James Croll and 1876 – an exceptional year for a ‘singularly modest man’

Kevin J Edwards* (Corresponding Author)

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
5 Downloads (Pure)


James Croll left school at the age of 13 years, yet while a janitor in Glasgow he published a landmark paper on astronomically-related climate change, claimed as ‘the most important discovery in paleoclimatology’, and which brought him to the attention of Charles Darwin, William Thomson and John Tyndall, amongst others. By 1867 he was persuaded to become Secretary and Accountant of the newly established Geological Survey of Scotland in Edinburgh, and a year after the appearance of his keynote volume Climate and time in 1875, he was lauded with an honorary doctorate from Scotland's oldest university, Fellowship of the Royal Society of London and Honorary Membership of the New York Academy of Sciences. Using a range of archival and published sources, this paper explores aspects of his ‘journey’ and the background to the award of these major accolades. It also discusses why he never became a Fellow of his national academy, the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In the world of 19th-Century science, Croll was not unusual in being both an autodidact and of humble origins, nor was he lacking in support for his endeavours. It is possible that a combination of Croll's modesty and innovative genius fostered advancement, though this did not hinder a willingness to engage in vigorous argument.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)191-207
Number of pages17
JournalEarth and Environmental Science Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh
Issue numberSpecial issue 3-4
Early online date24 May 2021
Publication statusPublished - 2021

Bibliographical note

I am very appreciative for the provision of information, and permission to publish, from a number of individuals and institutions: Rachel Hart, Keeper of Manuscripts and Muniments and Deputy Head of Special Collections, University of St Andrews; Vicky Hammond, formerly Journals and Archives Officer, Royal Society of Edinburgh; Virginia Mills, Archivist and Katherine Marshall, Picture Curator, Royal Society of London; Douglas Braaten, Chief Scientific Officer and Ellis Rubinstein, President Emeritus, New York Academy of Sciences; Sally Boardman, Intellectual Property Rights, British Geological Survey; Fabienne Michaud, Head of Library and Information Services, the Geological Society of London. Laura Brassington, Department of History and Philosophy
of Science, University of Cambridge, and two anonymous referees are thanked for their constructive comments on the manuscript.
Open Access via Cambridge Press agreement

Data Availability Statement

Supplementary material is available online at https://doi.org/10.1017/S1755691021000074.


  • honorary degree
  • learned societies
  • New York Academy of Sciences
  • Royal Society of Edinburgh
  • Royal Society of London
  • University of St Andrews


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