James Hutton

James Hutton is also known as the father of modern geology. Apart from being one of the most prominent figures in this field of science, he is also a noted physician, naturalist, chemical manufacturer, and an experimental agriculturalist. One of his most salient contributions to science was his uniformitarianism which happens to be one of the fundamental principles that geology has. Not only did he make great observations concerning the world that surrounded him, he was able to come up with reasoned and valid geological arguments.


Early Life and Educational Background

He was one of five children of the merchant named William Hutton who was also at that time the city treasurer of Edinburgh. His father, however, died when he was still young and it was their mother Sarah Balfour who had taken care of him and his siblings.

His mother had insisted that James should attend the High School of Edinburgh and James had shown a particular interest for chemistry and mathematics. When he turned 14 though, he studied as a “student of humanity” at the University of Edinburgh. He then became a lawyer’s apprentice, but upon the advice of his employer for him to have a more congenial career, James Hutton began to pursue his interest in medicine as it was nearest to chemistry which was his favorite pursuit back then.

For three years, he studied in Edinburgh and was able to complete his medical education in the University of Paris. In the year 1749, he finished his degree as a Doctor of Medicine at Leiden where his thesis had been on blood circulation. During that time, however, it wasn’t exactly the boom of the medical profession and seeing there was little opportunity for him, James Hutton left his career as a doctor and pursued agricultural endeavors.


He had inherited a small property which had been in their family since 1713 when his father passed away. He used this piece of land in Berwickshire for his agricultural pursuits. It was after his not so fruitful practice of medicine that he moved back to their farm in the Slighhouses and he began making some improvements when he settled there in 1750. He had experimented with both plant as well as animal husbandry, and noted his innovations and ideas in a work called The Elements of Agriculture. One of his more famous accomplishments in agriculture involved his development of a red dye he was able to make from the madder plant’s roots.

His exposure to agriculture was what had led him to develop a love for geology for which he is famous for. The process of clearing and then draining the farm had given him enough opportunities to observe rocks and their formation. The farm became a stable place and later on he was able to build a house where he and his three sisters lived in Edinburgh.

James Hutton and Geology

Back in the day, geology in the proper meaning of the word was practically nonexistent, but there was quite a progress in mineralogy. Ideas conceived by James Hutton were unheard of and were not easily entertained by those who were then the experts in mineralogy. He had desired to trace the origins of different rocks and minerals which would then lead to a better understanding of the earth’s history.

He pursued his research for years, and it was in the spring of 1785 when he had expressed his views to the Royal Society of Edinburgh—only recently established then through his work called Theory of the Earth, or an Investigation of the Laws Observable in the Composition, Dissolution and Restoration of Land upon the Globe. His work had been remarkable and he had expressed how this study was not at all like cosmogony.

According to Hutton, geology is a study which is confined to the materials found on the earth and that all around there may be evidence proving that the rocks which are now visible on the earth’s surface may have been part of greater, older rocks which have previously been in the bottom of the sea—that there is a cycle of rock formation and that pressure, heat, and other factors contribute to the presence of these materials on the earth’s surface.

He searched for evidence to prove his theories, and discovered how granite was able to penetrate metamorphic schists—which was indicative or granite’s being molten at one point. He had also discovered a similar event of penetration of volcanic rocks through sedimentary rocks. James Hutton had even travelled with John Playfair to find more geological samples proving the origin of rocks and minerals by examining the unconformities and rock formations they came across.

From the observations and research that Hutton had noted, he reasoned how there must have already been innumerable cycles which each involved the deposition of materials onto the seabed, uplift of these same materials through tilting and erosion, and formation of different layers under the sea. The thicknesses of the layers had implied to him the stretches of time in between the formation of these rocks.

Other Interests

It was not only geology that had captured the attention of Hutton, but he also had an interest for meteorology and the earth’s atmosphere. Apart from his publication called “Theory of the Earth” he also had one entitled “Theory of the Rain” where he had investigated about the climate as well as rainfall in different parts of the world which led him to conclude that rainfall is regulated by humidity as well as air currents.

He had also believed that the earth is a superorganism, but this idea of his was overshadowed by the reductionism in the 19th century. Apart from those beliefs, he also advocated the uniformitarianism for living organisms.

Much of the contributions of Hutton received less attention than it should have when he was still alive, but five years after his death, John Playfair published a great summary of Hutton’s works in Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth, and a biography of the father of geology was also published by Playfair in the fifth volume of Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.