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Geologist Biography

Alexander Murray was born in June of 1810 at Crieff Scotland to well-to-do parents. He did not adjust well to school and was soon involved in every kind of mischief from rock fights to using vulgar language. His propensity for rocks and swearing never left him.

His boyhood desire was to be a sailor, and in 1824 he enrolled at the Royal Naval College, Portsmouth.

He served as midshipman in the Navy and was wounded at the battle of Navarino in 1827. Britain was largely at peace during subsequent years and as promotion in the navy became severely limited, Murray asked for and was granted discharge.

He set sail for Upper Canada where in 1836 he and his young wife attempted a life as pioneer farmers. The Rebellion of 1837 and an economic depression shattered the young couple’s hopes and the Murrays with their infant daughter and son returned to England. However, this was not to be Alexander Murray’s last contact with the Canadian wilderness!

Through the intercession of their respective brothers, Murray was introduced to William Logan in 1841 and before his appointment to the directorship of the newly created Canadian geological survey (April 1842), he agreed to hire Murray, on the condition that he learned sufficient geology to be able to carry out independent mapping.

Murray commenced his new found career by studying Charles Lyell’s Elements of geology (London, 1838) but soon confessed to Logan in dismay that some of the nouns in the Chronological series rather alarm me and although I can now form some idea of the Theory of the science, I am still quite ignorant of the manner in which it is turned into practice. This has been a challenge for students of geology ever since!

He took up surveying and also received instruction and practical experience in geological field mapping from Logan and Henry Thomas de la Beche (head of the British survey) in Wales.

In early spring 1843 Murray was deputized assistant provincial geologist of the Canadian survey and Logan and he commenced the survey in Canada that summer. Apart from some joint work in the Gaspé and other parts of Lower Canada, Murray largely worked independently, and while with the GSC, spent most of his field seasons in Upper Canada (Ontario) working on metamorphosed Precambrian terrains.

It was his work in 1847 that resulted in the establishment of the classical Huronian System, and he was responsible for the identification of several economic deposits, including the first report of mineralization in the Sudbury area.

Following the publication in 1863 of the results of the Canadian geological survey, it became extremely uncertain as to whether the GSC would continue to be funded. As a consequence, and following the death of his wife, Murray accepted to take on the position of first director of the Newfoundland Geological Survey.

In the summer of 1866 while mapping near Cape St George he either broke a fibula or separated an Achilles tendon, but instead of seeking medical attention remained in the field and completed the mapping program he had set for himself. Although he was crippled for life as a result of the injury he continued to carry out field-work until 1880.

With the assistance of Thomas Howley, nearly the entirety of the Newfoundland coast and interior river systems were mapped – an incredible physical and scientific achievement. Murray resigned from the survey in 1883 due to ill health and died the following year in Crieff, Scotland.
In Canada, Murray was so overshadowed by Logan that his accomplishment of mapping the geology of Canada West almost single-handedly has never been given the recognition it deserves. In 1864 when Murray first arrived in Newfoundland it was almost terra incognita except for the coast.

Within 20 years, his survey led to the opening of the interior by showing that mineral, timber, and agricultural resources were present. The Alexander Murray Club for geology students at Memorial University of Newfoundland geology students honours his name and contribution

Geological Fieldwork:

Petawahwah Gorges map thumbnail

click on map to see Murray’s geological fieldwork

Geoscience Field Area → Precambrian, Algonkuin Park, Ontario