University Of Edinburgh Geosciences

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University Of Edinburgh Geosciences

The story of Geosciences in the University of Edinburgh.

Natural History, 1770 to 1871

GeoScience was first taught in Edinburgh under the title of Natural History. Robert Ramsay was the first appointment to the Chair of that discipline in 1770. He was succeeded by John Walker, a Presbyterian minister, in 1779. Amongst Walker’s pupils were Robert Jameson, John Playfair and James Hall. In 1804, Walker’s former pupil, the well-known mineralogist Jameson was appointed to the Chair and held it for fifty years. After Jameson’s death, the post was held by Edward Forbes, the paleontologist and oceanographer, for one brief year before he was succeeded by Allman in 1855.

Geology, 1871-1989

In the University College minutes for 1870, there is a record of a letter written by Sir Roderick Murchison, Director of the Geological Survey of the United Kingdom. Murchison observed that as Allman was retiring, it was time for the Chair of Natural History to be divided, in order to create a separate Chair of Geology. To this end he offered to provide an endowment of £6,000. The next day, the University received a further letter from Murchison, in which he added that the endowment was conditional on him being the person to nominate the new Chair of Geology. The University then wrote to the Treasury asking for a grant of £200 per annum to make the Chair viable. The Treasury replied that they were prepared to provide this sum on condition that Murchison’s clause regarding nomination be deleted.

In March 1871, Archibald Geikie presented his commission to the Senatus Academicus, as the holder of the first Regius Chair of Geology. At that time Archibald Geikie was the President of the Edinburgh Geological Society and, coincidentally, Sir Roderick Murchison was its patron. Undoubtedly, whatever the Treasury said, Murchison got his own way. Sir Archibald Geikie was succeeded by his younger brother James Geikie in 1882.

Regius Chairs have included:

  • Thomas Jehu, 1914 – 1943
  • Arthur Holmes, 1943 – 1956
  • Sir Frederick Stewart, 1956 – 1986
  • Geoffrey Boulton, 1986 – 2008
  • Dick Kroon, 2008 – the present
Grant Institute

The Geology Department was located in Old College until 1932, when it moved to King’s Buildings. Its new home was named The Grant Institute, in recognition of an endowment from Sir Alexander Grant and was opened by Prime Minister J.Ramsay Macdonald on 28 January, 1932. In the 1980s the John Murray Laboratories were annexed. The building houses staff and equipment involved in research in oceanography, climate change, fluid flow in porous media, pollution and similar environmental problems. Additional staff in these disciplines, are housed in the nearby Crew Building.

Geophysics, 1969-1989

The Department of Geophysics was inaugurated in 1969 with Alan H. Cook as the first Professor of Geophysics. He was succeeded by Ken Creer in 1973. Prof Kathy Whaler, the current holder of the Chair of Geophysics, joined the Department in 1994.

The Department of Geophysics was initially housed in a Victorian villa in South Oswald Road. From there it moved to the James Clerk Maxwell Building, which also housed the Departments of Mathematics, Physics, Computer Science, Meteorology and the University Computing Service.

Geology and Geophysics, 1989-2002

The formerly separate Departments of Geology and Geophysics amalgamated in 1989. In the same year the UGC Review of Earth Science designated the Department a Group 1 Mainstream Department and granted funds for major investment in new research equipment. A substantial new wing was added to the Grant Institute and opened on 20 May 1992 by HRH Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh, who was at that time Chancellor of the University. The new wing allowed accommodation of all staff and research facilities in one building.

During the 1990s the Department of Geology and Geophysics was one of the largest Earth Science Departments in the United Kingdom. There were 34 full-time academic members of staff, 41 Research Fellows and Associates, 30 support staff and 38 full-time PhD students.


Meteorology was studied and taught as part of Chemistry, Natural Philosophy and Natural History at the University of Edinburgh throughout the nineteenth century and for the first half of the twentieth century. James Paton was appointed the first Lecturer in Meteorology within the Department of Natural Philosophy in 1944, where he had been a Lecturer since 1928. The first undergraduate course in Meteorology at any British university was instituted the following year, followed by a short Honours level course in Atmospheric Physics. James Paton was the first Head of Department when the Department of Meteorology was created in 1964.

From 1965 – 1975 the Balfour Stewart Auroral Laboratory was based in Edinburgh together with a geophysical unit of the British Antarctic Survey. In 1973, Dr Douglas McIntosh was appointed Head of Department. He had been Deputy Chief Meteorological Officer for S-E Asia during WW2 before joining the University in 1955. He was co-author with Alasdair Thom of Essentials of Meteorology, which was for many years a standard teaching text, and his research interest was the physics and dynamics of the upper atmosphere, a tradition later continued by Prof Robert Harwood. In 1977 the one-year taught MSc was added to the undergraduate courses and strong PhD tradition. In 1976 the Department moved from High School Yards (Drummond Street) to the top floors of the James Clerk Maxwell Building at King’s Buildings.

After Douglas McIntosh retired in 1982, the position of Head of Department was held by senior academic staff in three-yearly rotation. The last Head of Department was Prof Harwood, who relinquished the position on 1st August 2001 when the Department became the Institute for Meteorology.

From 1st August 2001 until 31st July 2002 the Institute was part of the Department of Physics and Astronomy within the University Faculty of Science and Engineering. On 1st August 2002, the Institute for Meteorology became part of the new School of GeoSciences within the College of Science and Engineering.

The Grant Institute, from 2002 Onwards

The School of GeoSciences was formed on 1 August 2002 when the Institute for Meteorology, the Institute of Ecology and Resource Management, the Department of Geography and the Department of Geology and Geophysics were merged into one school.

In September 2013 a new wing was opened at the High School Yards to house the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation (ECCI).