John Tyndall and the Royal Medal that was never struck

John Tyndall remains the only scientist to turn down a Royal Society medal in 200 years. Find out why his work on diamagnetism went unrecognised.

  • John Tyndall delivering a lecture in 1870

    John Tyndall presenting ‘Magnetism and Diamagnetism’ in the Ri lecture theatre on 14 May 1870, Illustrated London News.

    Credit: Royal Institution

In 1853, the physicist John Tyndall (1820-1893) was awarded the prestigious Royal Medal of the Royal Society for his early researches into magnetism. This is the story of why he turned it down; the only person in some 200 years to do so.

In 1845 Michael Faraday had discovered what became known as ‘diamagnetism’, the repulsion of substances by a magnetic pole. Diamagnetism is a very weak phenomenon compared to ordinary magnetism and difficult to study. Tyndall’s work between late 1849 and the mid 1850s was a masterly experimental investigation, bringing clarity to the ‘facts’ while the theoretical explanation remained much disputed.

Tyndall’s researches caught the attention of the savants of the day, in Britain and on the Continent, where Tyndall had studied for his PhD between 1848 and 1850. On the initiative of Edward Sabine, then Treasurer of the Royal Society and himself much concerned with the study of terrestrial magnetism, Tyndall was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in June 1852, the certificate highlighting his work on diamagnetism.

In February 1853 Tyndall was invited to give his first Friday Evening Discourse at the Royal Institution, on this topic of diamagnetism. It was a great success as Tyndall demonstrated his ability to engage the Society audience with this complex subject. His appointment as Professor of Natural Philosophy swiftly followed in June 1853. Tyndall’s meteoric rise seemed unstoppable, as he had also just been nominated as a potential recipient of the Royal Medal, awarded annually by the Royal Society from  1826 to the present day.

At the meeting of the Royal Society’s Council on 3 November 1853, Tyndall was chosen as the recipient for the physical sciences alongside Charles Darwin for the biological sciences, although by the narrow vote of 7-6 against the more experienced chemist August Hofmann. A few days later it all started to unravel, as Tyndall wrote to his friend Thomas Hirst on 25 November that:

"They set about scrutinizing the affair; first they found that [William] Thomson was opposed to me, second that my two first papers were joint papers with [Hermann] Knoblauch, third that my third paper had been got up in the private laboratory of Prof. Magnus, fourth that this same paper was published in German before it appeared in England, fifthly that one or two men who have got a name in England thought that I had not quite made out my point."

Tyndall felt in all conscience that he could not accept the medal, a position supported by Faraday and by J P Gassiot, who had proposed him. But he made rather a meal of so doing, writing to Samuel Christie, the Physical Sciences Secretary of the Royal Society, casting aspersions on the ability of many of the Council to judge his work properly. In consequence, for the first and so far only time in its history, a Royal Medal was not presented. Tyndall’s prickly approach to the issue may well have coloured attitudes to him in the Royal Society, although it seems to have done him no lasting damage.

Tyndall remains one of the most significant figures in the history of the Royal Institution. He is best known for establishing the physical basis for the atmospheric warming effect of carbon dioxide and water vapour, for explaining why the sky is blue and for his work on the germ theory and spontaneous generation. But it was his first researches, into the phenomenon of diamagnetism, which established his reputation and laid the foundation of his career.

Roland Jackson is a Visiting Fellow at the Royal Institution, studying the work of John Tyndall and has just published an academic paper on the Royal Medal episode in 'Notes and Records', the Royal Society Journal of the History of Science. He is also Executive Chair of Sciencewise and a member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

You can follow him on Twitter @Roland_Jackson and you can even follow John Tyndall himself @ProfTyndall.

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