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Correspondence and papers of Nikolaas Tinbergen


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The collection includes important biographical material and records of Tinbergen's research, lectures and publications, and later interest in childhood autism. Only a small proportion of what must have been a very extensive general scientific correspondence survives, and there is virtually no material relating to visits and conferences or professional affiliations such as learned societies.

The Biographical series is particularly noteworthy for Dutch material before Tinbergen's postwar move to Oxford. There are, for example, letters from East Prussia 1925, Greenland 1932-1933, Altenberg 1937, and the hostage camp 1942. The wartime internment is also represented by Tinbergen's portrait drawings of his fellow hostages. There is material relating to the 1973 Nobel Prize, including documentation of his use of the prize money to support research projects by others, and of his advocacy of the Alexander Technique in his Nobel Lecture. The section also includes the famous 1937 photograph of Lorenz with his family of goslings, the Dutch manuscript text and drawings for Tinbergen's children's story about Kliew the seagull (New York 1947 and the Netherlands 1948), and the drawings for his second children's story The Tale of John Stickle (London 1954).

The Research series, provides documentation of field observations and laboratory experiments in the Netherlands and England. The field notes, in notebooks and on loose pages, date from 1928, include observations of wasps, hobbies, gull species etc., and are characterised by Tinbergen's thumb-nail sketches of the subjects of his observations. The laboratory experiments relate to stickleback research.

The Lectures, publications and broadcasts series, is the largest in the collection. There are records of both Tinbergen's university teaching and public lectures. Although there are a few items from Leiden, almost all the material relates to Tinbergen's career at Oxford, and includes his contributions to the new Honour School of Human Sciences. There are drafts for scientific papers, illustrative material including photographs for Tinbergen's principal postwar books, and a little correspondence with publishers and editors. The drafts include some unpublished material, for example, the unfinished book on modern man's disadaptation with his environment. Most of the broadcasts material relates to television film documentaries including the Italia Prizewinner 'Signals for survival'.

The Autism series, provides very extensive documentation of Tinbergen and his wife Elisabeth's investigation of this serious mental disorder in children. There is correspondence 1970-1988 with ethologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists and others responsible for the care and treatment of autistic children, drafts of lectures, articles and especially the 1983 monograph, printed and duplicated background material, and case histories. (The four boxes of case histories are not available for consultation.)

The Correspondence series, is slight. Much of the correspondence dates from after Tinbergen's official retirement in 1974 and there are virtually no extended exchanges with colleagues.

The correspondence with Konrad Lorenz, Ernst Mayr, and Tinbergen's brother Jan, who was awarded the 1969 Nobel prize for economics, although disappointing in extent, is probably the most significant.


  • 1920-1990


4.73 Linear metres (556 physical shelfmarks)

Language of Materials

English, Dutch, German, Danish, French

Conditions Governing Access

Some material is closed.

Preferred Citation

Oxford, Bodleian Libraries [followed by shelfmark, e.g. MS. Eng. c. 3125/A.1.]
Please see our help page for further guidance on citing archives and manuscripts.

Full range of shelfmarks:

MSS. Eng. b. 2041; MSS. Eng. c. 3125-3158; MSS. Eng. e. 2733-2750; MSS. Eng. d. 2387
Former reference: NCUACS 27.3.91/A.1 - NCUACS 27.3.91/E.52

Collection ID (for staff)

CMD ID 9671


Correspondence and papers of Nikolaas Tinbergen FRS, (1907-1988), ethologist and scientist

Biographical / Historical

Nikolaas (Niko) Tinbergen, one of the founding fathers of modern ethology, was born in The Hague on 15 April 1907. After secondary schooling in which he neglected the traditional academic subjects in favour of his sports and natural history interests, he spent a couple of months in the autumn of 1925 at the Rositten observatory in East Prussia which pioneered the scientific ringing of birds. This experience of biological fieldwork persuaded Tinbergen to enrol as a student at the University of Leiden where he specialised in zoology. In 1931 he was appointed 'assistent' in the Leiden Zoology Department and in 1932 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden for his homing studies on wasps of the genus Philanthus. Married in 1932 to Elizabeth Amelie Rutten, Tinbergen and his wife then spent two summers and a winter among the Anmagssalingmiut Eskimos of East Greenland studying the snow bunting, red-necked phalarope and husky. Returning to Leiden he taught experimental zoology and especially animal behaviour until 1949, by which time he was Professor and Head of Department. His career was interrupted during the Second World War when he was imprisoned as a hostage by the German occupation authorities.

During his time at Leiden Tinbergen developed laboratory work, in which the three-spined stickleback proved a particularly successful experimental animal, and field studies initiating projects on wasps, butterflies and hobbies at an annual camp which he organised for his students among the sandhills of Hulshorst. His work on the breeding behaviour of herring gulls also dates from this period and, like the stickleback research, became one of the classics of ethology. In 1936 Konrad Lorenz, who was later to share the Nobel Prize with Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch, visited Leiden. Lorenz and Tinbergen immediately recognised their common interests and Tinbergen spent the spring of 1937 working with Lorenz at the Lorenz family home at Altenberg, near Vienna. This association was to have the greatest importance for their science. In 1938 Tinbergen made his first attempt to introduce the ethological approach to animal behaviour studies to the English-speaking world on a visit to the USA. He pursued this mission with great dedication and success after the war.

As an essential step in this process Tinbergen resigned his professorship at Leiden in 1949 and accepted a less well paid and less prestigious lectureship in A. C. Hardy's department at Oxford, where he remained for the rest of his career. He was appointed Professor of Animal Behaviour in 1966 and retired in 1974. At Oxford he lectured with great success on animal behaviour to zoology and psychology students, and built up a research group that had a profound influence on the development of ethology round the world. In particular, his research focused on the adaptedness of behaviour. His work on the herring gull initiated in the Netherlands developed into comparative studies of many gull species. Tinbergen's most influential book The Study of Instinct, based on lectures given at the American Museum of Natural History in 1947, appeared in 1951 and Social Behaviour in Animals followed in 1953. In keeping with his aim of spreading the ethological message he made frequent visits abroad to attend conferences and also accepted the occasional one-term visiting professorship. Two of his best books were written for the educated layman, The herring gull's world (1953) and Curious naturalists (1958), and in the 1960s he devoted much effort to making scientific films. One of these, 'Signals for survival', made with Hugh Falkus, won the Italia prize for documentary television films.

In the 1960s Tinbergen became increasingly preoccupied with the implications of the ethological approach for man. One aspect of this was his support for the initiative of Hardy's successor, J. W. S. Pringle, to establish at Oxford a new honours course in "The Human Sciences". It is reflected also in the titles of his inaugural lecture as Professor of Animal Behaviour 'War and peace in animals and man' (1968), and of his Royal Society Croonian Lecture 'Functional ethology and the human sciences' (1972). Furthermore, Tinbergen was interested in science and society relationships and felt it was the duty of the scientist to draw attention to man's increasing disadaptation to his environment and to suggest ways in which he might be readapted. Tinbergen lectured on this topic on a number of occasions, but put aside a book on the subject unfinished to concentrate his energies in retirement on a more specific application of ethological methods to human behaviour. For over ten years Tinbergen and his wife collaborated on a study of the serious mental disorder childhood autism, publishing the results of their enquiry into its nature, ontogeny and treatment, 'Autistic' children - new hope for a cure, in 1983.

Tinbergen received many honours and awards in recognition of his contribution to ethology. In addition to the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine (1973), he received the Swammerdam Medal, awarded only every ten years, and honorary degrees from Edinburgh and Leicester. He was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society (1962) and to national academies in the Netherlands, Germany and the USA. Tinbergen died in Oxford in 1988.


Biographical (MS. Eng. b. 2041; MS. Eng. c. 3125 - MS. Eng. c. 3129)

Research (MS. Eng. c. 3130; MS. Eng. e. 2733 - MS. Eng. e. 2750; MS. Eng. d. 2387)

Lectures, publications and broadcasts (MS. Eng. c. 3131 - MS. Eng. c. 3143)

Autism (MS. Eng. c. 3144 - MS. Eng. c. 3155)

Correspondence (MS. Eng. c. 3156 - MS. Eng. c. 3158)

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The papers were received from Professor Tinbergen's widow, Mrs. E. A. Tinbergen, in April and October 1989. Additionally, the typescript journal of the 1932-1933 Greenland expedition was received from Miss Janet Tinbergen, and the photograph of the March 1990 Tinbergen Legacy meeting in Oxford from Dr. Marian Dawkins.

Related Materials

For a more detailed account of the life and career of Tinbergen see:
  1. Patterns of Behaviour: Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and the Founding of Ethology, Richard W. Burkhardt, Jr., (2005)
  2. Niko's Nature: A Life of Niko Tinbergen and His Science of Animal Behaviour, Hans Kruuk, (2003)
  3. the memoir by R. A. Hinde, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 36, (1960)
  4. for Tinbergen's own autobiographical account see D. A. Dewsbury (ed.), Leaders in the Study of Animal Behavior, (1985).
A collection of Tinbergen's photographs has been deposited in the Rijks Voorlichts Dienst - Foto en Film archief, Anna Polownastraat 76, The Haque, Netherlands.
Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Nikolaas Tinbergen FRS, (1907-1988), ethologist
Finding aid prepared by Original catalogue by Peter Harper and Timothy E. Powell; EAD version by Lawrence Mielniczuk
EAD version 2017
Language of description
English and Dutch

Repository Details

Part of the Bodleian Libraries Repository

Weston Library
Broad Street
Oxford OX1 3BG United Kingdom