Category Archives: Biography

Discoveries in the Charles Lyell Collection

“[Charles Lyell’s] cultivated mind and classical taste, his keen interest in the world of politics and in the social progress and education of his country, and the many opportunities he enjoyed of friendly intercourse with the most leading characters of his age, make the letters abound in lively anecdotes and pictures of society, constantly interspersed with his enthusiastic devotion to Natural History.” -Katherine Lyell, Life, Letters and Journals of Sir Charles Lyell, Bart, 1881

To mark 7 months working with the Lyell collection, I’d like to share some discoveries I’ve made while cataloguing these amazing notebooks, and researching Lyell’s published works. Lyell today is known for his great discoveries of the Earth, and the elevation and establishment of the science. Here, we see Lyell’s other interests.

Discoveries:

  1. Charles Lyell was deeply interested in the role of universities and education in society. He writes in his notebooks extensively about the religious requirements at Oxford and Cambridge, to which he objected. In  Notebook 4 he  makes  this  list:

An image of a notebook page written in pencil or light pen in which Charles Lyell writes his thoughts on University education. Transcript: What is the portion of those who ought to have a Univ[ersit]y Ed[ucatio]n in England. Who really have one? 1. Learn number Att[ourn]ys & their cle-rks. Barristers not Oxf[or]d or any Univ[ersit]y men - Dissenter who an barrister, attournies, or spe-cial pleaders &c [etc] 2. Engineers, Architects, Surveyors 3. Physician dissenters how many Surgeon d[itt]o. Discipline was intended. ought not those below 16 to be required to go to church.

Notebook No 4, p. 106, one instance of Lyell’s notes on Universities and education.

Transcription: “What is the portion of those who ought to have a Univ[ersit]y Ed[ucatio]n in England. Who really have one? 1. Learn number Att[ourn]ys & their cle-rks. Barristers not Oxf[or]d or any Univ[ersit]y men – Dissenters who an barrister, attournies, or spe-cial pleaders &c [etc] 2. Engineers, Architects, Surveyors 3. Physician dissenters how many Surgeon d[itt]o. Discipline was intended. ought not those below 16, to be required to go to church.”

 

2. Dante’s Inferno was a constant reference in Lyell’s notebooks, though it’s not clear yet for what purpose, other than the geologist’s keen interest. In the midst of notes on other subjects, Lyell often makes brief abbreviated citations of the parts and lines of Dante. These must have been important to him, because he regularly references these citations in his table of contents. His father being a Dante scholar, this is intriguing for further research to understand how Dante’s poetry influenced Lyell’s understanding of the earth.

Excerpts from Notebook No. 4 (1827), where Lyell cites Dante.

3. Lyell wasn’t the only naturalist in his family, his sisters and father were keen on insect collecting and naming. In those days, much of the flora and fauna of Scotland had no official name, and therefore budding lepidopterists “discovered” and named the insects they caught. We hope to describe illuminating family letters like this in the newly acquired papers of Lyell.

Letter to Marianne from Charles Lyell concerning the Lyell sisters’ prowess and interest in identifying insects

4. Lyell’s eyesight is known for being poor and limiting his abilities all his life, but the reason why is now contested. Most biographies cite that his eyesight worsened while studying the law by candlelight, but in a letter to Murchison in preparation for their Grand Tour to France and Italy, Lyell writes that his eye injury was caused by the long days in the Tuscan sun on holiday with his family. On that Grand Tour, to appease his father, Lyell brought with him a clerk named Hall to aid him in his work and treatment of his eyes – though no detail of the treatment has yet been found.

Excerpt from a letter to Murchison, April 29, 1828, explaining his father’s wishes for Lyell to bring his clerk with him, to make up for his troubles with his eyes.

 

References:

Lyell, C. (2010). Life, Letters and Journals of Sir Charles Lyell, Bart (Cambridge Library Collection – Earth Science) (K. Lyell, Ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511719691

Bailey, E., 1962. Charles Lyell, F.R.S., (1797-1875). Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd.

Charles Lyell Notebook No. 4, digitised here: https://images.is.ed.ac.uk/luna/servlet/s/cennww

 

New Post: Project Archivist (Climate Change)

courtesy of Jasmine Keuter

My name is Elise Ramsay, and I am delighted to introduce myself as the University of Edinburgh’s new Project Archivist on Climate Change. My remit includes cataloguing the Lyell notebooks, and scoping other collections the University holds related to Charles Lyell, climate change, and Earth Science. Even in my short time working with the collection, it is apparent that there is an incredible wealth of research opportunity in these notebooks, not only concerning the environment and climate change, but also women’s contribution to science, 19th century social dynamics, international relations between scientists, and 19th century methods of travel, to name but a few.

about me:

I am an Archivist, trained at the University of Glasgow’s Information Management and Preservation course, and with experience in a variety of academic institutions, recently St. George’s School for Girls, and as a volunteer cataloguing on other projects at the Centre for Research and Collections (CRC). In my undergraduate studies, I read French and History, but was very interested by environmental and earth sciences, so in working on this collection, I can employ my understanding of French (Lyell often drafts letters to French colleagues in his notebooks), and continue to learn about Earth Science so as to create detailed metadata.

why climate change?

The University of Edinburgh has committed to become zero carbon by 2040. In line with this, the CRC is committed to improve access to Earth Science collections, and create opportunities for ground-breaking research about the climate, species biodiversity, and more. The Lyell collection particularly captures many of these initiatives.

progress so far…

For a collection of this size, a set methodology is key to completing the project, and ensuring that all items are catalogued equally.  Therefore, I dedicated the first few weeks to reading biographies of Lyell, highlighting important people, organisations, and places (known archivally as authorities), and created a process for cataloguing. To ensure that each notebook isn’t damaged in the process of cataloguing, I limited the time each notebook is open to 15 minutes. In those 15 minutes, I take note of the following information:

  • How many pages? How many folios? (Imagine you’re taking a picture of each page with text; how many pictures?This number tells us how full the notebook is, and allows us to estimate the effort needed to digitise)
  • Authorities
  • Subjects (the goal of this is to be as detailed as possible; specimen terms are especially important to make note of so researchers can access material based on their specialisation; for example, volcanoes and volcanic activity; strata; lithification; silicification; opal; coal)
  • Illustrations, and page numbers
  • Index, page numbers

All of these elements are then created in Archive Space, and included in the catalogue entry.

character of the collection

In reading the notebooks, I have relied on the support of Dr. Gillian McCay to provide specialised knowledge and identify key areas which will be important to researchers. This means learning about geological theories and concepts, and often opposing ideas from scientists of the time. It is clear that the network Lyell operated in featured intense, driven personalities, all motivated to prove their theories about the Earth’s origins and activity. This therefore informs the way I will catalogue this collection to prioritise authorities and give context to Lyell’s contemporaries.

more to come…

Watch this space for details about the collection, discoveries, photos, and updates on the project!