Palaeontographical Society Annual Address
Flett Lecture Theatre, Natural History Museum at 4.15 pm, Tuesday, April 12th
Professor W. James Kennedy
Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford
NHM contact: Dr Andrew Smith
William Buckland (1784-1856) is mainly remembered today for his larger-than-life personality, his pet bear and hyaena, his humour, dining habits (including, it is said, eating the heart of one of the Kings of France) and his ultimate madness. Yet he was the first President of the Geological Society, and the first geologist (the term palaeontology and thence palaeontologist dates only from1838) to receive the Copley Medal, the highest award of the Royal Society (1821) To his contemporaries, he was the English Cuvier.
Buckland¹s contributions to science are many. His observations and experiments at Kirkdale Cave in Yorkshire mark the beginnings of cave science and palaeoecology. Paviland Cave in Pembrokeshire, visited in 1823 yielded a human skeleton, the so-called 'Red Lady¹. The bones are actually those of a young man, a mammoth hunter perhaps, who we now know to be the earliest anatomically modern human from Britain. Triassic footprints were interpreted through experiments with the family tortoise and rolled out pastry. The beozar stones found by Mary Anning and others on the coast at Lyme Regis were demonstrated to be fossil faeces, confirmed by experiments with cement and skate guts. Megatherium, the 'Great Lizard of Stonesfield¹, was described by Buckland, providing the first scientific account of what Richard Owen was to call dinosaurs. He made logical interpretations of the function of the chambered shell of ammonites, and through his work came the early attempts to reconstruct ancient communities, illustrated by his friend Henry De la Beche in Duria Antiquior (1830): Ancient Dorset.
Buckland¹s collections (gnawed bones, fish guts and all), his correspondence, teaching diagrams and notes all survive, and provide all the images needed to bring alive this remarkable man, and his contributions to our then fledgling science.