Who was John Tyndall?

The Irishman was the first person to prove the dangers of greenhouse gases and the need for hygiene in medicine. As his life’s letters are published, Ailin Quinlan learns that Tyndall was a fearless ambassador for science

Who was John Tyndall?

EVERY WEEKDAY morning, thousands of rush-hour commuters pass the Tyndall National Institute, at the Lee Maltings Complex on Cork’s Dyke Parade.

The building is a familiar sight, but until recently the scientist whose name it bears has been little known.

But that has changed with the launch in Trinity College of The Correspondence of John Tyndall, the first in a gargantuan, 18-volume series.

Tyndall was an internationally-renowned scientist and lecturer, whose research was connected with what we now know as the greenhouse effect, and whose extensive work on bacteria — in collaboration with Louis Pasteur — was hugely significant.

The Carlow native — he was born in 1820 in Leighlinbridge — published 12 books on science, was a supporter of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and was a renowned experimentalist, particularly in the area of magnetism.

“It’s wonderful to see this correspondence project, which covers letters from all over the world, in connection with the research Tyndall was working on — modern sterile medical practise came about because of Tyndall proving Pasteur’s germ theory,” says Norman McMillan, former lecturer in the Carlow Institute of Technology and an author of two books on Tyndall. McMillan now runs an optical engineering company in Dublin.

The project has taken 10 years to date and curate, and Tyndall’s correspondents read like a ‘who’s who’ of international 19th-century science: Charles Babbage, J D Hooker, Thomas Henry Huxley, Charles Lyell, Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch and Bertrand Russell.

With two volumes to be published per year, the series will present 7,000 letters, which, experts believe, offer an unparalleled insight into Tyndall’s life and work.

“Basically, Tyndall is one of the really great scientists of the 19th century and he was completely neglected,” says McMillan, who is editing volume six.


The first volume, which contains 230 letters and was launched by Trinity College Provost, Dr Patrick Prendergast, covers three years of Tyndall’s late adolescence and early 20s, when he was a surveyor in Ireland and Britain, mapping the countryside for the Ordnance Survey, as well as taking his first tentative steps into science.

One of the great early influences on Tyndall was “an excellent teacher,” John Conwill, who taught him grammar and mathematics, when he attended national school at Leighlinbridge, in Co Carlow, says Geoffrey Cantor, co-editor of volume one and professor emeritus of the history of science at the University of Leeds

“This first volume looks at his life between about 1840 and about 1843, over three years covering his late teens and early 20s.

“He became a surveyor, working on a major project to survey and map the whole of Britain and Ireland.

“He was involved in the Irish survey carried out by the Ordnance Survey and produced maps,” says Cantor.

During this period, Tyndall spent much of his time in Co Cork, where he got to know the towns of Kinsale and Youghal, as well as the city.

He later left Ireland to join the UK survey and lived for a time in Lancashire — but was dismissed from his job for writing a letter to the then prime minister, in which Tyndall criticised his superiors’ incompetence.

He worked as a surveyor in the private sector, and taught surveying in a school, before travelling to the University of Marburg, in Germany, to study for his PhD in science.

Later, he returned to London, where he was hired by The Royal Institute, and he worked there for the remainder of his life.

“The Royal Institute is a wonderful organisation, dedicated to the advancement of science, and there Tyndall came under the influence of Michael Farraday, who was his boss,” says Cantor.

However, says Cantor, while Tyndall is well-known among historians of science, there is no one thing for which he is famous.

“At the time, he was very well-known — he was a first-rate lecturer of science,” he says, adding that Tyndall was adept at popularising science.

“He was extremely good at giving lectures on scientific subjects.

“His research was connected to what we now know as the greenhouse effect, and he carried out extensive researches into bacteria, in collaboration with Louis Pasteur,” Cantor says.

However, says Cantor, while the correspondence in volume one, which runs to 500 pages, gives a good insight into Tyndall’s early scientific work, it also provides a graphic picture of Irish society in the pre-Famine years of the early 1840s.

“The letters in this first volume give a a very good picture of life in Ireland in the early 1840s.

“Tyndall’s father was a very anti-Catholic Protestant and the first volume covers the religious conflict, at the time, between Catholics and Protestants.

“The hostility between the communities is very evident in the letters. Irish historians would be very interested in the light this correspondence also sheds on society in the early 1840s.”

However, Tyndall’s impact stretched beyond the realms of science — he’s also credited as one of the founders of mountaineering as a sport.

His sporting firsts include an ascent of the Weisshorn and the traverse of the Matterhorn.

He is remembered today, in Ireland and globally, through a number of academic scholarships and research facilities, including the Tyndall National Institute, and the Tyndall Research Centre for Climate Change, which is in East Anglia, in the UK.

Speaking at the launch, Dr Prendergast described Tyndall, who died in 1893, as a self-made man.

An experimental physicist, one of the great outspoken champions of science in the 19th century, “who took on the Church in his defence of Darwinism,” Tyndall, he said, was also a renowned mountaineer and inventor.

Professor John Sweeney, of Maynooth University, said: “John Tyndall was the first person to prove, by experimentation, the role of the greenhouse gases in warming the Earth, and modern climate science, as well as many other branches of science, owes a great debt to his pioneering work.”

  • The Correspondence of John Tyndall, Volume One, published by Pickering and Chatto of London; edited by Geoffrey Cantor and Gowan Dawson, with general editors James Elwick, Bernard Lightman and Michael Reidy; €140

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