Seeley, Harry Govier 1839 - 1909

English; British

(1839-1909), geologist and palaeontologist

Harry Govier Seeley was born on 18 February 1839 in London. At the age of two, Seeley was sent to live with pianoforte makers after his father ‘ruined himself with scientific experiments’ and was declared bankrupt. In 1855 his uncle John Seeley paid to have him trained for the bar, but he abandoned legal studies, planning instead to become an actuary. He studied English and mathematics in the late 1850s at the Working Men's College and became secretary to the college's museum. Seeley supported himself by copying documents in the library of the British Museum, where Samuel Pickworth Woodward encouraged him to study geology.

In 1859 Seeley entered Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and was soon hired by Adam Sedgwick as an assistant in the Woodwardian Museum. Seeley lectured, catalogued fossils and began field studies on the geology of the Cambridge Greensand.

Despite a mental breakdown in the mid-1860s, in Cambridge, Seeley published important papers and two catalogues of pterodactyl fossils. His work was profoundly anti-evolutionary, combative and controversial throughout his life. Three papers from 1866 to 1882 revived the widely dismissed theory of the vertebral origin of the skull and limbs. His division of dinosaurs into ‘bird-hipped’ and ‘lizard-hipped’ forms became the basis for most later classifications. Seeley's work on fossil reptiles culminated in a ten-part series in the Philosophical Transactions from 1888 to 1896.

In 1872 Seeley married Eleanora Jane and moved to London, where he earned an income from literary work, private tuition and lecturing; Eleanora assisted him, becoming a skilled cataloguer and natural-history artist. They raised four daughters, the eldest of whom, Maud, married Arthur Smith Woodward of the British Museum in 1894. In 1876 Seeley was appointed professor of geography and geology in Queen's College, London, becoming dean five years later. He also became professor of geography and lecturer on geology at King's College, and in 1896 he succeeded to the chair of geology and mineralogy.

Seeley advocated the expansion of opportunities in higher education, especially for women. He contributed regularly to the Educational Times and published several popular books, including Story of the Earth in Past Ages (1895) and Dragons of the Air (1901). Seeley died at his home at 3 Holland Park Court in Kensington on 8 January 1909.