Montana State University

MSU historian heads international project on 19th century scientist

October 16, 2009 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


John Tyndall was one of the most influential scientists of the 19th century, but far less known today than Charles Darwin and other contemporaries. (Photo courtesy of Michael Reidy).   High-Res Available

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BOZEMAN -- John Tyndall, one of the most influential scientists of the 19th century, would've been better known if his wife hadn't accidentally poisoned him and demanded control of his letters and journals, says Michael Reidy, a Montana State University historian.

The National Science Foundation is ready to pull Tyndall out of the shadows, however, and Reidy is overseeing the effort.

The NSF recently awarded Reidy $580,000 for a three-year project to finish transcribing 8,000 Tyndall letters, publish them and hold an international conference. The project will involve graduate students and scholars from 12 universities in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. Among those institutions are Harvard University and Cambridge University. Co-principal investigator is Bernard Lightman, professor of humanities at York University in Toronto. He has been studying Tyndall since the mid-1970s and invited Reidy to propose the project to the NSF.

"I couldn't have picked a better colleague to work with," Lightman said. "He knew how to articulate the point that we were trying to set up something new, an international collaborative correspondence project.

"For me, this is a project I can really sink my teeth into," Lightman added. "Tyndall is relatively neglected next to Huxley and the other evolutionary naturalists, yet there is so much fabulous archival material to draw from to get a better picture of who he was."

Reidy said, "It's really cool. It reflects very nicely on our department, on our graduate program. It puts us at the center of all these other very well-known programs around the world."

Tyndall was a contemporary of naturalist Charles Darwin, biologist Thomas Huxley and chemist/physicist Michael Faraday -- all renowned British scientists of the 1800s, Reidy said. The letters they sent each other touched on topics still debated today, such as the professionalization of science, government funding of science and the relationship between science and religion.

Tyndall, one of the original agnostics, defended Darwin against his harshest critics and published numerous essays and books on the role of science in the Victorian culture, Reidy continued. Tyndall published significant works in electro-magnetism, thermodynamics, sound, glaciers, global warming and spontaneous generation. He invented the Tyndallization process for sterilizing food. He was the first person to describe why the sky is blue and the first person to describe the natural greenhouse effect. One of the first and greatest mountaineers, he set up research stations in the mountains and studied the movement of glaciers.

"Said simply, Tyndall stood at the intersection of some of the most important developments in science and society, and his correspondence touches on all of them," Reidy wrote in a project summary.

Tyndall died at age 73 after his wife, Louisa Charlotte, accidentally switched the dosages of medications he took for insomnia and gastrointestinal problems, Reidy said. They had a good relationship, and she assisted Tyndall in his work, Reidy added. She was so upset about his death that she demanded control of his letters so she could publish them. She never published any of them, however. The task was too daunting, and she refused to turn it over to anyone else.

"He became rather unknown because of that," Reidy said.

Lightman said approximately 6,000 of Tyndall's letters ended up in the Royal Institution of Britain, where Tyndall spent most of his career. The other 2,000 were archived in some 25 other locations around the world.

Graduate students will transcribe the letters by looking at digitalized versions of them, Lightman said. He added that the Royal Institution found a firm to put its Tyndall letters on microfilm. The letters were then digitalized. Letters at the other archives were photocopied and digitalized. When letters didn't reproduce well, a student went to the Royal Institution to check the originals.

Reidy said Tyndall's handwriting was "horrible." Fortunately, in some cases, Tyndall dictated his letters to his wife who had better handwriting. Tyndall's letters range from one sentence long to 25 pages.

The grad students will turn their transcriptions into Word documents that end up online, Reidy said. The researchers will publish a one-volume calendar of Tyndall's correspondence and expect to publish 10 volumes in print and online. Sometime in 2012, they will hold an international Tyndall conference at MSU.

At MSU alone, the NSF grant will involve two or three graduate students a year for three years and one postdoctoral researcher, Riedy said. Besides transcribing letters, the grad students will incorporate their findings into master's theses.

The end result should be an international community of Tyndall scholars, Reidy said.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu