I have recently assisted several researchers who are working on various aspects of the life and career of John Tyndall FRS, one of the nineteenth century’s most important and influential scientists. This synchronised interest in Tyndall piqued my own curiosity, and a bit of investigating has revealed Tyndall to be a rather distinctive character from the Society’s diverse Fellowship.

Portrait of John Tyndall FRS by John McClure Hamilton

Credited as the first person to establish the concept of the greenhouse gas and the father figure of climate science itself, Tyndall conducted extensive practical research at the Royal Institution’s laboratory, where he was Professor of Physics for more than 30 years; his varied research gained many plaudits and praise, and he published an array of books and papers. Tyndall’s extensive network of influential scientist friends eventually came to centre on a core group of illustrious men, which included Joseph Hooker, John Lubbock and Thomas Huxley, all Fellows of the Royal Society and very highly thought of in their field. Along with four other luminaries, Tyndall and his friends established ‘The X-Club’, a sort-of scientific super-group, with each member being given a suitably ‘super’ moniker: I’d be very interested to learn who decided that Tyndall’s own moniker should be ‘Xcentric’!

The Club’s first meeting was in November 1864, and the members continued to meet on a regular basis, even though the Club had no specific purpose or ‘vision’, to use today’s parlance, other than to provide the men with the opportunity to meet socially and to discuss the burning scientific topics of the day. However, what was ostensibly a select social club with no defined purpose in fact wielded considerable influence, given the prominent positions and offices held by its exclusive membership. Roy Macleod’s excellent 1970 article for Notes & Records, ‘The X-Club: A social network of science in late-Victorian England’, contains a wealth of information about the formation of the club, its members, its influence and its gradual decline.

The X-Club’s eventual demise came shortly after Tyndall’s own tragic death, in 1893, at the hands of his beloved wife Louisa, who accidentally administered a fatal dose of chloral hydrate, used by Tyndall to treat his insomnia. Realising her mistake, Tyndall is reputed to have uttered, ‘Darling, you have killed your John’ with his dying breaths. The Society acquired a pair of portraits of the Tyndalls in 1976, and Louisa Tyndall is one of the few women represented in the Society’s outstanding portrait collection; Louisa’s act may be somewhat infamous, but the tragic story of John Tyndall’s has ensured that they are remembered as curious figures in the Society’s long history.

Portraits of John and Louisa Tyndall from the Royal Society's collection

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