Professor awarded prestigious US grant to study British scientist

York humanities Professor Bernard Lightman, a prolific editor and writer in the field of Victorian science, likes to challenge himself with increasingly complex research projects. And he’s being rewarded for it. 

Lightman recently received a prestigious $306,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for his latest research venture, the John Tyndall correspondence project. The objective is to publish the collected correspondence of prominent British physicist John Tyndall (1820-1893).

Right: British physicist John Tyndall

A leading figure in the debates over evolution, Tyndall was a member of the powerful group of scientific naturalists that included Thomas Huxley. Tyndall was also among the first to recognize the earth’s natural greenhouse effect and the role played by various gases in this process (hence Britain’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research). 

Despite his significant role in the history of science, published versions of Tyndall’s correspondence are scarce. This is partly due to the bizarre circumstances surrounding his death. Tyndall was poisoned by his wife when she accidentally administered an overdose of medication that he had been taking for insomnia. She was so wracked with guilt that she decided to write the definitive life and letters of Tyndall and carefully guarded access to the large cache of letters in her possession. She died before completing the project. However, she did manage to collect the majority of Tyndall’s letters, now housed at the Royal Institution based in London, England. Approximately 2,000 more letters are located at the British Library and other archival locations around the world.

“These letters open a window onto many important aspects of 19th-century British science, culture and society, and provide important insights into the man himself,” says Lightman.

The York professor first became interested in Tyndall as a graduate student pursuing his thesis on agnosticism at Brandeis University. The term “agnosticism” was coined by Huxley in 1869 to distinguish his position from both atheism and theism. Tyndall shared many of Huxley’s views on this issue and was among the earliest agnostics.

Lightman now has copies of most of the 8,000 letters scattered around the world, so the first phase of the project – locating, collecting and digitizing all the letters – is nearly complete. The second phase of the project involves transcribing all of the letters. To date, about 1,000 of the letters have been transcribed. The plan is to transcribe the rest over the next five years.

Left: Professor Bernard Lightman

This project arises out of Lightman’s earlier decision to undertake a biography of Tyndall. In the spring of 2006, Lightman received a three-year grant from the Social Sciences &  Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) for the biography, after which he hired a team of graduate students and one postdoctoral fellow, James Elwick, to aid him with the research. When his team began collecting and transcribing the letters for the biography it soon became evident that the Tyndall correspondence embodied a project in and of itself. However, Lightman also recognized that he would need to acquire further funding to make the second project viable. That’s when he approached the Mellon Foundation.

The third phase of the project will involve editing the correspondence, a process over which Lightman will act as editor. This phase will begin once all of the transcriptions have been completed in about five years. Teams of scholars will edit and annotate about eight volumes of letters. They will be published in hard copy and put on the Internet. “Dealing with so many letters will be a big logistical challenge,” says Lightman, “but I hope this project sparks an interest in both Tyndall and the importance of his time period.”

Lightman is still working on Tyndall’s biography and hopes to have both that and the correspondence project complete within the next six to eight years.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is a not-for-profit US-based foundation that has been involved in funding other Canadian research projects, such as the Canadian Institute for Historical Microreproduction, the Dictionary of Old English, the Records of Early English Drama (University of Toronto) and the Benjamin Disraeli Letters (Queen’s University).