The "Father of English Geology" led a turbulent life that included bankruptcy and debtors’ prison before he was finally recognized and celebrated for creating the world’s first geological map 200 years ago this summer.
Best-selling British author and trained geologist Simon Winchester told his story to an enthralled audience at the All-Convention Luncheon during AAPG’s 2015 Annual Convention and Exhibition (ACE) in Denver last month, as well as the story of how he came to be so thoroughly familiar with the details of his life through the course of researching and writing his 2001 book, "The Map That Changed the World."
The Fall and Rise of William Smith
Creating the first geological map was an obsession for William Smith, the orphaned son of a British country blacksmith.
It took him 20 years of traveling through England studying rock outcrops and fossils to complete the map that was published Aug. 1, 1815.
It would still be a long time, however, before Smith finally got his due for his extraordinary achievement, which laid the foundation for the field of geology today.
"When he was preparing his map, geology was the exclusive domain of the British upper classes – wealthy men who collected fossils, like collecting paintings," Winchester said.
"Smith came from humble beginnings. When the map was first published, he didn’t do well," he added.
The aristocracy snubbed Smith and plagiarized his map, which led to his eventual bankruptcy and incarceration in debtors’ prison.
"Because of the appalling snobs at the Geological Society of London, Smith wasn’t allowed in. They ruined him," said Winchester.
Meanwhile, Smith’s personal life crumbled as a result: his wife went mad and, among other misfortunes, she became a nymphomaniac.
After his release from prison, Smith went to work as a surveyor where he developed some expertise in drainage, but he was "weary and depressed and dejected," Winchester said.
Years later, he committed to do a map of an estate for Sir John Johnstone along the Yorkshire coast. Johnstone noticed the resemblance in style between the estate map Smith created for him and the renowned geological map of England and Wales, which led to his recognition of Smith for the extraordinary mapmaker he was.
"Johnstone said he’d go to London and shame the Geological Society. So, overnight, Smith’s reputation was revived," Winchester said.
Winchester’s interest in Smith and his contribution to geology stemmed from his own background in the field.
He studied geology at Oxford in the 1960s, then worked as a field geologist in Uganda for a Canadian mining company after leaving school. Later he became a journalist and wrote for newspapers and authored books.
He wrote the bestseller "The Professor and the Madman," which tells the story of Dr. William C. Minor, who submitted more than 10,000 entries to the Oxford English Dictionary while incarcerated in an institution for the criminally insane in England.
"It wasn’t until 1998 that I happened on William C. Minor and his involvement with the making of the Oxford English Dictionary," Winchester said.
Not expecting it to be a great success, his publisher initially printed only 10,000 copies of the book. However, it went on to become a New York Times best seller and is still in print in hardback and paperback today.
That unexpected success "completely changed my life," Winchester said.
As a part of that change, Winchester lectures widely at universities, geological and historical societies today.
Following the success of "The Professor and the Madman," Winchester pondered what he should write next. He conferred with his editor who, after analyzing the selling points of his initial work, determined that the next book needed the same ingredients: an obscure historical figure who made significant contributions to the world, a turbulent life and, perhaps, some physical mutilation.
"He asked me, ‘Do you know anyone else like that?’" Winchester related.
Contemplating those parameters, Winchester recalled a former Oxford professor who had mentioned William Smith to his students.
"I just had a vague sort of sense of tragedy about him, and (recalled) that he was the creator of the first geological map," he said.
"His map was plagiarized. He was bankrupted and went to debtors’ prison. His wife went mad and she became a nymphomaniac. And I thought, ‘Bingo,’" Winchester said.
He called his former Oxford professor who agreed to supply him with many background files about Smith.
Winchester’s research took him to Bath and Bristol in the U.K. where Smith did much of his work. He discovered that Smith grew fascinated by looking at fossils at the dairy farm where he lived as a child, which led to his obsession with geology.
A Book That Changed The World
When the book "The Map that Changed the World" came out in 2001, Winchester heard from his Oxford professor.
"He told me, that if you had submitted this as your thesis in 1966, I would have given you a better degree than I did," he said.
In England, one of Johnstone’s heirs read "The Map that Changed the World" and realized there was a copy of that very map at the estate.
The Rotunda, a building in which Smith had worked during his service to Johnstone, was in disrepair and the heir wanted to turn it into a museum honoring the mapmaker.
Today, it is the home of the William Smith Museum of Geology.
"Rarely does a book lead to the opening of a museum," Winchester noted.
Britain’s Prince Charles officially opened the museum a few years ago and Winchester was in attendance for the event.
Smith’s geological map is still hanging at Burlington House, the home of the London Geological Society.
"After the book came out, a lot of people, particularly Americans, came to see the map," Winchester said.
It had been hanging in a stairwell that was difficult to access. Burlington House has since been renovated and the map is on public view.
"That is actually map copy number 19," Winchester said. Overall, there are 43 copies of the map made by Smith.
"When I was in Canberra, Australia, a few years ago I was invited to see copy number 5 at the university there," he said.
That map is particularly vivid, he said.
"It has the most beautiful colors I’ve seen."