Charles Lyell’s Friends and Family

It’s that time of the year again, when we come together with friends and family to share in the festivities. So I thought it would be wonderful to find out about the family and friends of Charles Lyell.

Mary Horner was Charles Lyell’s wife. She, like him, was a conchologist and geologist, and she made major contributions to her husband’s work. They were partners in science, with Mary accompanying Charles on field trips. She assisted him by sketching geological drawings, and cataloguing their collections. In addition to her spoken languages of French and German she learnt Spanish and Swedish to assist with communications. They even spent their honeymoon in Switzerland and Italy on a geological tour of the area. Mary had a vast interest and a great understanding of geology, and was present in her husband’s conversations with Charles Darwin.

NPG x46569,Mary Elizabeth (nÈe Horner), Lady Lyell,by Horatio Nelson King
Mary Horner Lyell. Accessed from here on 20 December 2016

Charles Darwin, arguably one of the most well-known names in science, was a friend of Charles Lyell. Captain Fitzroy of the HMS Beagle gave Darwin the first volume of Lyell’s Principles of Geology, a work that heavily influenced him. Lyell and Darwin first met on 29th October 1836. In letters digitised by the University of Cambridge there are multiple correspondences between Darwin and Lyell. In a letter to J.D. Hooker about Lyell’s death, Darwin states they “have both lost as good & as true a friend as ever lived”. In the letters Darwin offers information about his life and what he is up to, makes suggestions of books that Mrs Lyell should read (some of which have nothing to do with geology), as well as discussing work on geology. Darwin requests that Lyell send him news about himself and his wife, as well as asking Lyell for his wife’s opinions to discover what she would find least troublesome. It is impossible to read their letters and not know they are friends.


Charles Darwin. From Wellcome Images. Accessed from here on 20 December 2016

Joseph Dalton Hooker, friend of both Lyell and Darwin, was one of the finest 19th century British botanists and explorers. He was Charles Darwin’s closest friend. He was a founder of geographical botany (phytogeography), which looks at the geographic distribution of plant species and their influence on the earth’s surface. After he died it was suggested that he be buried in Westminster Abbey near Darwin, however his widow declined and instead followed her husband’s wishes to be buried next to his father.


Joseph Dalton Hooker. Accessed from here on 20 December 2016

Charles Lyell’s father, also named Charles Lyell, gave up law as a profession after a considerable inheritance to concentrate on botany (the study of plants). His studies focussed on mosses with several species of these plants being named after him. Like his son he also corresponded with noted naturalists such as the botanist William Jackson Hooker (father of Joseph Dalton Hooker) and James Sowerby. He was said to have great taste in literature and even published a translation of The Canzoniere of Dante.

Gideon Mantell is renowned for his work on Iguanodon, reconstructing its structure and life habits. During his medical career he attended to more than 50 patients a day, and delivered over 200 babies a year. In the little free time he had he pursued geology, which was a childhood passion. He corresponded frequently with Lyell, discussing geology and fossil finds. After a horrible carriage accident left Mantell crippled he started taking opium as a painkiller. He died, possibly from an overdose, in November 1852.


Gideon Mantell. Accessed from here on 20 December 2016

This is a small selection of the fascinating people who filled Charles Lyell’s life. This is the time of year where you can appreciate all the amazing people in your life. Enjoy!

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One thought on “Charles Lyell’s Friends and Family

  1. […] Researching this led me to finding all about the Sowerby family as well as some of Lyell’s other friends and family. I have always loved how some of Lyell’s fossils show predator/prey relationships and so […]

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