In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section John Tyndall

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Correspondence, Journals, and Scientific Papers
  • Anthologies
  • Education

Victorian Literature John Tyndall
Bernard Lightman
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0175


John Tyndall (b. c. 1820–d. 1893) was one of the most influential scientists of the Victorian era. Born in Leighlinbridge, County Carlow, Ireland, Tyndall’s father (also John) was a struggling shoemaker and leather dealer. In 1839 John Jr. joined the Irish Ordinance Survey as a civil assistant. In August 1842 he was transferred to the English Survey in Preston but dismissed in November 1843 when he protested the inefficiency of the Survey’s administration and its unfairness to the Irish assistants. In August 1847 he accepted an appointment as teacher of mathematics at Queenwood College in Hampshire but left after one year to earn his doctoral degree at Marburg University, Germany. He returned to England in 1851, taking up his old position at Queenwood while he looked for a scientific post. In 1853 he was elected Professor of Natural Philosophy of the Royal Institution, where he remained for the rest of his scientific career. Tyndall’s climb up the social ladder from humble family circumstances was capped in spectacular fashion when, in 1867, he succeeded Michael Faraday as Superintendent of the Royal Institution. Tyndall’s life cannot be summed up so simply. He lived several interconnected lives. The first was spent primarily in his laboratory at the Royal Institution; the second he spent with mountain guides, suspended high on the sides of alpine peaks; and the third was either in front of fashionable audiences or behind the scenes, directing and shaping the sciences of the day. Along with being one of the premier physicists in the nineteenth century, John Tyndall was also one of the figures largely responsible for the growth of mountaineering as a sport. He narrowly missed being the first to summit the Matterhorn, then thought to be entirely inaccessible. Mountaineering was not merely a sport to Tyndall; he conducted important scientific experiments whenever he climbed. Owing to his flamboyant lecturing style, he also became well known as an eloquent public speaker on science to fashionable audiences. Along with biologist T. H. Huxley, philosopher Herbert Spencer, and botanist J. D. Hooker, Tyndall sought to professionalize science, arguing that naturalistic, rather than theistic, explanations could (and should) account for the workings of nature. They also defended Darwin during the debates about evolution. This influential group of scientists formed the X Club in 1864 in an attempt to direct the course of British science and to lobby for its support in the halls of government.

General Overviews

An entry on Tyndall appears in every one of the major biographical dictionaries, whether they are focusing on important scientists (MacLeod 1976), 19th-century British scientists (Burchfield 2004), 19th-century British philosophers (Barton 2004), or significant British figures (Brock 2004). They are useful, compact accounts with slightly different emphases, all written by trusted authorities on Tyndall. A central problem for Tyndall scholars has been, until recently, the lack of more extensive studies of Tyndall that cover his life and work. Jeans 1887 was the most in-depth source until the publication of Eve and Creasey 1945, which served as the standard biography right up until recently, when Jackson 2018 appeared. Jackson has finally supplied the much-needed biography that tracks Tyndall throughout every phrase of his life and treats every dimension of this very active and complicated figure. It is complemented by DeYoung 2011, which engages more directly with the contextualist scholarship in the history of science while providing a detailed thematic analysis of Tyndall’s role as a prominent scientist in the Victorian age. Lightman 2016 attempts to sketch out how Tyndall stage-managed his public image as he maneuvered through the different stages of his career. DeArce, et al. 2013–2014 explores Tyndall’s Carlow roots in more detail than most of the biographical works.

  • Barton, Ruth. “Tyndall, John (1820–93).” In The Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century British Philosophers, Vol. 2. 4 vols. Edited by W. J. Mander and A. P. F. Sells, 1137–1141. Bristol, UK: Thoemmes Continuum, 2004.

    Overview of Tyndall that emphasizes the philosophical dimensions of his work, including the “Belfast Address,” his debt to Carlyle, his links to the X-Club, the nature of his materialism, and his views on the scientific imagination.

  • Brock, W. H. “Tyndall, John (1820–1893).” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 55. Edited by David Cannadine, 789–794. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    An extensive biographical account covering all phases of Tyndall’s life as well as his contributions to physics.

  • Burchfield, Joe D. “Tyndall, John (1820–93).” In The Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century British Scientists, Vol. 4. 4 vols. Edited by Bernard Lightman, 2053–2058. Bristol, UK: Thoemmes Continuum, 2004.

    Survey of Tyndall’s scientific career that examines his friendship with Huxley and other members of the X-Club, his writings and publications, and his contribution to the reform of scientific education in schools, colleges, and universities. However, Burchfield maintains that Tyndall’s greatest legacy was in educating the public.

  • DeArce, Miguel, Deirdre McGing, Emma O’Riordan, Norman McMillan, Martin Nevin, and James Elwick. “Further Notes on the Genealogy and Social History of the Carlow Family of John Tyndall (1820–1893).” Carloviana: The Journal of the Carlow Historical and Archeological Society (2013–2014): 1–7.

    Detailed discussion of the circumstances of Tyndall’s Carlow-based family that highlights his humble origins.

  • DeYoung, Ursula. A Vision of Modern Science: John Tyndall and the Role of the Scientist in Victorian Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230118058

    One of the few book-length studies of Tyndall, it is not a biography. Rather, it analyzes Tyndall’s significant impact on the Victorian conception of science and on the cultural authority of the scientist in British society. Informed by recent scholarship, the author attempts to treat Tyndall’s religious beliefs and his cultural aims as interdependent.

  • Eve, A. S., and C. H. Creasey. Life and Work of John Tyndall. London: Macmillan, 1945.

    Up until the publication of Jackson 2018, this was the standard book-length biography of Tyndall. It is based on the material collected and arranged by Tyndall’s wife, Louisa. It contains extracts of Tyndall’s correspondence. Somewhat dated due to developments in the field of the history of science, and surpassed in many ways by Jackson’s biography, it nevertheless continues to be useful.

  • Jackson, Roland. The Ascent of John Tyndall: Victorian Scientist, Mountaineer, and Public Intellectual. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

    This is now the definitive biography. Jackson has based this meticulously researched account on Tyndall’s correspondence, his journals, his scientific papers, and his books and periodical articles. The result is a comprehensive study of every aspect of Tyndall’s life that is especially strong on his alpine adventures, his contributions to science, and his role as a public intellectual engaged in debates over the cultural authority of the scientist.

  • Jeans, William T. “Professor Tyndall.” In Lives of the Electricians: Professors Tyndall, Wheatstone, and Morse. By William T. Jeans, 1–104. London: Whittaker, 1887.

    Published while Tyndall was still alive, and before the decline in his reputation began, this volume treats him as a physicist who contributed to the study magnetism and electricity. Tyndall’s work on diamagnetism, radiant heat, germ theory, and glaciers are emphasized, though Jeans also provides biographical information and a chapter on his mountaineering exploits. Jeans depicts Tyndall as one of the most popular scientific teachers, successful experimentalists, and attractive writers.

  • Lightman, Bernard. “Fashioning the Victorian Man of Science: Tyndall’s Shifting Strategies.” Journal of Dialectics of Nature (Ziran Bianzhengfa Tongxun) 38.1 (January 2016): 66–79.

    Raises the question: Why didn’t Tyndall become involved in the debates over Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) until late in the 1860s? The answer involves Tyndall’s development of a public persona as a young man seeking a scientific post in Britain that allowed him to hide his radical religious and political beliefs.

  • MacLeod, Roy. “Tyndall, John.” In Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Vol. 13. Edited by Charles Coulston Gillispie, 521–524. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976.

    A compact account of Tyndall’s life, his scientific research, his intellectual skirmishes, and the decline in his reputation. Contains an extensive list of Tyndall’s major works and the scholarly literature on him up to the 1970s.

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