glacier logo  Debating Glacial Theory, 1842 – Debate Profile
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Louis Agassiz and William Buckland first presented their glacial theory in 1840 at the Geological Society of London, one of the premier institutions for debating geological theories of the day. In this approach to the case, you will adopt the role of one of the 19th-century geologists and debate the theory with others (in the original historical context).
To prepare for debate, complete the following:
  1. Read the general background, including descriptions of some basic geological phenomena. Perhaps also develop a sense of the historical period.
  2. Consult the profile for your role.
  3. Visit the recommended sites on the GoogleEarth Tour.
  4. Read about the recommended "episodes."
  5. Prepare a written position paper summarizing your research and initial views on various relevant observations.
After the debate, you may be interested in the sequel events, including some interesting 20th-century discoveries related to the themes of this debate.


GSL meeting
A typical debate at the Geological Society of London, as drawn by Henry de la Beche.

The Geological Society of London was founded in 1807 initially as a dining club and by 1811 published its first volume of Transactions as a fully independent scientific society.

GSL membership was based on interest in the subject and, informally, on social class: you had to “fit in” socially to be fully accepted (the initial exclusion of William Smith being a case in point). This changed over time and, besides, the leading lights were always men who were serious, competent geologists as well as gentlemen. Bear in mind that there was no independent profession of geology and it was not a university subject until 1819 (and then only at Oxford, although Lyell gave a series of lectures at King's College in London in 1832 and 1833); so for the most part, its practitioners were gentlemen amateurs who could afford the "habit." John Phillips (William Smith's nephew) succeeded Lyell at King's College and also became employed by De la Beche at the newly-founded British Geological Survey – becoming arguably the first professional geologist in Britain in 1835. Nevertheless, through 1830s geology was still very much a "gentlemanly" pursuit (Rudwick, 2007).

Papers at meetings were read standing at a lectern at the end of a long table, along the sides of which were seated the leading members. Members of lesser scientific standing sat behind in the “back benches.” The set up was parliamentary in style. Papers were read during the course of meetings held on the first and third Fridays of the month between November and June (beginning 8pm following dinner and often ending at midnight). There was a bias in favor of reporting observation and the accumulation of facts and against theorizing: this was a reaction against the often unrestrained theorizing that had characterized geology over previous 100 years or so. However, over time discussion became an integral part of meetings, which William Fitton characterized in 1827 as of “a character more like that of social intercourse in a private circle, than of the formal proceedings of a public body . . . it is the wish of those who share in them to give or receive information, and not to shine – and the object is not victory but truth” (Fitton, 1828, p.300). This emphasis on discussion was unique among scientific societies at this time and served to place facts within the broader context of theoretical or interpretative disputes: such discussion could be wide-ranging (Thackray, 2003).

The President acted as the speaker or moderator of contributions, discussions, or debates that followed readings, granting permission to speakers to rise and contribute. In the “glacial” debates, William Buckland was President and, in order to participate himself in the debate, had to yield the Chair to another member.

Papers were submitted to the secretary for possible publication, which occurred within the next year or two in the Proceedings of the Geological Society.

Women were not granted membership (or fellowship) until 1919 (Burek and Higgs, 2007): when Lyell first gave a series of lectures at King's College London in 1832, the fact that women had taken out subscriptions was a source of concern and was not repeated the following year (Rudwick, 2007). For more on women in geology, see the cultural context.

  • Burek, C.V. Higgs, B. (eds), 2007. "The Role of Women in the History of Geology." London, The Geological Society, Special Publication 281.
  • Fitton, W. 1828 Presidential Address, Geological Society of London, The Philosophical Magazine, v.III (January-June) p.291-304.
  • Rudwick, M.J.S. 2007 Worlds before Adam: the reconstruction of geohistory in the age of reform (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago).
  • Thackray, J.C. (ed.) 2003 To see the Fellows fight: Eye witness accounts of meetings of the Geological Society of London and its Club, 1822-1868. The British Society for the History of Science Monograph 12 (BSHS, London).