Papers and correspondence of Nikolaas Tinbergen, 1907-1988

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 161 N. Tinbergen papers
  • Dates of Creation
  • Language of Material
      English, Dutch, and German.
  • Physical Description
      59 boxes

Scope and Content

Original material: The papers have significant Dutch material before the move to Oxford, including letters from Tinbergen to his family from East Prussia 1925, Greenland 1932-1933, Altenberg 1937 and the hostage camp 1942. Tinbergen's research is represented by documentation of field observations and laboratory experiments in the Netherlands and Britain. The field notes, for example, date from 1928 and are characterised by Tinbergen's thumb-nail sketches of the subjects of his observations. There are records of his university teaching and invitation and public lectures from the Oxford period, including his contributions to the new multidisciplinary School of Human Sciences. The autism investigation is very extensively documented by nearly twenty years' correspondence with scientific colleagues, therapists and others responsible for the care and treatment of autistic children, and drafts of Tinbergen's lectures, articles and monograph on the subject. General scientific correspondence is by contrast slight. The correspondence with Lorenz, E. Mayr and Tinbergen's brother Jan, who was awarded the 1969 Nobel Prize for Economics, though disappointing in extent, is probably the most significant. There are also Tinbergen's sketches of his fellow Second World War hostages, and drawings for his children's books about Kliew the seagull (New York 1947) and The Tale of John Stickle (London 1954).

Supplementary Papers: The papers relate entirely to the latter part of Tinbergen's career at Oxford and document aspects of his career unrepresented in the original collection of papers including research funding, societies and organisations and visits and conferences.

There are papers relating to the funding of Tinbergen's research at the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, 1959-1975. They illustrate Tinbergen's personal research areas, his interest in the production of scientific films as an educational tool, the advancement of ethological studies in general and the application of ethological principles to the study of mankind. The papers include correspondence, application forms, reports and financial statements. Research funding bodies with which Tinbergen dealt include the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, the Science Research Council, the Medical Research Council, the Nature Conservancy and the United States Air Force, European Office of Aerospace Research, Brussels, Belgium.

A number of Tinbergen's associations with professional and public bodies are documented in the supplementary collection. These include the Department of Science and Industrial Research (from 1965 the Science Research Council) in connection with Tinbergen's membership of a Working Party on Animal Behaviour Research, the Nuffield Foundation in connection with his participation in the Science Teaching Project where he was a member of the School Biology Project Consultative Committee, the Royal Society including his participation in a Royal Society study group that discussed current research in non-verbal communication in animals and man, and the Serengeti Research Institute which Tinbergen served as a member of its Scientific Council. Visits and conferences material consists mainly of correspondence, 1962-1970, relating to the organisation of the biannual International Ethological Conferences. There is also a group of photographs featuring delegates of the Fourteenth International Ornithological Congress held at Oxford in 1966. Tinbergen was the Secretary General of the Congress.

Administrative / Biographical History

Tinbergen was born in The Hague. After secondary school he spent a couple of months in autumn 1925 at the Rositten observatory, East Prussia, which pioneered the scientific ringing of birds. This experience of biological fieldwork persuaded him to study zoology at Leiden University. In 1931 he was appointed 'assistent' in the Leiden Zoology Department and in 1932 he was awarded his Ph.D. for homing studies on Philanthus wasps. Married in 1932, Tinbergen and his wife spent fourteen months in Greenland studying the snow bunting, the red-necked phalarope and husky. Returning to Leiden he taught experimental zoology and 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. In 1949 he resigned his Professorship at Leiden and accepted a lecturership in the department of A.C. Hardy at Oxford University, where he remained for the rest of his career. He was appointed Professor of Animal Behaviour in 1966 and retired in 1974.

Tinbergen was one of the founding fathers of modern ethology. At Leiden he developed laboratory work, in which the three-spined stickleback proved a particularly successful experimental animal, and field studies initiating projects on wasps, butterflies and the hobby (bird of prey). 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. He spent the spring of 1937 working with K.Z. Lorenz at Altenberg near Vienna, an association that was to have the greatest importance for their science. After the move to Oxford, Tinbergen 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; the work on the herring gull initiated in the Netherlands developed into comparative studies of many gull species. His most influential book, The Study of Instinct, appeared in 1951 and he also wrote books for the educated layman and made scientific films such as the Italia Prize winner 'Signals for Survival' (1969). Tinbergen became increasingly preoccupied with the implications of the ethological approach for man, and in retirement he and his wife collaborated on a study of childhood autism publishing Autistic children - new hope for a cure in 1983. Tinbergen was elected FRS in 1962 (Croonian Lecture 1972) and awarded the 1973 Nobel Prize for Medicine (jointly with Lorenz and K. von Frisch) for their discoveries concerning organisation and elicitation of individual and social behaviour patterns.


By section as follows: Biographical, Research, Lectures, publications and broadcasts, Autism, 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.

Some items not available until 2016 or 2066.

Other Finding Aids

Printed Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Nikolaas Tinbergen: NCUACS catalogue no. 27/3/91, 90 pp and NCUACS supplementary catalogue no. 79/8/98, 30 pp. Copies available from NCUACS, University of Bath

Separated Material

A collection of Tinbergen's photographs are held in the Rijks Voorlichts Dienst- Foto en Film archief, The Hague, Netherlands.

Custodial History

Original material: Received for cataloguing in 1989 by the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists from Mrs Elisabeth Tinbergen, widow. Placed in the Bodleian Library (gift) in 1991.

Supplementary material: Received for cataloguing in 1998 by National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists from the Zoology Department, Oxford University via the Bodleian Library. Returned to the Bodleian Library in 1998.