Papers and correspondence of Charles Alfred Coulson, 1910-1974

Scope and Content

The papers are very extensive. They include a little family material relating to Coulson's father, and chart, almost without interruption, all aspects of Coulson's own life and career. They include many unpublished lectures and papers, many publications omitted from the official bibliography (which already listed 444 items), and much personal and scientific correspondence. There is also material relating to Oxford University and Coulson's part in the development of the Mathematical Institute and the Theoretical Chemistry Department. From the time of his first academic appointment at Dundee in 1938, Coulson attached great importance to fostering or creating research schools, and his successive departments were prolific in publications and sent out scholars from and to all parts of the world who spread his methods and influence. The care he showed for them extended to details of housing, schooling and finance as well as to the supervision of research and guidance of subsequent career, and is amply documented in the papers.

The records of working notes, calculations and correspondence help to provide a picture of the development of theoretical chemistry as a subject of research and as an academic discipline with which Coulson was closely involved from about 1930 to his death in 1974. He was himself aware of the value of lecture notes and drafts as a source of historical information on teaching methods, curriculum development and the spread of new ideas from the frontiers of research through the various strata of the educational system, and for these reasons he preserved his notes taken as an undergraduate and graduate at Cambridge, and notes and updated drafts for his own lectures and talks. There is also a very extensive correspondence on all topics of interest to Coulson, scientific and religious.

Administrative / Biographical History

Coulson was born in Dudley, Yorkshire and was educated at Clifton College, Bristol and Trinity College, Cambridge where he obtained first class honours in both mathematics (1929, 1931) and physics (1932). He then became the first graduate student of J.E. Lennard-Jones who had just been appointed to the Chair of Theoretical Chemistry at Cambridge, the only one at that time in Britain. Coulson remained in Cambridge until 1938 when he took up an appointment as Lecturer in the Mathematics Department, St Andrews University, at University College, Dundee. In 1945 he moved to Oxford University to join the Physical Chemistry Laboratory as a theoretician (ICI Fellow in Chemistry) and soon after his arrival he was appointed as Lecturer in Mathematics at University College, Oxford. Two years later he accepted his first chair as Professor of Theoretical Physics at King's College, London. In 1952 he returned to Oxford as Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics in succession to E.A. Milne. He did much to develop the newly-created Mathematical Institute of which he became Curator in 1963 in succession to E.C. Titchmarsh. He initiated in 1955 the Summer School in Theoretical Chemistry which continued to be led by him until 1973. In 1972 he resigned the Rouse Ball Chair to become the first Professor of Theoretical Chemistry at Oxford in a chair that now bears his name. Coulson's most important contribution to theoretical chemistry was his molecular orbital theory and the concept of partial valency. As his appointments indicate he also worked in mathematics and physics, and made contributions in biology. He was elected FRS in 1950 (Davy Medal 1970).

Coulson's family was a Methodist one, and his own faith developed strongly during his undergraduate years at Cambridge. His religious beliefs led to his participation in a wide range of humanitarian movements and organisations, and he played a major public role, for example, as Chairman of Oxfam, 1965-1971, as Vice-President of the Methodist Conference in 1959, and as a member of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, 1962-1968. He was in constant demand as a lecturer and visiting professor, and always shared his time on overseas visits between scientific and religious commitments.


By section as follows: Biographical and personal, Scientific working papers, Lectures, Publications, Religious, humanitarian and pacifist writings, Scientific committees, societies and journals, Conferences, Religious, humanitarian and pacifist organisations, Correspondence, Oxford University, Conspectus, Bibliography. 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. Some items not available until 2004.

Other Finding Aids

Printed Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Charles Alfred Coulson (1910-1974) by H. Weiskittel and J. Alton, CSAC catalogue no. 60/4/78, 364 pp. Copies available from NCUACS, University of Bath.

Separated Material

Coulson's notes on lectures attended as an undergraduate and graduate student at Cambridge University are held in Cambridge University Library.

Papers relating to the 'Cambridge Group' movement are held at Wesley House, Cambridge.

Two videotapes of lecture 'What happens to an electron in a molecule?' are held at the Audiovisual Centre, London University.

Tape of lecture 'Making Models. What is applied mathematics all about?' is held at the Open University, Milton Keynes.

Scientific books from Coulson's library have been divided amongst a number of Oxford University locations: the Mathematical Institute, Radcliffe Science Library, Theoretical Chemistry Department and Wadham College Library. Photographs of Coulson are also held by the Mathematical Institute and the Department of Theoretical Chemistry.

A collection of books on science and religion is separately housed as 'the Coulson Collection' in the Library, King's College, London.

Books, periodicals and pamphlets from Coulson's library are held in the Peace Studies Library, Bradford University.

Custodial History

Received for cataloguing in 1974-1975 by the Contemporary Scientific Archives Centre from Mrs Eileen Coulson, widow. Placed in Bodleian Library (Gift) in 1978.