Papers and correspondence of Charles Sutherland Elton, 1900-1991

Scope and Content

The papers contain biographical and autobiographical material, records of Elton's expeditions, fieldwork and surveys including photographs, his natural history notebooks, and correspondence. During his later years Elton devoted much time and effort to autobiographical writing and, although he did not produce a full-scale autobiography, he did prepare narratives of his family background, school, military training, student days, and notes on his books, geological, meteorological and ecological interests, and on his brother Geoffrey. Amongst the material he assembled in connection with this activity are records relating to the Bureau of Animal Population (BAP), his university teaching and his work for the Nature Conservancy.

There are records, principally diaries and photographs, of the four Arctic expeditions, 1921-1930, three visits to Denmark, 1953-1962, and four visits to tropical America, 1965-1973. As Elton had no contemporary diary in respect of the 1921 Spitsbergen expedition, he prepared, 1978-1983, a general account with photographs specifically for archival deposit. There are notebooks used by Elton for his natural history notes, 1914-1987, records of an ecological survey at Leckford, Hampshire, 1938-1939, and of ash bark beetle research carried out in Wytham Woods, Oxfordshire and at the BAP, 1948-1964, and photograph albums covering a wide range of locations and habitats including Leckford, Wytham and Nature Conservancy areas, 1927-1963. Also of interest is the notebook kept by Elton to record his Garden Mastership of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, 1938-1945. There is substantial correspondence with colleagues who began their research careers at the BAP including R.S. Miller, C. Overgaard Nielsen and P.W. Crowcroft, the author of a history of the BAP Elton's Ecologists (Chicago University Press, 1991). Other correspondents include the Russian ecologist N.I. Kalabukhov and colleagues with whom he established contact in connection with the later interest in the ecology of the tropical rainforest.

Administrative / Biographical History

Elton was born in Manchester and educated at Liverpool College and New College, Oxford graduating with first class honours in zoology in 1922. Elton's interest in natural history was inspired by his elder brother Geoffrey and he devoted his career at Oxford University to turning natural history into the science of ecology, applying the scientific method to study the lives of animals in their natural habitats and interrelationships with their surroundings. In 1921, while still an undergraduate, he acted as assistant to J.S. Huxley on an Oxford University expedition to Spitsbergen, making an ecological survey of local animal life, a project he continued on three subsequent Arctic expeditions in 1923, 1924, and 1930. In 1927 he published his classic work Animal Ecology outlining the important principles of ecological studies such as food chains and the food cycle, the size of food, niches and the 'pyramid of numbers'. His Arctic experience led to a consultancy with the Hudson's Bay Company, 1926-1931, which enabled him to study fluctuations in the populations of fur-bearing animals, and this in turn led to research on Britain's mouse and vole populations.

In 1932 Elton established his Bureau of Animal Population at Oxford which became a centre for the collection of data on variations in animal numbers and a research institute in terrestrial ecology. In the same year he became the founding editor of the Journal of Animal Ecology. In 1936 Oxford University appointed him Reader in Animal Ecology and Corpus Christi College elected him a Senior Research Fellow. During the Second World War the Bureau was assigned to protect Britain's vital foodstuffs by finding effective methods of controlling rats, mice and rabbits, under the Agricultural Research Council. After the war Elton embarked on a comprehensive survey of animals and their interrelationships on Oxford University's Wytham estate, 1945-1967. On retirement he studied tropical ecology and made a number of visits to tropical America. His interests in conservation and problems in management of nature reserves led to much advisory work for the Nature Conservancy which was established in 1949. Amongst his later books were The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants (1958) and The Pattern of Animal Communities (1966). He was elected FRS in 1953 (Darwin Medal 1970).


By section as follows: Biographical and autobiographical, Notebooks, Expeditions, Fieldwork and surveys, Correspondence. Index of correspondents.

Access Information

Entry permitted only on presentation of a valid reader's card or an Oxford University Card displaying the Bodleian logo. All applicants for new or replacement cards must apply in person, with a recommendation and payment if required, and with proof of their identity.

Other Finding Aids

Printed Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Charles Sutherland Elton (1900-1991) by P. Harper and T.E. Powell, NCUACS catalogue no. 39/1/93, 38 pp. Copies available from NCUACS, University of Bath

Custodial History

Received for cataloguing in 1992 by the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists from Mrs E.J. Elton, widow. Placed in Bodleian Library (gift) in 1993.