Charles Lyell was the oldest of 10 siblings, born November 14, 1797, at the family estate, Kinnordy, at Kirriemuir, in the county of Angus, Scotland. His mother's maiden name was Frances Smith, and his father, Charles senior, was a wealthy lawyer who enjoyed collecting rare plants. His family moved to Hampshire, England, when Charles was an infant. At the age of seven he was sent to the first of several English schools and graduated at the top of his class in June 1815. When he was 11 he suffered a bout of pleurisy, and while recovering he began insect collecting, using his father's books to identify the various species. Entomology (the study of insects) spawned a more general interest in the natural sciences that persisted throughout his life.
Lyell entered Exeter College, Oxford University in January 1816 to study Greek, Latin, and the writings of Aristotle. Having already read Robert Bakewell's Introduction to Geology (1813), he was anxious to attend the mineralogy and geology lectures given by William Buckland. The English geology professor was a neptunist, meaning he supported the theories of the German geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner, who proposed the then commonly accepted idea that all rocks on the Earth were formed from a vast, ancient ocean that completely covered the planet and shaped the structure of its surface with its swirling, turbulent waters. While at Oxford Lyell began making geological excursions, a practice that continued throughout his lifetime. In 1817 he studied the column-shaped formations of basalt on the island of Staffa, Scotland. German geologist Leopold von Buch had proposed that Fingal's Cave on Staffa was formed by erosion of a dike of soft lava, but Lyell observed that the basalt columns of the cave's roof had broken ends, demonstrating Buch's theory to be false. While traveling to France, Switzerland, and Italy with his family in 1818, Lyell witnessed the effect of glaciers in the Alps and recognized an age sequence in the succession of rock exposures he observed.
In 1819 Lyell became a fellow of both the Geological Society and the Linnean Society of London. In December of that year he received a bachelor of arts degree in the classics from Oxford University. At his father's request Lyell entered Lincoln's Inn to study law, but he continued to study geology. He was admitted to the bar in 1822, but poor eyesight caused his eyes to swell and hurt frequently and made legal reading difficult for him. The Geological Society elected him joint secretary in 1823 and thus demonstrated that he was accepted as a geologist by his peers.
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