Appeal to save Sir Charles Lyell’s Scientific Notebooks

The Devonshire Association and particularly its Geology section is keen to support the following appeal from the University of Edinburgh.

“The University of Edinburgh is currently trying to acquire the scientific notebooks of the great geologist Sir Charles Lyell. These notebooks are currently under an Export Bar until the 15th of October 2019. The original price of £1,444,000 has been renegotiated so that £966,000 now has to be raised. We have already received messages of support from many distinguished individuals and institutions, as well as over 800 online pledges. With the University’s and other contributions we have raised over £610,000 – a great start, which has given us confidence that we have a good chance of meeting our target by the deadline.”

The importance of Lyell to the history of geology and the earth sciences is well known to geologists. Much of his life’s work was connected with writing his Principles of Geology in which he showed that understanding current geological processes was the key to understanding those of the past. He also worked on the temporal and geographical distribution of species and consulted frequently with his friend Charles Darwin.

William Pengelly, geologist and founder member of the Devonshire Association, was also well known to Lyell. Pengelly’s excavation of a cave at Brixham where flint implements were found conmingled with mammoth remains, eventually convinced Lyell of the antiquity of man.

Geology section Committee Member Prof John Mather has written:

Just to let you know that as the former Lyell Professor at Royal Holloway, I am involved in the efforts by Edinburgh University to raise the funding for Charles Lyell’s notebooks … Any small donation to the cause would be much appreciated. The number of donations is important (even of £10 or £20) as it sends a message to potential large donors that there is real interest in keeping these notebooks in the UK.

The opportunity to save Lyell’s notebooks and make them publicly available is a unique opportunity; some include correspondence with Darwin.

The campaign has asked the Devonshire Association (amongst many others) to share their web address: with our members. If they are successful in saving Lyell’s notebooks they plan on making them fully and freely accessible; physically in their centre for research collections and in exhibitions, but also digitally and online; so that everyone can benefit from this unique and remarkable geological archive.

Update: the notebooks were saved!

Greg Callaghan