Archive of Charles Lyell, mentor of Charles Darwin, to go on public display

26 October 2023
One of the flint tools, collected by Charles Lyell, which will be on display in the exhibition
Conversations between Scottish geologist Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin are part of a collection on public display for the first time.

The vast archive of letters, maps and sketches, including heavily annotated editions of Lyell’s landmark book Principles of Geology, will be exhibited at the University of Edinburgh from 27 October.

Included in the exhibition are some 294 notebooks that were saved from export and purchased from the Lyell family through a £1 million fundraising campaign in 2019.

Of particular significance are Lyell’s notes on his intimate conversations with Darwin before publication of the Origin of Species. Lyell is credited with playing a pivotal role in shaping Darwin's scientific thinking on the processes involved in evolution.

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Charles Lyell (1797-1875) is a key figure in the history of geology and science in the nineteenth century. He is known for advocating the theory that the processes that are shaping the Earth’s crust today can be used to interpret events in the distant geological past.

In Principles of Geology, Lyell argued that processes such as erosion, sedimentation, and volcanic activity have been taking place gradually over a long period of time. This differed from the common belief at that time that catastrophic events unlike those ever witnessed by humans had shaped Earth's surface.

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Charles Lyell’s Scientific notebook 62, dated 3 February – 12 August 1836, page 63 featuring drawing of Goatfell, Isle of Arran

Lyell’s work is fundamental to environmental and ecological thinking that underlies the development of the science of geology.

The exhibition will provide a unique insight into his developing ideas about the uniformity of nature – including early ideas on climate change, extinction, and biodiversity – which are still influential today.

To add further context to Lyell’s life and career, the exhibition will draw on his collected fossils, specimens and shells alongside a selection of rare books by Isaac Newton and James Hutton, and contemporaries such as anti-slavery activist Frederick Douglass.

The archive also documents Lyell’s disturbing views on slavery following a trip through the slave plantations of the American South and his conversations with enslavers and enslaved women and men. During an era of imperial exploration and exploitation, his notes provide an unsettling insight into how scientific expeditions were intertwined with the deep divides of race, religion, culture, and politics.

Exhibition details

Visitors will be able to explore the exhibition, Time Traveller: Charles Lyell at Work, from 27 October 2023 until 30 March 2024 at the University of Edinburgh’s Main Library Exhibition Gallery.

Report and images courtesy University of Edinburgh