Arthur Holmes Papers

Scope and Content

The collection comprises some original diaries, lectures notes and photographs of Arthur Holmes, but is in the main copies of material, principally his correspondence, but also documents relating to the various phases of his career in academiaand the oil industry, and also material concerning his second wife Doris Reynolds and her academic career. Most of it was garnered from various archives worldwide by Cherry Lewis in the course of producing her book The Dating Game – one man's search for the age of the Earth (2000), about Holmes's pioneering work on dating the age of the Earth, being essentially a biography of his life. She also organised the material into filesby correspondent and/or subject. She received some of the material subsequent to the appearance of the book, and there is also a little material about her own subsequent work on Holmes.

Administrative / Biographical History

Arthur Holmes, geologist and geophysicist, was born on 14 January 1890 at 62 Glen Terrace, Hebburn, Newcastle upon Tyne, the only child of David Holmes (1865–1941), hardware shop assistant, and Emily Dickinson (1869–1952?), schoolteacher, bothfrom Newcastle. Educated at Gateshead higher grade school, he was introduced to geology and the age of the earth controversy between Lord Kelvin and the geologists by his inspirational physics teacher, James McIntosh. In 1907 he gained a scholarshipto study physics at the Royal College of Science (Imperial College), London, where he became interested in the newly emerging science of radioactivity and its application to dating minerals. He graduated BSc in physics in 1909, but with a growinginterest in geological problems, and believing that job opportunities were greater for geologists than physicists, he transferred to geology and gained associateship of the Royal College of Science in 1910. Notwithstanding the transfer, he remainedunder the guidance of Robert J. Strutt, professor of physics, researching the measurement of geological time. Results of this early work were read to the Royal Society when Holmes was only twenty-one.

Early Research and The Age of the Earth
Throughout his early life Holmes struggled against financial hardship and frequently sought alternative means to support himself and his research. Thus in 1911 when offered ashort contract with Memba Minerals prospecting in Mozambique he accepted with alacrity, having recently suffered the ignominy of being unable to take up a nomination to the Geological Society because he could not afford the £5 membership fee: ‘Moneywill be the necessity. Influence I have in plenty for these Societies’ (Holmes, diary, 1911). The expedition to Mozambique formed the foundation stone for his three lifelong research interests: the radiometric dating of rocks and the age of theearth; the petrology of igneous rocks with particular reference to Africa, the Pre-Cambrian and Tertiary alkaline volcanics; and the evolution of the earth. In Mozambique he conceived his vision of building a geological time-scale based onradioactive ages determined on common rocks of a known stratigraphic age. He also contracted blackwater fever, a severe and often fatal form of malaria; fortunately he recovered, despite a report of his death being telegraphed to England, althoughdebilitating attacks recurred throughout his life.

In 1912, as an assistant demonstrator at Imperial College, Holmes wrote the first of three editions of his celebrated booklet The Age of the Earth (1913, 1927, 1937). Greatly influenced by the work of the American geologist Thomas Chamberlin and his ‘planetesimal hypothesis’ for the formation of the earth, Holmes then examined the radiumcontent of meteorites believing that they were representative of a primeval earth—‘meteorites allow us to read at our leisure many of the secrets which are otherwise locked up in the Earth's interior’ (A. Holmes, ‘The terrestrial distribution ofradium’, Science Progress, 9, 1914, 33). This work became the basis for his later ideas on crustal differentiation and continental drift.

Following the discovery of isotopes in 1913 Holmes pursued increasingly accurate uranium-lead age measurements with his school friend Robert Lawson, then at the Vienna Institute of Radium. Unfortunately the time-consuming atomic weightdeterminations demanded by the chemical-lead method severely hampered progress of the technique, leading Holmes eventually to abandon it and search for an easier method. In 1926 Holmes and Lawson recognized the possibility of using the decay schemeof potassium to calcium, and in 1932 Holmes published a seminal paper ‘The origin of igneous rocks’ ( Geological Magazine, 69, 1932, 543–8) in which he demonstrated the significance of initial isotope ratios when investigating the source of igneous melts. However, because the work erroneously assumed the decay schemeto be 41K/41Ca, the importance of initial ratios was overlooked for thirty years.

During the early 1940s refinement of the mass spectrometer by Alfred Nier at the University of Minnesota led Holmes to renew his interest in a geological time-scale, and by 1947 he had pushed back the age of the earth, which for decades hadremained at 2000 million years, to 3350 million years. This estimate was based on Nier's terrestrial lead ratios, then considered to represent a primeval earth, but in 1953 Clair C. Patterson (1922–1995) showed that in fact meteorites were morerepresentative of the primeval earth, as Holmes had suggested forty years earlier, and the age of both the meteorites and the earth was finalized at 4550 million years.

Holmes married Margaret (Maggie) Howe (1885–1938) on 14 July 1914, three weeks before the outbreak of the First World War, and his son Norman was born in 1918. Holmes escaped active service because of poor health and was seconded to navalintelligence. After the war, despite his growing reputation, prolific publications, two influential books ( Nomenclature of Petrology, 1920, and Petrographic Methods and Calculations, 1921), and having obtained his doctorate in 1917, by 1920 Holmes was still only a demonstrator at ImperialCollege on £200 a year. An unambitious man who lived only for his research, financial necessity finally compelled him to accept a post in Burma as chief geologist to the Yomah Oil Company (1920) Ltd. In 1921 he was made up-country manager, but by1922 Yomah Oil was in severe financial difficulties, with Holmes having to sell his own shares to meet immediate needs. In a desperate bid to save the company by finding new oil, he stayed on when others resigned, a decision he always regretted. Sixweeks before leaving for England three-year-old Norman caught dysentery and died. Holmes and his wife returned to Gateshead childless and penniless. Nine months of unemployment followed, during which time Holmes gave piano recitals and, it isrumoured, sold vacuum cleaners. Eventually he opened a shop in the centre of Newcastle with his wife's cousin. She traded in furs and he in Far Eastern crafts, but the business was short lived.

Geology at Durham and continental drift
In 1924 science was reborn at Durham University. Four new departments were created and seven new appointments made. One of eighteen applicants, Holmes was offered thereadership in geology, becoming the head of a one-man department. With his fortunes thus revived, and enhanced by the birth of his son Geoffrey in February that year, this period saw an invigorated renewal of his research activities. An immediatesupporter of the continental drift theory originally proposed by Wegener in 1912, Holmes saw at once that it explained why identical palaeoflora, palaeofauna, and rock formations occurred on either side of the Atlantic, doing away with the absurdnotion of a 5000 mile land bridge linking Brazil and west Africa. But opposition to continental drift from establishment geology was hard to overcome. In Britain a particularly vocal opponent was the eminent mathematician and physicist, HaroldJeffreys, who argued that it was ‘out of the question’ (H. Jeffreys, The Earth, 2nd edn, 1929, 305) as no force was adequate to move continental slabs over the surface of the globe. However, Holmes's profoundunderstanding of radioactivity—the amount of heat it generated and the enormous time it bestowed on geology for infinitely slow processes—coupled with his work on crustal differentiation, placed him in a unique position to formulate a mechanism forcontinental drift. In December 1927 he read a ground-breaking paper to the Edinburgh Geological Society, ‘Radioactivity and geology’, which proposed that differential heating of the earth's interior, generated by the decay of radioactive elements,caused convection of the mantle (substratum as he called it), which could produce a force sufficient to drag continents sideways, allowing the substratum to rise up and take its place in the ocean floor.

In the United States opposition was even greater than in Britain, and leading geologists were exasperated by such ideas: ‘Holmes brings out a new thought which is even more impossible than Wegener's. That is that the submerged ridge through theAtlantic Ocean is the place at which North and South America separated from Europe and Africa’ (Bowie to Schuchert, 11 Oct 1928, Yale Archive, Schuchert MSS 435, box 38, book 1). Nevertheless, in 1932 Holmes was invited to the United States byReginald Daly to give the Lowell lectures on geology and radioactivity. Daly expressed the opinion that ‘Holmes was one of the few English geologists with ideas on the grand scale’ (Dunham, 293). It was not until 1965, the year of Holmes's death,that his ideas on convection currents in the mantle were shown to be fundamentally correct, and it was even longer before he was given credit for them.

The hallmark of Holmes's lectures and writing was clarity and simplicity, coupled with an enthusiasm for his subject that never failed to motivate his students who, if unwittingly, were privileged to hear his original and unorthodox views. Hisgenuine interest in their well-being and willingness to ‘talk geology’ with them as though they were colleagues inspired long-term devotion. In 1931, on a field excursion to Ardnamurchan in Scotland, Holmes met Doris Livesey Reynolds (1899–1985), abrilliant geologist then working at University College, London. A loud and boisterous personality, she was the complete antithesis of Holmes, who was always quietly spoken, even retiring. Nevertheless, it was a meeting of minds, their individualinterests in geology dovetailing perfectly. Two years later Holmes engineered a lectureship for her in the Durham department, and she was installed on the opposite side of his enormous desk, ostensibly because there was no room for her elsewhere.(Later, through the 1940s and 50s, they became embroiled in the ‘granitization’ controversy on the origin of granites, a theory fiercely advocated by Reynolds. But although he accompanied her on multiple trips to Ireland to study the problem in thefield, Holmes kept his distance regarding the theory which ultimately proved untenable.)

Holmes's marriage to Maggie, from whom he had become estranged although they ‘kept up appearances’, ended in 1938 when she died of cancer, leaving Holmes and Reynolds free to marry, only nine months later, on 30 June 1939. Ironically, it was theformalization of their relationship that gave the university authorities an opportunity to voice their disapproval of its previously illicit nature. They questioned the validity of husband and wife working in the same department and Reynolds'scontract was renewed for one ‘experimental’ year only, instead of the normal five years. It was time to move on.

Professor at Edinburgh, recognition, and death
Recognition of Holmes's outstanding contributions to geology came when he was elected FRS in 1942 and a year later appointed to the regius chair in geology at EdinburghUniversity, where he continued to make research a priority, refusing to succumb to administrative overload. He retired from Edinburgh in 1956 when he began to have attacks of auricular fibrillation, and was elected professor emeritus. A specialminute adopted at a meeting of the senatus academicus included the telling words: ‘If his seat at times has been vacant at Senatus, his absence must be weighed against his contributions to Science’ (Stewart to Holmes, 19Oct 1956, Royal Holloway University Library, Doris Reynolds MSS, box 2).

During the Second World War Holmes was commissioned to write a book on physical geology for RAF cadets which he wrote while on fire watching duty. His celebrated Principles of Physical Geology, first published in 1944, soon became known simply as ‘Holmes’. Reprinted in English eighteen times it was an international best-seller, becoming the geological bible for generations ofgeologists and doing much to revive failing interest in the geological sciences. When he retired in 1956 he set out to rewrite the book completely but with his health failing it was a mammoth task, completed only months before he died. This secondedition was published in 1965 and reprinted six times. Doris Reynolds wrote a third edition (1978) and her student, P. Donald Duff, a fourth edition in 1993.

Holmes was a deep thinker on the broad philosophical aspects of geology, with ideas far ahead of his time. He often erected ‘wickets to be bowled at’, considering speculation justified if it stimulated a search ‘for the more elusive pieces ofthe jigsaw’. He published over 200 papers and books, seventy of which were on radioactive age dating, a field he dominated for fifty years. As early as 1926 he became a founder member of the United States National Research Council's committee on themeasurement of geological time.

The Geological Society of London awarded Holmes its Murchison medal in 1940 and its highest honour, the Wollaston medal, in 1956. In the same year he received the Penrose medal from the Geological Society of America. He was honoured by manyforeign societies including those of America, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and Sweden. His final and most prestigious accolade was the Vetlesen award, the geologist's equivalent of the Nobel prize, presented to him in 1964 by ColumbiaUniversity for his ‘uniquely distinguished achievement in the sciences resulting in a clearer understanding of the Earth, its history, and its relation to the universe’.

Originally from a Methodist background, by the age of twenty-one Holmes had thrown off all religious shackles. Always of smart appearance he was a ‘gentleman’ of quiet charm and unfailing kindness. He had an exceptional talent for playing thepiano which saw him through many difficult times in his life; he was fascinated by history, and he loved poetry. Despite early financial difficulties, lessons on investing learned around the camp fire in Mozambique resulted in considerable successon the stock exchange. Holmes died of bronchial pneumonia on 20 September 1965 at Bolingbroke Hospital, Battersea, leaving everything to his beloved wife, Doris, who survived him by twenty years, but nothing to his son, Geoffrey.

From the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, by Cherry L.E. Lewis, sourced 2 February 2017.


The original ordering into files by Cherry Lewis has been retained, with the material being in two broad sections concerning Holmes's correspondence and then background about him, and his second wife Doris.

Access Information

The collection has not yet been sorted or catalogued. For this reason, it is not normally possible to consult the collection.

Open for consultation.

Acquisition Information

Given by Cherry Lewis, 18 January 2017, Acc No Misc. 2016/17:72.

Other Finding Aids

Online catalogue, available at online catalogue

Conditions Governing Use

Permission to make any published use of material from the collection must be sought in advance from the Sub-Librarian, Special Collections (e-mail and, where appropriate, from the copyright owner. The Library will assistwhere possible with identifying copyright owners, but responsibility for ensuring copyright clearance rests with the user of the material.

Appraisal Information

The original integrity of the collection has been maintained.


None anticipated, but Cherry Lewis may produce more.


A. Holmes, The Age of the Earth (1913) A. Holmes, Principles of Physical Geology (1944) C. Lewis, The Dating Game - one man's search for the age of the Earth (2000)