DCS Local Heritage Event : Tour of the Sedgewick Museum of Earth Sciences

Saturday 15th October 2016 Return to Alumni Events

The Sedgewick Museum of Earth Sciences is always a popular place to visit but for the DCS trip to the museum on Saturday the 15th October we had a full complement of 20 despite having organised a popular event 2 weeks before. The popularity had been further enhanced by having Dr Ken McNamara, the museum Director and Darwin aluminus, to lead us. Ken decided to talk about the history of the museum illustrated by the collections, the museum being the oldest in Cambridge and one of the oldest in the world.

Early Ages

Woodward's first fossil

Smith Map

The Smith Map

Later Ages

More fossil facts

Ken started his talk in the section of the museum with the oldest fossils and continued through to later and later dates but illustrating the history of the museum as he went. He began with the founder, John Woodward, born in 1665 who found a fossil shell when he was 22 and became so excited by it that he devoted his life to collecting. He was in the opinion of Ken, one of the first true scientists because he tried to make theories on observed data, although not always correct. He was not a very pleasant character apparently and made many enemies. When he died in 1728 he donated his collection to Cambridge University where he had established the Woodwardian Professorship of Geology. The paleontological museum in Cambridge named the Woodwardian Museum which housed his 10,000 item collection was established in the same year, 1728. Ken showed us the diminutive fossil which was Woodwards first find.

Via many interesting stories and many facts we moved forward to Adam Sedgewick (1785-1873) one of the founders of modern geology whose led him to propose the Devonian and Cambrian period of the geological timescale. He guided the studies and was a good friend of Charles Darwin but opposed Darwin's theory of evolution. In Cambridge terms, he helped set up the Tripos system and re-invigorated and classified the items of the museum into geological times. On the death of Sedgwick it was decided that his memorial should take the form of a new and larger museum and a new, larger building replaced the Woodwardian Museum in 1903, the new building being the Sedgwick Museum as it is today.

Ken showed us one of the original William Smith maps of the geological data of the British Isles which was remarkably similar to a modern map. Smith was born in 1769 and self-educated. He spent his life doing his job inspecting coal mines and canals and being a mineral surveyor. He studiously wrote down his observations of the fossils and strata finally producing an amazingly accurate map in 1815. However not being of the noble class, his work was plagiarised, he was financially ruined and spent time in debtors' prison and was not recognised until late in his life. He died in 1839 a year after he received an unexpected Doctorate in Law.



Darwin 1

At the Darwin Collection

Darwin 2

At the Darwin Collection

Ken constantly told us as about the unexpected in his work including an old box in the storeroom which when opened contained fossils wrapped in an 1890s Times newspaper reporting on the defeat of the Australian Cricket Touring XI by the Philadelphia XI. (My research shows two 1890s dates which fit, 1893 and 1896!). We finished with the Darwin Collection remembering that the museum now houses 2 million plus items. Finally buoyed up by the tour we retired to Darwin (with Ken) for lunch and wine. What a morning - thank you Ken from all of us!

Pictures by Helen Moore (Click on the pictures for larger versions)

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