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A Geological Near-Miss

The hypothesis that the present distribution of the continents is due to the breaking up and drifting apart of the fragments of a single continent was first put forward in 1912. However, largely because of the First World War and the extreme antipathy to German science and scientists that followed it, the hypothesis remained not only unaccepted but almost unknown for many years in the former allied countries such as Britain and America. I first heard of it in 1923 from an American physicist at O

By | March 9, 1987

The hypothesis that the present distribution of the continents is due to the breaking up and drifting apart of the fragments of a single continent was first put forward in 1912. However, largely because of the First World War and the extreme antipathy to German science and scientists that followed it, the hypothesis remained not only unaccepted but almost unknown for many years in the former allied countries such as Britain and America. I first heard of it in 1923 from an American physicist at Oxford, M.W. Garrett, who had just returned from a visit to Germany, though I do not know whether it was there that he had heard of it.

I at once became convinced of its validity. I considered that the near congruence of the coasts of Africa and South America could not be due to chance but could be explained only by the breakup of a former single continent, despite the lack of any acceptable geophysical theory to account for the relative movement. One of the few of the world's leading geologists to accept the theory then was the eminent and able, if eccentric, E.B. Bailey, who published a number of papers in support of it, stressing in particular the continuity across the present Atlantic Ocean of a number of structures in northwestern Europe and eastern North America.

In 1931, at the height of an economic recession, and after two years as probationer geologist on the Geological Survey of Great Britain, I was told by the director, Sir John Flett, that my services were no longer required. I was in fact persuaded to resign, but I now wonder whether, had I refused to do so, it would have proved possible to dismiss me. Sir John was a strict disciplinarian with an obsession for square miles surveyed, and it appears that lack of square miles was the main cause of dissatisfaction with my work. Its quality was not in question and WB. Wright, my immediate supervisor, told me afterwards that if my final report on my own results had been presented sooner he would have recommended my retention. All my work was, many years later, published as part of official maps and a memoir on the geology of the Preston (Lancashire) area.

Wright and I shared a dislike for and fear of Flett. Both of us liked and admired Bailey, who was working for the Survey in the Highlands of Scotland. Bailey and Flett, who were brothers-in-law, heartily disliked each other, but Bailey was afraid of no one. Shortly before my resignation, Bailey had resigned from the Survey in a blaze of publicity in the scientific world to become professor of geology at Glasgow University. A few years later, after Flett's retirement and the premature death of Bernard Smith, his immediate successor, Bailey returned by invitation to become director of the Survey!

My main geological competence was in petrology and mineralogy, but while on the Survey I had become adept in geological mapping and had learned much of the paleontology of the Coal Measures I was surveying, especially of marine goniatites and some estuarine lamellibranchs, all then recently introduced as valuable markers for important coal seams. Wright was one of the pioneers in work on these fossils, and had he not died prematurely be would probably, like the other pioneer goniatite specialist, WS. Bisat, have become a Fellow of the Royal Society.

By the end of 1931 I had completed my thesis and obtained the Oxford degree of Doctor of Philosophy in geology. Therefore, early in 1932, I applied for a Commonwealth Fellowship to work on the paleontology of the Pennsylvanian (or Upper Carboniferous) deposits of the eastern United States, and to compare the fossils with those of Europe, and especially those I had studied in Lancashire, with the express intention of seeking evidence for continental drift. I stressed that identity of marine species would be important evidence of drift, but that identity of estuarine species on the two sides of the Atlantic would be even stronger, since it was unlikely that these organisms could traverse a major ocean.

I proposed also to make comparisons between the igneous rocks of the Channel Islands (the subject of my doctorate thesis) and those of the eastern United States. In my application I stated:

"Both these researches have special reference to the hypothesis of Wegener, according to which Europe and North America have separated and drifted apart."

Although I had been warned that the theory of continental drift was not popular with American geologists, I persisted with my plans, and obtained the cordial agreement of Dr. Carl 0. Dunbar of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University, a specialist in Pennsylvanian paleontology, that I might work in his department.

I failed to obtain the Fellowship but maintained contact with Dunbar in the hope of obtaining financial support from other sources. In the end all hopes of continuing in geological research faded away and I finally qualified as a medical doctor and embarked on a successful career in medical research.

However, I retained a close interest in geology and was delighted many years later to see most of the previous strong opponents of the drift hypothesis accepting it, and the early supporters receiving due honor. I particularly remember a crowded and somewhat emotional meeting of the Geological Society of London about 1960, with something of the atmosphere of an evangelical revival meeting, at which the former outspoken opponent, O.T. Jones, then professor at Cambridge, professed conversion.

I also maintained contact with British workers on Coal Measure paleontology, and in particular with R.M.C. Eagar, who for many years has worked on the fossils of the very area I investigated while on the Survey. He studied both marine and estuarine fossils and became a leading authority on the latter.

Then, in comparatively recent years, he began to study the fossils of the eastern American Coal Measures, and has now found in them many of the very species of both marine and estuarine organisms that are present in Lancashire beds.

While Eagar's competence in paleontology is infinitely greater than mine ever was, I like to think that, if I had been allowed to go to America in 1932, I might at a critical time have produced convincing evidence in support of the then-unpopular hypothesis of continental drift.

After leaving the field of geology, Arthur E. Mourant became a pioneer in the application of
blood groups to anthropology and diseases. A Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians,
the Royal College of Pathologists and the Royal Society, Mourant is a former director of the
Medical Research Council's Serological Population Genetic Laboratory.

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