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William Buckland was born in 1784 at Axminster in Devon, and was taught at home by his father until being educated at Tiverton School and St Mary's College Winchester in 1797, he then proceeded on a scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and became a Fellow in 1808. It was clear that by this stage Buckland had already developed a keen eye for fossils.
“The first cause of Dr. Buckland’s attention to fossil organic remains was the fact, that near his birthplace at Axminster were large quarries of lias, abounding in fossil organic remains. His father … took great interest in the improvement of roads, &c., and was accustomed to take his son with him on his walks; from the above-mentioned quarries both father and son collected Ammonites, and other shells, which thus became familiar to the lad from his infancy.”
Dean of Westminster
From 1808 to 1812 Buckland would ride his favorite mare over the south-west of England and beyond in search of samples to further understanding of startigraphy, it is said that the same horse if rode by anyone else would stop at every quarry and would refuse to leave until the rider had made an effort to examine the rocks. In 1813 he became Professor of Mineralogy in succession to Dr Kidd, someone for whom Buckland held great respect. He was also made Fellow of the Geological Society, where he delivered lectures not only on mineralogy but of general geology. His lectures were colourful, original and highly animated with a very hands-on approach to specimens. Buckland invigorated the taste for geology in the academic world and by 1818, geology was publicly recognized as a subject in its own right, with Buckland becoming the first appointee to the post at Oxford. He continually pushed the natural sciences at Oxford but to no avail.
In 1818 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society as he continued to make valuable contributions to the Oxford Museum. His great work, never went unnoticed, and in 1842 he was elected Chair of the Geological Society. It was then that Buckland published an account of the bones of Stonesfield of a giant reptile, which he named Megalosaurus, or “great lizard”, on account of its vast size. This was the first description of a true dinosaur.
Up until this point, Buckland was, to say the least, eccentric. Buckland was famous for saying he'd eaten his way through the animal kingdom, liking everything except mole. Often guests of his house could be treated to toasted mice, frogs, cats, and man other starnge creatures. This eccentricity was never more graphically illustrated than his encounter with Augustus Hare who wrote of a dinner:
“Talk of strange relics led to mention of the heart of a French King preserved at Nuneham in a silver casket. Dr. Buckland, whilst looking at it, exclaimed, ‘I have eaten many strange things, but have never eaten the heart of a king before,’ and, before anyone could hinder him, he had gobbled it up, and the precious relic was lost for ever.”
In 1845, Buckland was appointed Dean of Westminster and immediately began repairs to the abbey and the school. At this point in his life, many noticed a more fatigued and world-wiery figure and he lost all interest in pushing natural sciences at Oxford.
William Buckland died after seven years of poor health on 11th August 1856. His grave had been reserved but was found to lay on an outcrop of solid Jurassic limestone and explosives had to be used for excavation. A fitting end for a marvellous geologist.
References and Further Reading