Murchison was born at Tarradale, Easter Ross, into a wealthy Highland family. His teenage years were spent in military college in England before spending a further eight years in the army – he saw active service in the Peninsular War. On returning to England he studied arts and antiquities and engaged very actively in fox-hunting. However, it was through the efforts of his wife (who collected fossils) and meetings with Sir Humphrey Davy (1778 – 1829) at Royal Institution lectures that finally led him to turn his attention to science. He was at this point in his early thirties.
He became a very active member of the Geological Society of London and collaborated with the likes of Adam Sedgwick (1785 – 1873) and Sir Charles Lyell. Between 1825 and 1831, Murchison travelled extensively over Scotland and England and also visited Italy and Auvergne in France. He also became President of the Geological Society, sat on the Royal Society Council, helped to found the British Association for the Advancement of Science and was a member of the newly found London Geographical Society (of which he later became President).
In 1831, at the suggestion of William Buckland (1784 – 1856), he visited South Wales to study the rocks known as ‘greywacke’. Over the next seven years he worked extensively on these rocks and their fossils, finally producing his great work ‘The Silurian System’ in 1839, thus establishing the Silurian time period. He followed this a year later by establishing the Devonian along with Sedgwick. He also travelled through Russia and Scandinavia between 1840 and 1844, resulting in the establishment of the Permian. It was his study of the deposition of gold in the Urals that contributed to the discovery of gold in Australia.
Back in Britain he toured the Scottish Highlands with a young Archibald Geikie. Though their interpretation of the formation of the rocks was wrong, they contributed greatly to the famous Highlands Controversy (Murchison vs James Nicol). He became Director-General of the Geological Survey in 1855 and established the first Professor of Geology at Edinburgh University. His knighthood was awarded in 1846 and he was made a baron in 1866.
Flett, Sir John Smith. 1937. The First Hundred Years of the Geological Survey of Great Britain. His Majesty’s Stationery Office, London.
Oldroyd, D. R. 1990. The Highlands Controversy. Constructing geological knowledge through fieldwork in nineteenth-century Britain. University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.
Stafford, Robert A. 1989. Scientist of Empire: Sir Roderick Murchison, scientific exploration & Victorian imperialism. Cambridge University Press.