£1m campaign to keep notebooks of Charles Darwin’s mentor in UK

Notebooks belonging to a scientist who mentored Charles Darwin are at the centre of a campaign to keep them in the UK and make them available to the public.

The 294 notebooks written by Scottish geologist Sir Charles Lyell are currently in private hands but a campaign led by the University of Edinburgh needs to raise nearly £1 million to buy the “fundamentally important archive”.

Contained within the notebooks are copies of correspondence with Darwin, who wrote in his autobiography: “The science of geology is enormously indebted to Lyell – more so, as I believe, than to any other man who ever lived.”

Some of Sir Charles Lyell's notebooks which campaigners want to save to make public (Sotheby's/PA)
Some of Sir Charles Lyell's notebooks which campaigners want to save to make public (Sotheby's/PA)

Lyell, who died in 1875 aged 77, mentored Darwin after the latter returned from his five-year voyage on the Beagle in 1836 and is credited with providing the scientific framework that helped Darwin develop his evolutionary theories.

The works also feature the Victorian scientist’s perspective on issues of current concern, including climate change and threats to species diversity, as well as exploring the meaning of so-called deep time – the concept of geological time first described by a fellow Scot, James Hutton, in the 18th century.

A government export ban was placed upon the historical notebooks in a bid to keep them in the UK, giving campaigners until July 15 to raise the £966,000 needed to purchase the collection.

However, with £630,000 raised by pledges from more than 800 supporters ranging from the Geological Society of London to science broadcasters and writers Nicholas Crane, Hermione Cockburn and Richard Fortey, the export bar has been extended by three months in the hope of reaching the target amount.

If the campaign is successful, the University of Edinburgh has pledged to make the collection freely available to the public.

Jeremy Upton, the university’s library and collections director, said: “The prospect of acquiring and making freely accessible such a fundamentally important archive collection as Sir Charles Lyell’s notebooks is a thrilling one.”

Professor James A Secord, from the University of Cambridge and director of the Darwin Correspondence Project, said: “The notebooks are key to appreciating his standing as arguably the most significant figure in the earth sciences in Britain in the past two centuries.”

#OTD in 1797, Sir Charles Lyell was born so today would have been his 220nd birthday! He is best known as the author of Principles of Geology, that presented uniformitarianisn, stating that the Earth was shaped by the same processes still operating today. #RockStarpic.twitter.com/ozTqhGVhbs

— British Geological Survey (@BritGeoSurvey) November 14, 2017

President of Edinburgh Geological Society Robert Gatliff described the “colossal impact” of Lyell on geology.

“Lyell was one the first geologists to bring the subject to public attention,” he said.

“One of the key things that he recognised was that we can use the current environment and natural processes as the key to the past history of the earth.

“His notebooks are so important to the development of geological thinking in Britain, it would be a travesty to see them lost so this fundraising campaign is crucial.”