The Sir Charles Lyell Collection
The Charles Lyell Collection
About Sir Charles Lyell
Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875) was one of the greatest public figures in science in an age of remarkable thinkers whose geological breakthroughs paved the way for the work of a whole new generation of scientists and philosophers, including Charles Darwin’s and his theories of human evolution. Best known for his bestselling book, Principles of Geology (1830-1833), Lyell established the theory that the earth was millions of years old and that it was shaped by geological processes still active in the modern era. He made it possible for people to think about the earth as a dynamic and developing planet in the way we do today.
Lyell’s popular writing and public lectures established his influence at home and abroad. In particular his "Principles of Geology" promoted not only particular geological theories, but helped firmly establish the credibility and authority of the developing earth sciences. It is for this and more that Lyell is counted amongst the founders of modern geology.
The science of geology is enormously indebted to Lyell—more so, as I believe, than to any other man who ever lived.
The Sir Charles Lyell Collection
Following an immensely successful fundraising campaign in 2019, the University of Edinburgh acquired Lyell’s 294 geological notebooks in which he recorded his ideas, theories, drawings and discoveries over a 40+ year period. This collection alone represents one of the greatest bodies of scientific observation from the 19th century; however, the University Library also recently acquired a substantial and varied collection of Lyell archives and papers. This additional collection was allocated by HM Government under the Acceptance in Lieu of Inheritance Scheme, from the estate of the 3rd baron Lyell. This second tranche is just as exciting as the notebooks and includes over 900 letters to and from Lyell (including additional letters from Darwin, Joseph Dalton Hooker, John Murray, etc.); intimate correspondence between Lyell and his wife, Mary Lyell, née Horner, and his wider family; autograph manuscripts of a number of lectures delivered both in the United States and in the United Kingdom; a part of the autograph manuscript of "Principles of Geology;" maps commissioned for lectures and publications; and heavily annotated editions of "Principles of Geology" marked up for later editions.
The combined collection of the pre-existing Lyell correspondence and archive which was given to the University in 1927, the newly arrived notebooks, and this new tranche of archives, combined with an ongoing programme of acquisitions of printed editions and translations and newly available correspondence now form one of the most comprehensive archives of 19th century science and networked communication in the world. Not only is Lyell’s science deeply important and relevant today to his discipline, but his observations led to an initial understanding of global climate change. His descriptions and accounts of geographical oddities are incredibly insightful and provide data on the geological and climatological state of regions 200 years ago. He was wealthy and travelled extensively, collecting and recording what he read, what he saw, and the things he learned. He distributed geological and fossil samples to some of the world’s finest museums. He was in regular correspondence with not only the well-known, but also the lay-scientists and the lesser-seen figures of the first phase real codification of the modern sciences. Here, in this collection, narratives of climate change and geological discovery are interwoven with the social history of America and slavery at large, the history of women and science (including his own wife), the life of a travelling academic in the 19th century, and the social history of science in the post-Enlightenment era.
The Sir Charles Lyell Collection is freely accessible to researchers via the Centre for Research Collections Reading Room. See more here for booking an appointment. Increasingly this collection will be made freely available digitally online
Read about the collection on the Library Blog - Through Lyell's Eyes