William Smith: The 'Father of English Geology' 250 Years On

This display brings together a selection of the Museum’s unique William Smith items to celebrate his 250th birthday. Smith's achievements laid the basis for geology as we know it today.

William Smith (1769-1839) began his working life as a land surveyor’s assistant in his home village of Churchill, Oxfordshire. He soon travelled the country working on mining, canal and irrigation projects, which provided the opportunity to observe the patterns in layers of rock, known as strata. He recognised that these layers could be identified by the fossils they contained.

Smith's observations of strata over hundreds of miles led to the ground-breaking 1815 publication of his map A delineation of strata of England and Wales that ultimately bankrupted him. This map set the style for modern geological mapping and many of the names and colours he applied to the strata are still used today.

Smith was only formally recognised for his discoveries late in life when he received the Wollaston Medal, the highest honour in the Geological Sciences, in 1831. His legacy lived on with his nephew John Phillips, one of this Museum’s founders and a Professor of Geology at the University of Oxford. Recognising its importance to the history of science, Phillips left Smith’s archive to the Museum on his death in 1874, where it has remained since.