The Ascent of John Tyndall by Roland Jackson

The Ascent of John Tyndall 
by Roland Jackson
Oxford University Press, 2018

John Tyndale.jpg

At the end of his massive and spryly readable biography of Victorian alpinist, scientist, and omnivorously curious polymath John Tyndall, author Roland Jackson posits three reasons why his subject, during his lifetime considered one of the Western world's great researchers and public intellectuals, has been so completely forgotten. One of these reasons is that Tyndall lived at the wrong time: experimental science was still so undeveloped in England that he had to travel to Germany in order to learn its rudiments, and he died just as that science was yielding breakthroughs in a host of fields, from radioactivity to quantum mechanics. Another reasons is that Tyndall was primarily a tinkerer in laboratories – an inspired and insightful one, but nevertheless no grand theoretician of the type who usually garner posthumous fame.

And the last of the reasons is that he wasn't the subject of a properly fat Victorian triple-decked biography shortly after his death, as were so many of his equally-famous scientific colleagues. Tyndall died in 1893 at the age of 73 when his wife Louisa accidentally gave him an overdose of the drug he usually used to help him sleep. He was buried, mourned, eulogized, and then forgotten by all but his nearest and dearest. His wife Louisa collected a vast trove of letters and documents and then sat on that trove, always hoping that she herself would one day use them to write a biography of her husband. She never did, and in this case 'never' lasted well into an entirely new era: she died in 1940. “It was not until 1945, five years after her death, that a semi-authorized general biography was published,” Jackson writes. “There has not been another one until this.” Then he puts in the ice-pick: “In a tragic sense, having outlived him so long, she killed him twice.”

There's of course nothing that can be done about the first of these reasons for Tyndall's neglect by posterity: as a working scientist studying a wide variety of subjects from meteorology to bacteriology to magnetism, he made enthusiastic use of the latest, most advanced equipment he could find – indeed, several of his best-known experiments involving radiant heat were largely made possible by improvements in the electric light technology of his day – but he couldn't control when he lived. Nothing can be done about the second reason for his neglect either; he was a brilliant experimental thinker, a fierce advocate of rigorous, repeatable testing of all scientific claims, but he simply tended not to think in larger conceptual terms, often simply noting odd phenomena that would have prompted excited theorizing in most of his peers. As a result, although there are numerous specific Tyndall discoveries scattered around the physical sciences, there is not Great Tyndall Constant to keep his name alive.

But about the third reason – the lack of a standard, reputation-defining “Life & Letters,” Jackson himself has done more than anybody alive today. Not only is he a General Editor of The Correspondence of John Tyndall (ongoing from the University of Pittsburgh Press), but now, with The Ascent of John Tyndall, he has written the great biography the man has always warranted. In this brick-solid 500-page book, virtually every aspect of Tyndall's very active life is thoroughly and sympathetically examined: his youth, his marriage and steady rise in world of practical science, his constantly-branching interests, and his constantly-expanding circle of close friends. Refreshingly, Jackson doesn't shy away from the nuts-and-bolts of Tyndall's extensive scientific work – rather, he dives right into specifics and conveys it all wonderfully for the non-scientific audience.

And throughout, he maintains a regular focus on the bedrock thinking that animated Tyndall's approach to his professional passions. “Tyndall was generally perceived as an unremitting champion of the importance of 'blue skies' research, untrammelled by commercial interest or objectives,” Jackson writes. “This he was, at a time when the support of original research for its own sake through public money was limited, and private patrons less evident than a century before.”  

Jackson is certainly correct about those three reasons for why Tyndall is so badly neglected today, and the melancholy reality is that fixing only one of those reasons, however expertly, won't fix the other two. John Tyndall is fated to go right on being a member in good standing of that swarming crowd, the Forgotten Victorian Greats. But he has his book now, and that's cause for cheer regardless.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is