Papers and correspondence of Leslie Ernest Sutton, 1906-1992

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

This small collection includes Sutton's own autobiographical sketch with accounts of both his family background and scientific research. Documentation of the development of Sutton's scientific interests in the form of notebooks, notes, drafts and publications covers roughly the period 1928-1970, though there is no coverage of work during the Second World War or of the detailed preparation of Interatomic distances. There are a few records relating to Oxford University Laboratories which are of interest in recording the 'shoestring' running of quite major laboratories and their apparatus in the 1930s, and the invaluable work of craftsmen technicians like F.J. Marsh and S.W. Bush. Lectures material relates almost entirely to work for the undergraduate Honours School at Oxford. Correspondence is somewhat scanty. Although it includes letters from distinguished individuals, often at an interesting period of their careers, the exchanges are usually rather insubstantial.

Administrative / Biographical History

Sutton was born in Twickenham, Middlesex on 22 June 1906 and educated at Watford Grammar School and Lincoln College, Oxford where he read chemistry. His tutor, N.V. Sidgwick, guided early studies of thallium, and arranged for him to spend six months, 1928-1929, in the laboratory of P.W.J. Debye at Leipzig learning the technique of measuring the electrical polarisation of molecules in solution. Returning to Oxford, he designed apparatus and became the leading experimentalist in this type of measurement. An early result of the work was the confirmation of R. Robinson's theories of organic reactions. Robinson supported Sutton's successful application in 1932 for a Fellowship by Examination at Magdalen College, Oxford, submitted his early papers on dipole moments to the Royal Society for publication, and (Sutton believed) backed the award of a Rockefeller Foundation Scholarship which enabled him to work in L.C. Pauling's laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, 1933-1934. Here Sutton learnt the then novel technique of electron diffraction in the measurement of molecular structure, which became his principal programme of study on his return to Oxford.

In 1936 Sutton became a Tutorial Fellow and Lecturer in Chemistry, Magdalen College Oxford (Fellow Emeritus 1973), University Demonstrator and Lecturer in Chemistry, 1945-1962, and Reader in Physical Chemistry, 1962-1973. Apart from many collaborative papers his principal contribution was as scientific editor of the major compilation Tables of interatomic distances in molecules and ions, published in 1958 and still in use. He was elected FRS in 1950.


By section as follows: Biographical and autobiographical, Notebooks, Notes, drafts and publications, Oxford University laboratories, Lectures, Correspondence. Index of correspondents.

Conditions Governing Access

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.

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Other Finding Aids

Printed Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Leslie Ernest Sutton: NCUACS catalogue no. 51/7/94, 29 pp.

Separated Material

Papers relating to Magdalen College Oxford and Sutton's pupils are held by the College.

Papers relating to the Oxford University Alembic Club are at the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford.

Papers relating to the development of the electron diffraction camera are at the Science Museum, London.

Custodial History

Received for cataloguing in 1991 by the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists from the Chemical Crystallography Laboratory, Oxford University where Sutton had a retirement office. Placed in the Bodleian Library (gift) in 1994.