Spotlight on Louisa Tyndall

Roland Jackson explores the life of Louisa Tyndall, the wife of prominent Ri scientist John Tyndall.

  • louisa tyndall

    Louisa Tyndall

    Credit: Royal Institution

In 2014 the Ri is proud to celebrate women in science with the first ever all women line-up for our Friday Evening Discourses. To coincide with these monthly events, Frank James will tell the stories of some of the many women associated with the Ri since 1799 in this monthly blog. Here, Roland Jackson explores the life of Louisa Charlotte Tyndall.

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Louisa Charlotte Tyndall (1845–1940)

Louisa Charlotte Hamilton married John Tyndall, then Superintendent of the House and Director of the Laboratory at the Royal Institution, in Westminster Abbey on 29 February 1876, when he was in his 50s, and she just over 30. It is perhaps ironic, after Tyndall’s Belfast Address  18 months earlier, that this event took place in the Abbey–indeed Tyndall’s friend Herbert Spencer refused on principle to attend the event in a religious venue. Dean Stanley, the Broad Anglican, officiated; despite his wife being desperately ill (she died the following day). For the next 10 years Louisa was effectively châtelaine of the Royal Institution, hosting dinners and gatherings around Discourses and other lectures.

Tyndall, from a humble background in rural Ireland, was by this stage a habitué of aristocratic soirées through connections made at the Royal Institution, and he cemented his place by marrying the eldest daughter of Lord Claud Hamilton, whose brother the Duke of Abercorn was no less than the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland at the time. With Belfast in his mind, Tyndall noted that ‘he has attacked my “materialism”, and will no doubt be surprised to find his niece carried off by the “materialist”’.

Tyndall had met Louisa through the social connections of the Royal Institution, which her mother joined in 1874. He socialised with them at their country house Heathfield Park in Sussex and travelled with them in the Alps. Tyndall had a roving eye for the ladies and a history of romantic attachments and rejections of marriage proposals, and to Miss Moore (probably Harriet Moore) he wrote, rather ungraciously, ‘She is not handsome, but she is healthy, and her inner comeliness makes ample atonement for any want of it outside. She is not wealthy; but she has no expensive tastes – does not dream of carriages or evening dresses – is wonderfully helpful – and in short in every way fitted to be the wife of a poor man’. Indeed the Hamilton family were renting Heathfield Park and when Lord Claud died in 1884 his personal estate was almost nil (Tyndall left the significant sum of £22,000).

It was a very happy marriage, and quite apart from the fact that they were besotted with each other Louisa worked closely with John on his research and writings. As he said with respect to her cooking, ‘Louisa is fond of experimenting. Had she been a natural philosopher, her perpetual sorting might have revealed some new truth. In her cooking some of her experiments fail, but others are remarkably successful.’ She was frequently in the laboratory with him, taking notes, and helping write an account of ‘our recent observations for the Philosophical Magazine’. Despite the use of ‘our’, Louisa’s name did not appear on any paper; Tyndall seems to have held the fairly common view for the time that women were not capable of real scientific creativity but could be expected to understand anything revealed by the savants. She herself would have wanted more scope, commenting to John with respect to her earlier life on ‘my want of higher work and the impossibility of getting it’.

  • Louisa Tyndall

    Louisa Tyndall

    Credit: Royal Institution

  • John Tyndall

    John Tyndall

    Credit: Royal Institution

  • Louisa Tyndall at John's graveside

    Louisa Tyndall at John Tyndall's graveside

    Credit: Royal Institution

Louisa was an organising force behind the building and furnishing of their idyllic Alpine chalet above Bel Alp and their house at windswept Hindhead. With some anxiety Tyndall noted that ‘Louisa described to me her dream of a cottage in the Blindthal [below Bel Alp]. In regard to the building of houses her hunger is simply unappeasable and I know not where it will end’. Both were great walkers, in the Alps and around Hindhead in particular. In the summer after her marriage, Louisa climbed the Aletschhorn with John, which at 4195m (nearly 14000ft) is one of the prized 4000m peaks of the Alps and in a beautifully remote part of the Bernese Oberland; few women would have previously climbed it.

The ending, though, is tragic, as Louisa gave John the wrong medicine on 4 December 1893, an overdose of chloral hydrate. They tried desperately to make him vomit it up but it was too late, as he reputedly said ‘Louisa, you have killed your beloved John.’ They had no children, and she outlived him by 47 years, guarding his papers closely and aiming but never succeeding in producing a biography. A biography eventually appeared in 1945, after her death, the only substantial one to date. The current project to publish all his correspondence, in 16 edited volumes, may help to bring him to the wider attention that he still lacks. Louisa was a wonderful partner for 17 years, but her inability to help put his life on the public record for so long after his death has helped to diminish the reputation he deserves.

Roland Jackson is a Visiting Fellow at the Royal Institution and Honorary Research Associate at UCL, studying the work of John Tyndall, and has recently published an academic paper on Tyndall’s contribution to our understanding of magnetism (open access), and a previous one on the Royal Medal episode (£).

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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