James Croll was employed as a janitor in Anderson’s University, George Street, Glasgow, from 1859 until 1867; during those eight years he lived in accommodation on the university premises. As well as janitorial duties in the building, he was responsible for the Andersonian Museum; of his museum duties he later revealed that “The museum was open from 11am till 3pm and as I had little or nothing to do with the arranging and classification of the specimens, and there were but few visitors, I had generally a few hours a day of a quiet time for reading or study.” (page 91 of the Autobiographical Sketch of James Croll with Memoir of His Life and Work by James Campbell Irons). As a result of this “quiet time” he was able to avail himself of the library which was housed in Anderson’s University; it was an extensive library, containing several thousand volumes, over two thousand of which were works concerned with various branches of science and mathematics.

James Croll arrived in Glasgow around the time when the Geological Society of Glasgow (founded in 1858) was becoming established. The society met in a variety of venues in its early years; however, permanent accommodation was acquired in May, 1863. A meeting room, and also space for the society to establish its own library and museum, were provided within Anderson’s University. It is therefore probable that James Croll became involved with the society at that time.

It is suggested in Chapter 7 of the memoir by J. Campbell Irons that it was the publication by the Geological Society of Glasgow in 1863 of Archibald Geikie’s ground-breaking paper “On the Phenomena of the Glacial Drift of Scotland” which turned James Croll’s mind to the study of the Earth’s climate through time; this led in 1864 to the publication in the Philosophical Magazine of his paper “On the Physical cause of the Change of Climate during Geological Epochs”. The friendship which developed between Archibald Geikie and James Croll as a result of this common interest eventually led to Archibald Geikie being able to persuade James Croll to accept the position of secretary in the office of the Geological Survey of Scotland in Edinburgh. Furthermore, as J. Campbell Irons states, “The publication of this paper attracted very considerable attention among scientific men”, and he goes on to cite examples of some of the resulting correspondence between James Croll and Sir Andrew Ramsay, Sir Charles Lyell, and Sir John Herschel.

However, it is not until 1866 that James Croll’s name appears in the Transactions of the Geological Society of Glasgow. His lifelong reluctance to attend meetings or to take up membership of societies may have been due to a combination of natural diffidence, financial constraints, and frequent ill-health. How often he attended meetings of the Geological Society of Glasgow cannot be ascertained. In the Proceedings, the following entry appears in the minutes of the meeting which took place on 22nd March, 1866:

The Secretary read a communication from Mr. James Croll “On the reason why the Change of Climate in Canada since the Glacial Epoch has been less complete than in Scotland.”

Although James Croll did not himself read the paper to the meeting, it is perhaps significant that the paper (published in the Transactions, volume 2, pages 138-141, and also available on this website) begins with the following sentence:

At a former meeting [1st February, 1866] an interesting paper was read by the Rev. Mr. Crosskey, on the “Relationship between the fossils of the Glacial beds of Canada and those of the Clyde.”

He goes on to refer further to Mr. Crosskey’s paper, and to develop ideas from it. This strongly suggests that he was in fact present at the February meeting.

Furthermore, we may perhaps conclude from the wording of the minutes of a meeting held on 18th April, 1867 (Transactions, volume 2, page 301) that on that occasion he did indeed deliver a presentation to the society in person:

On the change in the Obliquity of the Ecliptic; its influence on the Climate of the Polar Regions and Level of the Sea. By Mr. James Croll. [Transactions, volume 2, pages 177-198] The reading of this long and valuable communication was followed by some observations by the President [Professor John Young] and the Rev. H. W. Crosskey.

[ . . . ]

Before declaring the session closed, the President congratulated the Society on the number of important papers which had been read during the winter, and on the wide range of subjects which had engaged the attention of members. [ . . . ] The only purely theoretical paper of the session, that by Mr. Croll, “On the influence of the Obliquity of the Ecliptic”, had been read this evening. Discussion on such an admirable and exhaustive memoir is impossible; but the Society may well be proud that such a memoir will be found in its publications.

Although it is not possible to ascertain whether James Croll was a regular attender at meetings of the society, it is nevertheless certain that he was in close contact with several prominent members of the society, and indeed formed close working friendships with them. One such was James Bennie, a fossil collector, who was eventually employed by the Geological Survey of Scotland. (The Biographical Notice concerning James Bennie is to be found in the History of the Geological Society of Glasgow, 1858-1908, pages 207-208.) The memoir of James Croll by J. Campbell Irons includes (on pages 154 to 164) accounts by James Bennie of fieldwork which he undertook along with James Croll, and which resulted in the paper presented to the society on 2nd April, 1868, “On the Surface Geology of the district round Glasgow, as indicated by the Journals of certain Bores.” (Transactions, volume 3, pages 133-148) The first sentence of the paper states:

In the course of last summer Mr. Croll, having directed his attention to the probable depth of the surface deposits in the neighbourhood of Glasgow, considered that, by means of the sections obtained by boring for minerals or other purposes, we might not only ascertain with certainty the actual thickness of the deposits, but that, by a comparison of the different depths in different places, the form of the rocky surface beneath might be made out to such a degree that a restoration of the geography of the land in the glacial epoch might be attempted, and the channels in which the ice moved be more than guessed at.

In the paper, James Bennie continues to give Mr. Croll due credit for instigating the research, and for playing a significant part, along with himself and John Young, in the investigations that led to the conclusions detailed in the paper that was presented to the society exactly seven months after James Croll had taken up his duties in the office of the Geological Survey of Scotland in Edinburgh, and when therefore his part in the inquiry was necessarily interrupted because, as James Bennie states, “his attention was directed to other things”.

The memoir by J. Campbell Irons also includes (on pages 175 to 199) a significant number of letters that passed between James Croll and James Bennie after the move to Edinburgh. In those letters, the warm friendship that existed between the two men is abundantly apparent. It is also apparent that James Croll continued his interest in the Geological Society of Glasgow: in his letter of 2nd December, 1867, he thanks James Bennie for information about “Mr. Geikie’s lecture [which] appears to be a very interesting one.” The lecture referred to was given on 28th November, 1867 by James Geikie, and was indeed on a subject of great interest to James Croll: “Denudation in Scotland since Glacial Times” (Transactions, volume 3, pages 54-74). Moreover, in more than one letter, he mentions the names of various friends in Glasgow, including members of the Geological Society of Glasgow, usually in relation to geology matters, but sometimes simply enquiring after his “good friends in Glasgow” or asking to be remembered to “old friends”.

It is testament to the high regard in which he was held that the society awarded him the status of Honorary Associate. The minutes of the meeting held on 7th February, 1867 (two months prior to the 18th April meeting detailed above) record that “James Croll, Anderson’s University, was elected an honorary associate”.

(The category of Honorary Associate was defined thus in the “rules” which had been agreed on 12th August, 1858: “Persons distinguished as geologists, or known as friends and advocates of geological science, shall be eligible for admission as Honorary Associates, upon a recommendation by two members, and election by a majority of the members present at meetings when they are proposed. They shall enjoy all the privileges of members, but shall not be required to pay any subscription.”)

It was on 2nd September, 1867 that James Croll moved to Edinburgh to take up the position of secretary in the newly established Geological Survey of Scotland, which, following a reorganisation of the Geological Survey of the United Kingdom (Great Britain & Ireland), had been set up as a separate branch under the directorship of Archibald Geikie.

However, references in the Proceedings to James Croll did not cease with his move to Edinburgh. It is evident that he continued to communicate directly with the society: for example, on 9th April, 1870 a letter from James Croll was read to the meeting by James Geikie; the letter related to the differing views between himself and certain members of the society, notably Mr. John Young, on the subject of the ancient bed of the river Kelvin and, specifically, the resulting course of the ancient River Clyde, a subject on which he had published a paper in the Proceedings of the Edinburgh Geological Society a short time prior to the discussion (including some gentlemanly disagreement) which arose from it. (Transactions, volume 4, pages 77-84)

It is also recorded in the Proceedings that he made several donations of his publications to the society’s library: for example, in Session 8 (1865-1866) he presented a copy of “On the Excentricity of the Earth’s Orbit” (published in Philosophical Magazine in 1866); and in Session 18 (1875-1876) he donated a copy of “On Theories of Oceanic Circulation” (a collection of his papers published in Philosophical Magazine between 1870 and 1875).

James Croll died in December, 1890. The minutes of the meeting held on 16th January, 1891 (Transactions, volume 9, page 417) contain the following summary of the tribute that was paid to him:

Mr. Joseph Sommerville [a Vice-President] called attention to the death of a distinguished Honorary Associate of the Society, Mr. James Croll, L.L.D., and paid a feeling tribute to the memory of the deceased gentleman. The Chairman [Mr. William Jolly, F.G.S., another Vice-President] said the members of the Society owed it as a duty to themselves, and to the memory of the deceased member, to adopt such a motion as that shadowed forth by Mr. Sommerville. Dr. Croll had done much special and original work which was not yet fully recognised and acknowledged as it ought to be by the world of science. Mr. John Young, F.G.S., corroborated the chairman’s remarks and spoke of Dr. Croll’s early association with Glasgow, and his first connection with the Society. The chairman then moved, and Dugald Bell seconded, a motion that an expression of deep regret at the decease of Dr. Croll should be recorded in the Society’s minutes, from which an extract should be forwarded to Mrs. Croll.

It is unfortunate that only this summary of the tribute exists, and that the details of John Young’s memories and insights concerning “Dr. Croll’s early association with Glasgow, and his first connection with the Society” were not recorded. But it is gratifying to know that, for a few years at least, the Geological Society of Glasgow played a role of some significance in the life of this remarkable man.

Margaret Anderson