William Buckland

William Buckland (March 12, 1784 – August 14, 1856) was an English theologian, ordained Anglican minister, geologist, and the prominent paleontologist of his day. He pioneered the use of fossilized feces, which he named “coprolites,” in the study and reconstruction of ancient ecosystems. Buckland is perhaps best known for naming and describing the very first recognized dinosaur fossil, the Megalosaurus, before the term “dinosaur” ever existed.

Buckland was born at Axminster in Devon in the spring of 1784. His father, Charles, (Rector of Templeton and Trusham) was very interested in road improvement, and would often walk with William to visit the Lias quarries. There he collected fossils – Ammonites and other shells, and his interest in the sciences and natural history began.

After attending several prep schools and finishing his lower education at Winchester College, William was awarded a scholarship to study for the ministry at Corpus Christi College in Oxford. Here he developed an interest in geology, mineralogy and chemistry, and began carrying out field research on strata during breaks from his coursework. He completed his Bachelor’s degree in 1804, his Master’s in 1808, and soon after became a Fellow and an Ordained Priest of the Church of England.

Following his education, Buckland continued field research, traveling to Ireland, Scotland, and Wales on horseback for these geological excursions. Five year later, he was appointed Reader of Mineralogy, replacing his predecessor, John Kidd, and taking up residence as unofficial curator of the Ashmolean Museum. Throughout his lectures on Mineralogy he began incorporating information about geology and paleontology, and a few short years later he took these lectures on the road across Europe.

In 1818, Buckland persuaded the Prince Regent to endow him with a second readership in Geology, which eventually occurred the following year. His field work in January of 1823 took him to Paviland Cave, where he discovered a skeleton which he thought belonged to a female prostitute. He named her the “Red Lady of Paviland.” It would later be revealed to be a male skeleton, and the oldest anatomically modern human found in the United Kingdom.

As a both a minister and a scientist, Buckland had a unique perspective on science and religion and their connections to one another. As Geology Reader, he developed a hypothesis that the word “beginning” as used in Genesis referred to an undefined time between the Earth’s origin and creation of its current inhabitants, a period during which several successive extinctions and creations of new plants and animals had occurred.

Like most ministers of the time, Buckland believed in the Biblical global flood during the time of Noah, but had doubts regarding its geology and specifics. His doubts led him to investigate a large assortment of fossil bones at Kirkdale Cave in Yorkshire. His findings led him to conclude that the cave had been inhabited by these animals prior to the great flood, and the fossils were remains of the animals and those they had eaten. Not, as was commonly accepted, animals that had died in the flood and been carried from their original homes by the surging waters. Buckland theorized that the flood only covered these already existing bones with a new layer of mud. He published a successful scientific paper on these findings in late 1823, but despite its best-seller status, it was not a financial bolster, and he continued to live on at the college.

1824 was the year that Buckland’s fortunes changed; he became president of the Geological Society and delivered an important announcement. At Stonesfield, fossil bones of a giant reptile had been discovered. He named the creature Megalosaurus, or “great lizard,” and described in writing what would later be recognized as the first dinosaur.

In 1825, Buckland was made a Canon of Christ Church following his resignation from his college fellowship. This was one of the richest governmental rewards for academic distinction which had few administrative responsibilities. Later that year he married Mary Morland, an avid fossil collector, and the two set out on a year-long honeymoon touring the best European fossil sites. Mary would at times assist him in his work, and together the two had nine children, five of whom survived to adulthood. Their home was filled with specimens, due to their shared passion. On one occasion, Mary assisted him in deciphering tortoise footprints in a slab of sandstone by covering the kitchen table with paste and taking the footprint of their pet tortoise.

In 1829, Buckland and his contemporary, fossil hunter Mary Anning discovered convoluted masses known as “bezoar stones” in the abdominal region of an ichthyosaur skeleton at Lyme Regis.  When these stones were broken open they revealed fossilized fish bones, scales, and other small bones. Buckland proposed that these stones were actually fossilized feces, and he coined a name for them: coprolite, which is the term used to this day.

By 1837, Buckland had reached a status of near-celebrity in the scientific world. He often traveled for lectures, and had a wide influential circle. He helped establish the School of Mines and the Mining Records Office. And with some help from Adam Sedgwick and Charles Lyell, he prepared the report which would result in the establishment of the Geological Survey of Great Britain. In 1838, Buckland traveled to Switzerland to meet Louis Agassiz and to follow up on his theory that polished and striated rocks had been caused by ancient glaciers. Buckland was convinced by the evidence and recognized parallels with similar phenomena he had observed in Scotland, Wales, and northern England. In 1840, Agassiz visited Buckland in Scotland and found evidence there as well. Despite negative reactions from the Geological Society when Agassiz and Buckland presented their theory, Buckland was satisfied that glaciation had been the origin of many of Britain’s surface deposits.

Buckland was appointed Dean of Westminster in 1845. He continued to lecture on geology at Oxford, but also began instituting reforms and restoring decaying Westminster Abbey stonework. Around 1849, Buckland contracted a debilitating disease. He lingered for seven more years, but passed away in August of 1856. His grave plot had been reserved, but it was directly on an outcrop of solid Jurassic limestone. Explosives had to be used to excavate the grave.

Image Caption: William Buckland. Credit: Wikipedia (public domain)