CLOSE              THE HISTORY OF GEOLOGY DIVISION Volume 25, Number 1, January 2001    


Hugh S. Torrens, History of Geology Division Award, Citation
by William Brice

Mr. Chairman, officers of the Division, honored guests, members, and ladies and gentleman-, once again we gather to honor a colleague for his long, and outstanding contribution to the field of history of geology, Professor Hugh S. Torrens of Keele University. Somehow it seems natural that paleontology should have been his first professional love, as it is such a historical science. He especially loved working with those beautiful, coiled ammonites of the Mesozoic. The fact that he is the generic and specific dedicatee of several ammonites speaks to his prominence in that field. But it is his dedication to and passion for the history of Geology that brings us all together here today. I must add that Hugh, often with little support and official recognition, expanded his interests well beyond the expected bounds of the subject to include the history of technology, especially investigations of the history of engineering, iron-making, steam power, and the internal combustion engine.

Professor Torrens completed his Bachelor of Arts at Oxford and his Ph.D. at the University of Leicester, and since October of 1967 he has been a member of the faculty at Keele University, where he attained his professorship in May of 1998. In addition he has served as a visiting professor at the University ot California, Santa Cruz (1996); Eotvos Lorand University, Budapest Hungary (1997); and the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Canada (1998). In September of this year, Hugh obtained a goal that many of us in this room are seeking, whether we know it or not, for he retired and became Professor Emeritus. Our congratulations and we wish him a fulfilling retirement.

Hugh has produced over 200 books, papers, and articles and a brief look at some of the titles will provide a glimpse into the diversity of his interests and knowledge: "The stratigraphical distribution of Bathonian ammonites in Central England" (1969), "A Bathonian Crocodile new to Dorset" (1971), "Early maps of the Somersetshire Coal Canal" (1974), "The curious case of the FC Front-Drive Alvis" (1974), "The source of the lost Richard Owen lithograph" (1981), "Development of geology in Britain 1815-1840" (1982), "The history of coal prospecting in Britain 1650-1900" (1984), "The Stone Pipe Scandal. How competition bred a 19th century folly" (1988), "Hawking history - a vital future for Geology's past" (1988), "The transmission of ideas on the use of fossils in stratigraphic analysis from England to America 1800-1840" (1991). "When did the Dinosaur get its name?" (1992), "William Smith - the truth [about his wife] (1992), and "A study of 'failure' with a successful 'innovation' - Joseph Day and the two-stroke engine" (1992). Obviously, the list could go on, but I feel this will serve to illustrate the broad scope of his imagination, curiosity and the depth of his scholarship.

He has held various offices in such historically oriented organizations as: The Geological Curators' Group (Geolo-ical Society of London) (Chairman, 1976-80). The British Society for the History of Science (President, 1990-92); The International Commission on the History of Geological Sciences (President, 1996-2000); The History of Earth Sciences Society (Councilor, 1996-98), and The Comite Francais d'Histoire de la Geologic (Conseiller etranger, 1991-92); just to mention a few.

However, I would like to draw attention to one area of his research that I feel deserves special mention, and that is his work on the life of Mary Anning (Torrens, 1981, 1995, 1997, 2000). She was neither the first nor the only woman whose accomplishments have come to light through his diligence, for of the more than 40 contributions that Hugh has prepared for the New Dictionary of National Biography, almost 20% have women subjects.

All of us, no doubt, have thought we know the story of Mary Anning; telling our classes that she collected fossils and that she was the subject of the old rhyme, "She sells sea shells down by the sea shore..." But generally, there it would end, and a giant in the field of paleontology would be reduced to the subject of a tongue-twisting rhyme. With the tenacity of a blood hound and a marvelous instinct for the historical trail, Hugh has been able to reconstruct the fife of this extraordinary woman who left almost no written record of her own, and yet, she was a major figure in early paleontology, especially of Icthyosaurs and Plesiosaurs. The story of finding her first Icthyosaur at the age of 10 is true and is the subject of several children's books, but beyond that, most stories depart greatly from the truth. She was one of the few people of her age, other than perhaps William Smith, also one of Hugh's subjects, who actually made her living with her geology.

A few years ago, my wife, Heather, and I had a wonderful time in the small town of Lyme Regis, which was the home of Mary Anning, with Hugh as our tour guide. We visited the site of her fossil shop, now, thanks in large part to Hugh's involvement, a museum to her work. I shall never forget standing in front of the building in which Mary Anning died in 1847 at the age of 48, while Hugh told the story of her death and of the many inaccurate historical accounts of the last few years of her life. There are reports that she became a drunk and spent many of her last years "in her cups" as it were. Nothing could be farther from reality. Hugh discovered that Mary Anning suffered from a form of very painful breast cancer, and the only release from the pain was laudanum, a narcotic containing opium. No wonder she gave the impression of being "in her cups." But what a privilege it was to stand near the spot where she drew her last breath and hear the story from Hugh as though it had happened only yesterday. He made it so real that we all had tears in our eyes. We then climbed the hill to the churchyard and stood silently before her grave, each of us feeling as though we had lost a friend, and in a sense we had, for Hugh's insightful scholarship had made her live again, if only for a brief moment, in our minds and hearts. The full irony of her life struck us as we gazed at the beautiful stained glass window presented to the Lyme Regis church by the Geological Society and dedicated to her memory. It has a wonderful inscription across the bottom filled with laudatory words about her contribution to the betterment of society and her concern for the poor, but not one word about her contribution to geology and paleontology. Thanks to the work of our honoree for 2000, Hugh Torrens, we now know how much she contributed to our science.

One need look no farther than Hugh's own family to see the inspiration for his exploration into the contributions of women, for with him all these years has been his wife. Shirley, who has made her own special contribution to the Red Cross of Great Britain. We very much appreciate her understanding and acceptance of the fact that many times he was preoccupied with other women, even though they had been dead for many years. Sometimes, no doubt, she must have found it hard to compete with ghosts.

But any one who knows Hugh knows the depth of his feelings for the history of science; a passion that shows itself in his conversation, especially if one happens to be standing on one of his subjects as I was one afternoon in 1993. We were literally standing on the Iron Bridge at Trentham (Torrens, 1982) as he described for me its own history and how its construction marked the turning point in the use of modem building materials. I should add that the bridge was still in use as we spoke. On another occasion we stood before an outcrop of coal and sandstone exposed along the Guyandotte River in West Virginia as Hugh read the description of that exact same outcrop written by James Buckman in 1858. What a thrill to know that we were seeing the same rocks almost 150 years later. I must admit we both were deeply moved by this experience, and I was privileged to share this moment with Hugh.

Mr. Chairman and members of the Division, ladies and gentleman, in recognition of his many contributions to the history of geology, it is with great personal honor and pride that I present to you, my friend and colleague, Professor Hugh Torrens, the winner of the History of Geology Division Award for the year 2000.

References Cited:

Torrens, Hugh S., 198 1, Mary Anning's ancestry: Devon and Cornwall Notes and Queries, v. 34, pg. 341.

Torrens, Hugh S., (B. Trinder), 1982, The Iron Bridge at Trentham: Industrial Archaeology Review, v. 6, p. 45-55.

Torrens, Hugh S., 1995, Presidential address. Mary Anning (1799-1847) of Lyme - the greatest fossilist the world ever knew: British Journal for the History of Science, v. 28, P. 257-284.

Torrens, Hugh S. (M. A. Taylor), 1997, Fossils by the sea and the sea monster of Dorset: Annual Editions: Geology, Dushkin/McGraw-Hill (In Press).

Torrens, Hugh S., (M. A. Taylor), 2000, Mary Anning bicentenary paper: Geology Today, (in Press).

        CLOSE              THE HISTORY OF GEOLOGY DIVISION Volume 25, Number 1, January 2001    

Hugh S. Torrens, History of Geology Division Award, Response

"I heard your glad tidings while listening to Elgar's rarely performed First World War cantata For the Fallen, on the BBC. I remembered his wife had been assistant to the geologist W. S. Symonds and how very vital wives are, particularly mine! Then I recalled Benjamin Britten's opinion of this music; tender, grieving, agonized, splendid. My presence at the first performance of Britten's War Requiem will remain, like today, never-to-be forgotten. Britten also owed much to Americans. One, in a 1941 Californian bookstore, sold him the book through which he rediscovered his roots; George Crabbe's Poems. These inspired his return to England (and Peter Grimes). Crabbe, too, had deep interests in geology. But why discuss music? Because music needs to be composed (or sometimes elaborated like Anthony Payne's reconstruction of Elgar's Third Symphony) and, like history, published. But music also must be performed. Rutland Boughton only heard his fine, still unpublished. Third Symphony (1937) once (privately!). Its only recording drew the comment "for a symphony as beautiful as this to be unknown, doesn't say much for promoters of music". We historians of geology might ponder how we better promote what we do.

Because there is a paradox, academic interest in the history of geology is minimal back home (as no sane person plays cricket in Reno?). The all-pervading bureaucracy in our universities demands only "Impact Factors" (to three decimal places!) and "Research Quality Assessment" of "Groups". 'One Person Groups' are as undesirable as attempts to be both scientist and historian, supposedly "diminishing" both. Those who try, become marginal, moving in more than one world, but not at home in, or of interest to, either. I hoped for better at my former University, set up in 1949 to encourage breadth in education, through its Joint Honors Degree programs (why aren't joint honors graduates equally diminished?) and - abandoned - Foundation Year. But that university demonstrated its indifference to the history of science by the secret sale of its precious Turner Collection of rare books in 1998 (Physics Today, April 1999, 64).

My greatest feeling is of gratitude, both for this award from friends, and the help I received to get here. To receive it in 2000 was a particular delight, as this year has slightly involved me in three fine new books; Simon Knell's Culture of English Geology, Cherry Lewis' Dating Game, and Debbie Cadbury's Dinosaur Hunters. We might see that these are now read, used and quoted (i.e. 'performed'). It is only through such scholarship that we can render justice to those who preceded us in studying our unique planet. Henry Ford was right about the importance of such history. But how we urge it, and its fascination, more, whether in the academy or on geologists (who should be the most historical of scientists), remain intractable problems. Peter Medawar was equally right to assert that "the history of science bores most scientists stiff". But here is another paradox. According to a 1995 Roper poll for the American 'History Channel', "the item of greatest interest to the public is the History of Science and Technology". What are we to make of these different perceptions?"

        CLOSE              THE HISTORY OF GEOLOGY DIVISION Volume 25, Number 1, January 2001