School of Earth and Environment

Prof A H Green (1832–1896)

Portrait of Green in the BGS's archive
Alexander Henry Green FRS

Alexander Henry Green was the first Professor of Geology at what was then the Yorkshire College of Science in Leeds, and effectively the first head of department, when he joined in 1875. Two years later, he also became Professor of Mathematics, again in charge of the discipline, and held these two posts simultaneously for 13 years.

Green’s training was initially as an undergraduate mathematician at Cambridge (where he finished as Fifth Wrangler in his year), before working for the Geological Survey of Great Britain from 1861 until he moved to Leeds. He directed the mapping of the Yorkshire coalfields—published as an 800-page memoir of the survey—and his expertise in this area helped his appointment to the new College. (In fact, his notebooks were used in the investigation of the Lofthouse Colliery disaster in 1974, which showed that consulting them sooner would have prevented it.) Here, he established the research and teaching department that we now work in, and from the start seems to have taken a particularly physical approach to geology. Indeed, in his popular textbook Physical Geology was highly regarded for its quantitative approach and treatment of both small-scale geological problems and whole-Earth questions. Its third edition was published in 1882 whilst he was still at Leeds, and reading it now one is struck by his inclusion of a large amount of ‘speculative work’—by which he means cutting edge research which as yet lacks ‘any conclusions whatsoever’.

Green moved to Oxford in 1888, by which time the College had become part of Victoria University. He had been elected Fellow of the Royal Society whilst still at Leeds two years before, and left behind him departments of geology and mining—and mathematics—that subsequently went from strength to strength. He died from influenza in 1896 at just 64.

It seems Green, with his mathematical approach and ability to bring together a wide range of ideas to tackle problems of what we now call tectonics and geophysics, laid the basic foundation for the present Institute of Geophysics and Tectonics at the University of Leeds, and indeed the whole School of Earth and Environment, to be what it is today. As he himself says in Physical Geology:

[W]hile it has become almost an absolute necessity for most Geologists to concentrate their attention on some one department of the Science and be content with a less perfect grasp of the rest, there is yet a certain basis or groundwork, with which every one who meddles with Geology, whatever be the branch to which he specially devotes himself, must be acquainted if his work is to be sound.

Further reading