The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology
by Simon Winchester
HarperCollins, 329 pp., $26.00
Large committees of the world’s finest zoologists have collaborated to write the great compendia of life’s taxonomic order, phylum by phylum in volume upon volume—as in the Cambridge Natural History of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, or the French Traité de Zoologie of the mid-twentieth century. The American zoologist Libbie Henrietta Hyman (1888–1969), working alone, produced her six-volume work The Invertebrates by reading every primary text in its original language and preparing the drawings herself. She achieved as much (or more) than any of these committees in nearly thirty years between her first volume, on Protozoa, and her last, on Pulmonata (land snails), before Parkinson’s disease and the accumulated infirmities of old age forced her utterly ungentle passage—for I have never known a tougher or more passionately committed person—into that good night.
Hyman’s final entry, the initial volume of a long-projected series on mollusks, includes, in its preface, the most heroic understatement that I have ever read: Hyman says that she hopes to finish the several volumes on mollusks, but now realizes that she will probably not reach the last invertebrate group of her sequence, the ar-thropods. (To explain the poignancy, and the consciously sardonic character, of this remark, the arthropods, including insects, comprise more than 80 percent of all named animal species.) No single person, no monstrous consortium, can encompass nature’s unbounded richness. But Libbie Henrietta Hyman stayed her self-appointed course with indomitable valor and maximal effectiveness.
In 1815, the self-trained engineer William Smith, who dug canals and drained swamps for his day job, published a geological map of complex and novel design, remarkable accuracy, and uncommon beauty (not to mention its ample size of eight by six feet)—the first ever completed for an entire nation, as Smith included nearly all of England and Wales, with a bit of southern Scotland thrown in. His maps showed Britain’s geological strata—chronologically ordered layers of rock that he identified by the fossils peculiar to each interval of time. Smith based his “map that changed the world,” as Simon Winchester designates the project and outcome, on his own principles of construction, and almost entirely upon his personal fieldwork and observations—all done by stagecoach and shank’s mare at a time just before the development of railroads. Moreover, although Smith attracted significant patronage from high levels of Britain’s social and intellectual hierarchy, he came from “rude” stock of rural heritage (his father was a blacksmith)—an almost, but obviously not absolutely, insurmountable obstacle in a nation with social stratification even more inflexible than the lithological layering of its geologic stratigraphy.
Hyman and Smith both attained a legitimately heroic status, personally triumphing over an immense double handicap—not only doing the work of several lifetimes, in several fields of expertise, practically all by themselves, but also performing their singular labors in the face of deep prejudice. For Hyman struggled as a woman in the strongly misogynist culture of early- …