S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Abel, Dr Clarke (geology)

Born: 1780, England.
Died: 1826, Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India.

Clarke Abel, naturalist and surgeon, was educated for the medical profession and practiced as a surgeon in Norwich. From February 1816 to 1817 he joined Lord W P Amherst's mission to China as chief medical officer and naturalist, with three assistants in natural history. During his stay in China he made a large collection of botanical and mineralogical specimens, but most were lost in a shipwreck on the return journey. His experiences and observations were described in Narrative of a journey in the interior of China, and of a voyage to and from that country in the years 1816 and 1817; containing an account of the most interesting transactions of Lord Amherst's embassy to the Court of Pekin, and observations on the countries which it visited (London, 1818, 420p). Some of the plants he collected, including several new species, reached England by other routes and were described by Robert Brown* in a botanical appendix to the Narrative.... The genus of shrubs Abelia was named after Abel. Some of his geological specimens also reached England and were presented to Captain Basil Hall*.

On the outward journey Abel stayed at the Cape from 18 April to 5 May 1816, studying the geology of the Cape Peninsula as far as Hout Bay. On the return journey the mission visited the Cape from 25 May to 11 June 1817, during which time he continued his observations as far as Simonstown and Jonker's Hoek near Stellenbosch. A chapter of his book (pp. 285-312) is devoted to the geology of the Cape Peninsula and has been highly praised. He accepted and confirmed the view of Captain Hall that the Cape granite is an igneous rock (the plutonic view) rather than a chemical precipitate (the neptunist view). Like Hall and Captain Dugald Carmichael* he described the contact between the Cape granite and the overlying metamorphosed shale, which he studied at Sea Point and Green Point, and made several drawings of the contact zone. This complex and interesting geological phenomenon has drawn the attention of many later geologists and the site at Sea Point was declared a natural monument in the early nineteen-fifties. A plaque at the site credits Abel with its first proper description.

From his observations of the Table Mountain sandstone and the underlying Cape granite Abel correctly concluded that the granite surface under the sandstone had formed the land surface in the distant past and had been subjected to substantial weathering before the sandstone was deposited. However, his belief that the sandstone was deposited in deep sea water has not stood up to later scrutiny. At Jonker's Hoek he found the relations between the granite, shale and sandstone much the same as on the peninsula.

Abel was elected a Fellow of Royal Society of London in 1819 and was a Fellow also of the Linnean Society and the Geological Society of London. He was esteemed for his expertise in natural history and his agreeable manner. In 1819 he published a paper on "Temperatures at the bottom of the sea" in the Annals of Philosopy. When Lord Amherst was appointed Governer-General of India in 1823, Abel again joined him as surgeon. On the basis of his observations there he published a paper on an orang outang of remarkable size from the island of Sumatra (Asiatic Researches, 1825), and another "On the crocodiles of the Ganges" in the Edinburgh Journal of Science (1828).

List of sources:
Barnard, W.S. Darwin at the Cape. South African Journal of Science, 2004, Vol. 100, pp. 243-248.

Dictionary of South African biography (Vol. 3). Pretoria: HSRC, 1968-1987.

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980.

Oxford dictionary of national biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Rogers, A.W. 1937. The pioneers in South African geology and their work. Transactions of the Geological Society of South Africa, Annexure to Vol. 39, pp. 1-139.

Royal Society of London. Catalogue of scientific papers [1800-1900]. London: Royal Society, 1867-1925.

Standard encyclopaedia of southern Africa (SESA) (Vol. 9, p. 556b). Pretoria: Nasou, 1970.

Compiled by: C. Plug