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SIR JOSEPH PRESTWICH (1812-1896)

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Originally appearing in Volume V22, Page 309 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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SIR JOSEPH PRESTWICH (1812-1896), English geologist, was born at Clapham, Surrey, on the 12th of March, 1812. He was educated in Paris, Reading and at University College, London, where under Dr D. Lardner and Edward Turner, he paid special attention to natural philosophy and chemistry, and gained some knowledge of mineralogy and geology. Circumstances compelled him to enter into commercial life, and until he was sixty years of age he was busily engaged in the City as a wine merchant. He devoted all his leisure to geology. His business journeys enabled him to see and learn much of the general geology of England, Scotland and France, and this so effectively that at the time of his death he ranked as the most eminent of British geologists. As early as 1831 he commenced, during holiday visits, to make a study of the coal-field of Coalbrookdale in Shropshire, and the results of his observations were communicated to the Geological Society of London in 1834 and 1836, and embodied in a memoir published in 1838. His name is, however, especially known in connexion with his researches on the Eocene strata of the London and Hampshire Basins (1846–1857): he defined the Thanet Sands and the Woolwich and Reading Beds, and studied the sequence of deposits and of organic remains and the method of formation of these and the succeeding strata of London clay and Bagshot Beds. So highly appreciated were his essays on the subject that in 1849 he was awarded the Wollaston Medal by the Geological Society of London; and in 1853 he was elected F.R.S. In the course of his observations he was led to study questions of water supply and published in 1851 A Geological Inquiry respecting the Water-bearing Strata of the Country around London, a work that at once became a standard authority; and his extensive knowledge in that respect procured him a seat on the Royal Commission on Water Supply, appointed in 1866. From 1858 the question of the antiquity of man engaged his attention. On various occasions statements had been made as to the association of flint implements formed by man with the bones of extinct mammals which belonged to more remote periods than those generally assigned for the appearance of the human race on this earth, but the evidence adduced had usually been disregarded by geologists as not affording sufficient proof of the point. Prestwich, together with Dr Hugh Falconer and Sir John Evans, saw the desirability of a closer examination of the facts, particularly in regard to the implements discovered by Boucher de Perthes in the gravels of the Somme valley; and their investigations in France and England yielded evidence which proved that man existed contemporaneously with the Pleistocene mammalia (Phil. Trans. 1861 and 1864). In 1865 a Royal Medal was awarded to Prestwich by the Royal Society. In 1866 he was chosen one of the commissioners appointed to inquire into the several matters relating to coal in the United Kingdom; and he subsequently contributed an important Report on the Quantities of Coal, wrought and unwrought, in the Coalfields of Somersetshire and part of Gloucestershire, and another Report on the Probabilities of finding Coal in the South of England (1871). His researches on the Crag Beds of Suffolk and Norfolk, his report on Brixham Cave, his papers on the Channel Tunnel and the Chesil Bank, among others published during the years 1868-1875, may be mentioned. In 187o he married Grace Anne McCall (nee Milne), niece of Dr H. Falconer, and author of the Harbour Bar and other works (see Essays Descriptive and Biographical, by Grace, Lady Prestwich; edited by L. E. Milne, 1901). Prestwich retired from business in 1872, and two years later he was invited to take the chair of geology at Oxford, vacant through the death of John Phillips. This post he occupied until 1887. During his professorship he wrote his great work entitled Geology: Chemical, Physical and Stratigraphical (vol. i., 1886; vol. ii., 1888). On leaving Oxford Prestwich spent his remaining years in his country house, Darent-Hulme, Shoreham, Kent, erected by him in 1869. There, although seventy-six years of age, he maintained marvellous activity in geological research, devoting his attention to the superficial deposits of the Darent valley, to the occurrence of palaeolithic flint implements in the valleys and of an earlier type since called eolithic, on the chalk plateau of Kent; he likewise dealt generally with the raised beaches and rubble-drift of the south of England and their relation to recent changes of level. His latest publications were Collected Papers on some Controverted Questions of Geology, and On Certain Phenomena belonging to the Close of the Last Geological Period and on their Bearing upon the Tradition of the Flood (1895). He was knighted in 1896, and died on the 23rd of June in the same year, at Shoreham in Kent. See Life and Letters of Sir Joseph Prestwich, edited by his wife (1899).
End of Article: SIR JOSEPH PRESTWICH (1812-1896)
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