1879-1884: William J. Sollas

The first Professor of Geology and Zoology at Bristol, followed by a distinguished career at Dublin and Oxford, where he invented serial sectioning of fossils.

Professor William Johnson Sollas FRS (1849-1936) was born in Birmingham and educated at Imperial College London and Cambridge University. He became a member of staff of University College, Bristol, from 1879 to 1883. Initially appointed as a Lecturer in Geology and Zoology, and also as Curator of Bristol Museum, he was promoted to Professor in 1880. He continued to hold both posts until 1882, when he resigned from the curatorship to devote himself to the College full-time. In the following year, he left Bristol to take up the Chair of Geology at Trinity College, Dublin. Elected an F.R.S. in 1889, he remained in Dublin until 1897 when he was appointed to the Chair of Geology at Oxford. In 1907, he was awarded to Geological Society’s Wollaston Medal and in 1914 the Royal Society’s Royal Medal.

Sollas was primarily a geologist but had a remarkable breadth of scientific interests which also included zoological and anthropological subjects. While in Bristol he prepared an account of the geology of the Bristol District for a visit by the Geologists’ Association, published a description of a Silurian inlier near Cardiff, and described plesiosaurs in the collections of Bristol Museum. During his lifetime published 180 papers and wrote three books, including works on fossil sponges and reptiles, petrology and mineralogy and, in his later years, became a leading authority on anthropology. He journeyed to the Pacific to investigate the origin of coral atolls, and to the Kalahari Desert to study its Bushmen.

He is probably best known to palaeontologists for his invention of the serial sectioning device for the study of fossils, which he described in 1904. Through this he was first to study in detail the internal structures of brachiopods, ichthyosaurs, dicynodonts, and other complex fossils, and he produced three-dimensional reconstructions for the first time.

In his last post at Oxford, his greatest contribution was in expanding the geology department, hiring new Demonstrators and Lecturers and expanding the facilities available to students. Described as “eccentric” in his final years, he left much of the running of the Department to J.A. Douglas while he concentrated on research, finally dying in office on 20 October 1936.

Read more

Sollas, W.J. 1880 On the geology of the Bristol district (and account of excursion). Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 6, 375-402. Read the paper here.

Sollas, W.J. 1904. A method for the investigation of fossils by serial section. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 196, 214-224. Read the paper here.

Woodward, A.S. and Watts, W.W. 1938. William Johnson Sollas. 1849-1936. Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society 2, 264-281. Read the obituary here.