John Tyndall discovered the basis of global warming. Why has history forgotten him?

A major collection of the Victorian natural philosopher’s personal and professional letters to be published for the first time by the international Tyndall Correspondence Project.

  • John and Louisa Tyndall

    John and Louisa Tyndall

    Credit: Royal Institution


On Wednesday 4 March 2015, the Royal Institution of Great Britain will host a series of talks by world experts to celebrate the controversial and fascinating life and work of Victorian natural philosopher, John Tyndall (1820-1893) and mark the first major publication milestone of the international Tyndall Correspondence Project which aims to place Tyndall’s phenomenal contribution to modern science in the spotlight after more than a century in the shadows of history.

The team behind the Tyndall Correspondence Project has so far identified, catalogued and transcribed 7,500 letters to and from Tyndall, covering a 52 year period, 1840-1892.  Most are letters sent between individuals but the collection also contains letters that appeared in journals or newspapers. The collection has grown thanks to an extensive search, still ongoing, through public archives and private collections in countries all over the world.

Famous in his lifetime for his pioneering work in atmospheric physics, Tyndall, Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institution (1853-1887), was among the first to conduct research which laid the ground for our understanding of the natural greenhouse effect and of climate change.  He also made significant contributions to our understanding of magnetism, glacier structure and motion, the chemical action of light, the colour of the sky, cometary theory, acoustics, spontaneous generation and the germ theory.

Tyndall combined his glacier researches with mountaineering, at which he became an expert. He was one of the first to reach the summit of the Matterhorn and mountaineering gained the status of a recognised sport partly because of his popular narratives.

He was also an outspoken advocate for the professionalisation of science. Alongside his peers and friends T. H. Huxley, Herbert Spencer, and others, Tyndall helped to reform British science, moving it away from its emphasis on natural theology in the first half of the century and towards a more secular view of nature.  He pushed for scientists to have complete independence from theologians.

Tyndall’s colourful life came to a tragic early end in 1893 when he was poisoned by his wife Louisa who accidentally gave him an overdose of sleeping medication. In an attempt to salve her conscience, Louisa envisioned a grand Life and Letters publication for her dead husband and dedicated the rest of her life to this ambitious undertaking. But by refusing to delegate tasks on such an enormous project, no such work had appeared by the time of her death some 47 years later and Tyndall’s legacy had already started to fade from public consciousness.

Tyndall published 180 scientific publications in his lifetime and was a prolific and energetic letter writer, public speaker, political lobbyist, advocate for education, social networker and traveller. The volume of material identified so far is expected to fill 18 volumes and the scale of the project means that final volume is not expected to published until 2023.

The publication of the first volume is the culmination of a ten year international collaboration involving over 100 graduate and undergraduate students and 22 scholars from Canada, the United States, New Zealand, England, and Ireland.

Bernard Lightman, founder of the project and Professor of Humanities at York University, Toronto, Canada, explained how the project came about: “In 2006 I began collecting Tyndall’s letters, starting with the ones contained in the Royal Institution’s archives, to help me write a biography of Tyndall. I realised that in order to secure the evidence needed to give Tyndall his rightful place in scientific history and to correct commonly held misconceptions, a major piece of work in collecting and transcribing his lost correspondence had to be done.

“Thanks to the support of academics around the world, and the expert advice of the Royal Institution’s Professor Frank James, we now have a extensive collection which illustrates in vivid and personal detail Tyndall’s character, his beliefs, his thoughts, and, most significantly, how his research and advocacy helped shape science as we know it today.

Roland Jackson, Visiting Fellow at the Royal Institution and Honorary Research Associate at UCL, said: “Reading most of the biographies and histories of the mid-19th century one could be forgiven for thinking that John Tyndall’s scientific impact was negligible. If one knows him, he is like a ghost at the table in so many tableaux.

“Yet quite apart from his important contributions to science he was a major cultural and media figure of the day, internationally and nationally. Looking at the letters together many themes emerge: his significance as a networker with the continental men of science; the manner in which he cultivated important older figures such as George Airy and Sir John Herschel; his close and often flirtatious relationships with Society women – such as Juliet Pollock, Lady Mary Egerton, Lady Emily Peel and Lady Ashburton – ; the complexity and subtlety of his thinking about science and religion (he was no Richard Dawkins); the agonising emotional entanglements until he finally found Louisa; and the calls on his purse from desperate relatives in Ireland.

He added “Some rewriting of history is well overdue and this meticulously edited collection of letters should stimulate it.”

The academic institutions represented within the collaboration are York University, Montana State University Aberystwyth University, Arizona State University, the University of Auckland, Brock University, University of Cambridge, University of Exeter, University of Leeds, University of Leicester, New York University, Harvard University, and University of Oklahoma, supported by Frank James, Professor of the History of Science and Head of the Heritage and Collections team at the Royal Institution.

The project has been generously supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Mellon Foundation, the National Science Foundation, York University and Montana State University.

The first volume has already been published by Pickering and Chatto Press and the second is due for publication in July 2015.  

Find out more about the 4 March event here and explore Tyndall’s life in this interactive timeline.

Learn more about John Tyndall