question is described on p. 608.

Murchison (1792-1871) was born into a long-established family of Highland landowners. With the advantages of a private income, he was able to devote himself entirely to science. He joined the Geological Society of London in 1825 and in the following five years explored Scotland, France, and the Alps and collaborated alternately with the British geologists Adam Sedgwick and Charles Lyell. In 1831 he was elected president of the Geological Society, after serving as secretary for five years.

“Taking as a model the stratigraphical handbook of W. D. Conybeare and W. Phillips (1822), Murchison began the long series of geological studies which brought him worldwide fame and recognition. Almost every summer, for over twenty years, he undertook long and often arduous journeys in search of new successions of strata which would help to bring order to the reconstruction of the history of the earth. He entered geology during the first great period of stratigraphical research, and stratigraphy remained his chief area of interest. He was not a theoretician and generally delegated the paleontological parts of his work to others, but he was an excellent observer with a flair for grasping the major features of an area from a few rapid traverses …

“At this time the major features of the stratigraphical succession had been clarified down to the Old Red Sandstone underlying the Carboniferous rocks, but below that was what Murchison called ‘interminable grauwacke’—rocks containing few fossils, in which no uniform sequence had been detected. It was widely doubted whether the method of correlation by fossils would even be applicable to these ancient Transition strata, yet in them—if anywhere—lay the possibility of finding evidence for the origin of life itself. Acting on a hint of Buckland’s, Murchison was fortunate to find in the Welsh borderland an area in which there was a conformable sequence downward from the Old Red Sandstone into Transition strata with abundant fossils. He gave a preliminary report of his work at the first meeting (1831) of the British Association for the Advancement of Science; and in 1835, after further fieldwork, he named the strata Silurian after the Silures, a Romano-British tribe that had lived in the region.

“The Silurian constituted a major system of strata with a highly distinctive fauna, notable for an abundance of invertebrates and for the complete absence, except in the youngest strata, of any remains of vertebrates or land plants. It thus seemed to Murchison to mark a major period in the progressive history of life on earth. Even before he had completed his great monographic account The Silurian System (1839), its validity had been rapidly recognized by geologists in many other parts of the world. The striking uniformity of the Silurian fauna, in contrast with the highly differentiated faunal provinces of the present day, was taken by Murchison to underline the limitations of Lyell’s uniformitarian approach, and was attributed by him to the greater climatic uniformity of the globe in Silurian times, a result of the greater influence of conducted heat from the still incandescent interior of the earth.

“Murchison was well aware of the vast economic implications of his delineation of a Silurian system. If the Silurian period had truly predated the establishment of terrestrial vegetation, the recognition of Silurian fossils in any part of the world would reliably indicate a base line beneath which it was pointless to search for coal” (DSB), the essential energy source of the newly recognized ‘industrial revolution.’

“In the year 1839, Murchison published his great work The Silurian System, wherein the results of his researches extending over six years were admirably elucidated. After a short statement regarding the younger geological formations, and a more detailed account of the English Carboniferous formation, the Mountain Limestone, and the Old Red Sandstone, Murchison passes to the special description of the Silurian system in South Wales and the adjoining counties of England. With great accuracy he depicts the stratigraphical relations, the lithological characters of the rocks, the contents of fossils and minerals, and the occurrences of volcanic rocks. A special palaeontological part with twenty-seven quarto plates is devoted to the description of the characteristic fossils by L. Agassiz, Sowerby, and Lonsdale. Numerous coloured sections help to demonstrate the tectonic relations of the district.

“Murchison distinguishes three chief divisions in the Silurian system – Upper Silurian, comprising the Ludlow Rocks and Wenlock Limestone; Lower Silurian, comprising the Caradoc Sandstone and Llaneilo Flags; Cambrian. Murchison found it impossible at the time to fix a definite palaeonotlogical horizon as the lower limit of the Silurian system, and Sedgwick could also not assign any palaeontological feature which would determine the upper limit of the Cambrian series. Nevertheless, the recognition of the Silurian and Cambrian systems was one of the most important advances that have been made in stratigraphy” (Zittel, p. 434).

This uncertainty as to the boundary between the Silurian and Cambrian systems led to a bitter dispute between Murchison and Sedgwick. “During their only joint fieldwork in Wales (in 1834) Murchison had assured Sedgwick that the latter’s Upper Cambrian lay below his own Lower Silurian strata, although, as expected, there was a faunal gradation between the two. But when Murchison later realized that the fossils of the Upper Cambrian Bala series were indistinguishable from his own Lower Silurian Caradoc series, he boldly proclaimed their identity and annexed the Upper Cambrian into his Silurian system. Sedgwick protested that the Cambrian had been clearly defined by reference to an undisputed succession of strata in northern Wales and that it was wrong to alter the meaning of the term just because its upper part contained Silurian fossils. But Murchison continued to annex more and more of the Cambrian into his Lower Silurian, until the two terms were virtually synonymous” (DSB). Ultimately the dispute was about priority for the discovery of the beginning of life on earth, which Murchison believed was to be found in the lower Silurian strata and not in the Cambrian. When Murchison was president of the Geological Society of London, the society passed a resolution banning Sedgwick from presenting any paper about early Palaeozoic life. The Cambrian-Silurian rift lasted nearly 20 years, ending only when Sedgwick sent a note of condolence on the death of Murchison’s wife.

“In 1846 Murchison was knighted and served as president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science; and in 1849 his work was recognized by the award of the Royal Society’s Copley Medal. He later published an updated and more popular version of his work as Siluria (1854), expressly in order to deliver a ‘knock-down blow’ (the aggressive metaphor is characteristic) to those, like Lyell, who still denied the reality of organic progression. The book also contained an assessment of the world’s probable resources of gold, designed to reassure those who feared that the recent Australian gold rush presaged a slump in that metal’s monetary value. In 1855 he succeeded de la Beche as director general of the Geological Survey of Great Britain (thus becoming a professional scientist for the first time), and in 1856 he was appointed to a royal commission to report on the nation’s coal reserves … he was better known as a geographer than as a geologist in his later years, being prominent in the support of David Livingstone’s and other expeditions. The Murchison Falls of the Nile in Uganda are named after him” (ibid.).

Henri Milne-Edwards, the recipient of the enclosed ALS, acquired a solid background in zoology after medical studies in Paris, and in 1832 accepted a post as professor of hygiene and natural history at the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures. Despite his delicate health, in addition to his teaching, he undertook a vast program of research on the invertebrates, to the study of which he had been attracted since his youth. His researches culminated in the classic Histoire naturelle des crustacés (1834-40); among his other works are Monographie des polypes des terrains paléozoïques (1851), Histoire naturelle des coralliaires (1858-60), and the fourteen-volume Leçons sur la physiologie et l’anatomie comparée de l’homme et des animaux (1857-81).

The letter reads:


3 Bayswater Place

Dec[embe]r 1836

My Dear Sir,

You might oblige me particularly by sending me at your earliest convenience an account of the Serpuline formed shelly body which you took from here last year and of which you promised me a description.

I was about to finish the description of the Ludlow rocks or Upper formation of the Silurian System and this fossil for which I require a name occurs most pronouncedly in that rock.

Every scrap of information from you will be gratefully received.

The fossil Murchison refers to in this letter is probably the one he named Serpulites longissimus, which he describes on p. 608: “Very long, hardly diminishing in diameter, compressed, smooth, slightly tortuous, composed of numerous thin layers of shell containing much animal matter … The tube is so much compressed that its sides nearly touch” Murchison notes that this fossil is “very abundant” in the Ludlow rocks but that “No naturalist who has examined this form has been able to throw any light upon its true place in the animal kingdom.” So perhaps Milne-Edwards did not supply the information Murchison was hoping for.

In another place (pp. 696-7), Murchison describes a sponge-like fossil, writing that he had not “met with any one who could throw light upon its possible origin, until, in 1836, I showed it to Dr Milne-Edwards, who was then on a visit to this country; on which occasion he took a sketch of the specimen, and has since favoured me with the following description …” But this latter fossil does not appear to match the ‘Serpuline’, i.e., worm-tube, shaped fossil described in the letter, nor is the timing consistent with that in the letter.

BM(NH) III, 1380; Challinor 141; Dibner Heralds 97; Norman 1569; Ward & Carozzi 1620. Geikie, The Founders of Geology, 1962. Thackray, ‘R.I. Murchison’s Silurian System (1839),’ Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History 9 (1978), 61-73. Zittel, History of Geology and Palaeontology to the End of the Nineteenth Century, 1901.

Two vols. [Text:] 4to (315 x 244 mm), two vols. bound in one, pp. xxxii, 576; [ii], [577]-768, 3 engraved maps, 14 lithographic plates of which 2 folding and 3 hand-coloured, 9 folding hand-coloured geological sections, 31 engraved plates of fossils (occasional faint off-setting, faint spotting to first and last few leaves). [Map:] One very large folding hand-coloured map (976 x 1633 mm) of “The Silurian Region and Adjacent Counties of England & Wales, Geologically Illustrated”, dissected into 21 sections, backed on red silk edged linen and folded. Uniform contemporary calf, spines richly gilt in compartments with two red morocco lettering pieces, triple gilt fillet round sides, gilt arms in centre of each front cover, spines gilt, red and green leather lettering-pieces on spines, marbled endpapers and edges (minor rubbing to extremities, a few light scratches to the boards). [ALS:] Two pages on one sheet folded once (213 x 183 mm), with address on conjugate leaf (one horizontal and two vertical creases for posting, original wax seal present).

Item #5991

Price: $25,000.00

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