An ode to the ODNB

  • Themes: Culture

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is one of Britain’s cultural treasures.

Editions of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Editions of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Imagine the perfect educational resource. Imagine a vast, online database of biographical, archaeological, social, cultural and political knowledge, constantly revised, updated and expanded in response to the latest research and archival discoveries. Imagine more than 60,000 authoritative and rigorously researched articles covering 2,500 years of history and 72 million words, written by 13,000 experts from 52 countries. Now imagine getting all this for free with a UK library card. In fact, such an invaluable monument to learning already exists. The trouble is, the public barely knows about it.

I asked my Nana, my girlfriend and six friends if they had heard of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB). None had. But everyone has heard of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which was hailed a ‘national treasure’ by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin on its completion in 1928 and is trusted by scholars, journalists, and publishers around the world. In 2006, as part of a Department for Culture, Media and Sport campaign, the OED was voted one of 100 ‘Icons of England’ alongside Yorkshire puddings, Big Ben, Jane Austen’s novels, the FA Cup, red telephone boxes, the Globe Theatre, and the Sutton Hoo helmet.

In a way, the ODNB’s overlooked contribution to British culture is fitting, for the work is something of a shrinking violet even within academia. It is customary for scholars, in their articles and monographs, not to cite the names of the editors and authors who update the Dictionary. Such is its authority, a reference to the ‘ODNB’ is often corroboration enough. But this towering intellectual achievement deserves wider recognition. The ODNB is one of the greatest reference works ever produced, equal to the OED in its dizzying scope and dazzling erudition, and surely stands alone as the world’s largest collaborative humanities research project.

The ODNB traces its origins to the Dictionary of National Biography, a business venture devised in 1881 by George Murray Smith (head of Smith, Elder & Co. publishing house), who appointed the historian and biographer (and Virginia Woolf’s father) Leslie Stephen as editor, assisted and eventually succeeded by the early modern scholar Sidney Lee. The first edition was published in 1900 and the DNB was entrusted by Smith, Elder & Co. to Oxford University in 1917. Supplement volumes periodically updated the DNB until 1992, when Oxford University and Oxford University Press took on the frankly terrifying task of completely rewriting the whole DNB.

Led first by Professor Colin Matthew as founding editor of the new ODNB and then by Professor Sir Brian Harrison after Matthew’s death in 2000, the ODNB was published in 2004 with nearly 55,000 biographies of men and women who died before the year 2000. Under the editorship of Professor Lawrence Goldman, the ODNB embarked on a ‘continuation project’, extending and revising its coverage in response to the latest research. The ODNB celebrated its centenary in 2017 with a biography of Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013) by the current general editor Professor Sir David Cannadine.

In the inaugural 2004 Leslie Stephen Lecture (commemorating the founding editor of the DNB), Oxford historian Keith Thomas remarked that Leslie’s epic project soon ‘became the international benchmark against which all other attempts at national biography would be measured’. To understand the significance of the ODNB, then and now, we need to consider the history of scholarly attempts at collective biography and the evolution of the genre of the ‘reference work’ in Europe.

Scholarly efforts at collective biography stretch back to classical civilisation. Roman works such as Cornelius Nepos’s (c.110 BC – c.25 BC) De viris illustribus (On the Lives of Famous Men) and Suetonius’s (born around 69 AD) De vita Caesarum (known as The Twelve Caesars) pioneered the format. Another important precursor was medieval hagiography. Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea, an enormously popular thirteenth-century collection of narratives of saints’ lives, survives in over a thousand manuscript copies today. The 56 biographies in Giovanni Bocaccio’s De casibus virorum illustrium (On the Fates of Famous Men, 1373) formed the most influential collective biography of the European Middle Ages, consulted by princes, politicians, and magistrates, endlessly quarried by poets and playwrights and exhorted as a storehouse of cautionary tales and moral exempla for centuries. The Greek Plutarch’s (born around AD 46) Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans was immensely influential during the European Renaissance. Thomas North’s 1579 translation was used extensively by Shakespeare in Julius Caesar, Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra (all published in the First Folio of 1623).

But the Reformation radically politicised the genre of biography, as historians and polemicists rewrote the lives of saints, martyrs, popes, bishops and kings to substantiate new theologies and histories of the Western Church. John Leland and John Bale compiled biographical indexes of English writers, hoping to preserve the learning housed in the monasteries plundered by Henry VIII. Robert Barnes’s Vitae romanorum pontificum (1536) combined selections from biographies stretching from Linus (Peter’s successor) to Alexander III, to show how most of them ‘were truly none other than Domitians, Diocletians, and Neros’. John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, known as the Book of Martyrs (first published in 1563, with three further editions in Foxe’s lifetime in 1570, 1576, and 1583 and many others afterwards) told the story of the Church through the lives of its martyrs and became a cornerstone of the English Reformation.

Medieval hagiography came under sustained attack by humanist scholars due to its penchant for myth. But developments in philology and antiquarian research drove a group of Flemish Jesuit scholars, led by Jean Bolland, to revisit the lives of the saints in light of the ‘New Learning’. Their travels resembled less the impassioned pilgrimages of the Middle Ages than academics’ research trips today: ‘quests not for bones but for texts’, as Kyle Smith put it in his recent book Cult of the Dead: A Brief History of Christianity (2022). In 1643, supplemented by an enormous correspondence with Europe’s major libraries, archives and universities, the Bollandists published Acta Sanctorum (Acts of the Saints), a collection of critical hagiographies still being edited and updated today.

The eighteenth century was the age of the dictionary and the encyclopaedia. Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language  (1755) became the standard work for nearly 200 years, whilst the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1768) emerged in response to the massive Encyclopédie (1751–66) edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert. But while French scholars continued to excel with monumental works, such as the forty-five-volume Biographie Universelle (published from 1810 onwards), British biography lagged behind.

In 1864, the critic and educational reformer Matthew Arnold complained that ‘hardly any one amongst us, who knows French and German well, would use an English book of reference when he could get a French or German one’. In 1881, Smith saw the need for an updated compendium, asking Stephen (who had already authored several short studies of Johnson, Alexander Pope, and Jonathan Swift for The Cornhill Magazine) to lead the project.

Revised in scope, at Stephen’s suggestion, from universal to national biography, the work still proved gruelling. Stephen wrote long articles on Joseph Addison, the Brontës, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Cowper, Thomas De Quincey and others, as well as editing contributors’ essays. In January 1888, Stephen wrote to his friend, the American critic and Harvard professor Charles Eliot Norton: ‘The damned thing goes on like a diabolical piece of machinery, always gaping for more copy & I fancy at times that I shall be dragged into it & crushed.’ The remark proved ominous: Stephen collapsed in the Athenaeum library in 1889 and contracted pneumonia in January 1891, before finally stepping aside as editor (though he carried on writing). Sidney Lee, a young scholar of early modern England who had already served as sub-editor and co-editor under Stephen, brought the first edition to completion in 1900, with biographies of 29,333 people written by 653 contributors. A supplementary edition was immediately undertaken to account for ‘Missings Persons’ – not least Queen Victoria, who died on 22nd January 1901.

Stylistically, the ODNB aims for a neutral tone, shorn of authorial flair: articles are about their subjects, not opportunities for contributors to display their voice, wit or lyricism. Alfred Ainger, a prolific contributor who authored entries on Charles Lamb and Alfred Tennyson, described Stephen and Lee’s editorial demand for unornamented, economic prose as ‘no flowers, by request’.

As a country, we should be immensely proud of the ODNB. But its value lies not in a delusion of national unity but in a celebration of diversity. At its best, the ODNB is an extraordinary testament to British eccentricity. It contains not only the lives of kings, politicians, poets, and scholars, but pub landlords, gamblers, flamboyant dressers, pranksters, entertainers, mavericks, oddballs, criminals and otherwise ordinary citizens who led noteworthy lives.

On a casual browse, you might come across Red ‘Lady’ of Pavliand, a 33,000-year old skeleton discovered in a ceremonial burial site in 1823; Gladstone Adams (1880–1966) from Newcastle, who invented the windscreen wiper; Asquith Camile Xavier (1920–1980), a member of the Windrush Generation who challenged the colour bar at British Railways to become the first non-white train guard at Euston station in 1966; or Mary Toft (bap. 1703, d. 1763) a hoaxer who scandalised the nation by inserting cats’ intestines, eels’ spines and rabbits’ heads into her vagina and claiming to give birth to a succession of monsters. At times, the ODNB is reminiscent of a Wikipedia wormhole – except the articles are written and peer-reviewed by scholars, rather than being fabricated by American teenagers or manipulated by despotic regimes and corporations.

The ODNB is not just for eccentrics, though. Recent updates include important biographies of neglected but important women from British history, including Joan Cooke, (d. 1545/6), who founded a free school (now The Crypt School) in Gloucester in 1539; the philanthropist and activist for women’s education Lucy Caroline Cavendish (1841–1925); and the trade unionists Madeleine Jane Symons (1895–1957) and Dorothy Mary Elliott (1896–1980).

This attempt to rebalance coverage away from a focus on white politicians, poets and aristocrats has not pleased everyone. Since 2020, some articles have detailed subjects’ links to slavery – whether through direct ownership and business interests or in the form of inherited wealth and family connections – using information from University College London’s Legacies of British Slavery database. But this is not ‘frenzied revisionism’ or the pernicious influence of ‘fashionable nonsense’, as one outraged (anonymous) critic wrote in the June 2023 issue of The Critic. It is simply a reflection of the latest research and shifting scholarly priorities, such as any updated reference work demonstrates. Each generation of editors and contributors reflects the intellectual interests, political questions, and archival discoveries of its time. This critic fundamentally misunderstands how scholarship evolves when they insist the ODNB should be nothing more than ‘the definitive record of the lives of the British great and good as well as the less great and bad’. No decent biographer treats any account as so ‘definitive’ as to be immune from revision, and nor would any serious historian omit key information from ‘the record’ about their subject’s family, wealth and associations, all of which feature prominently in the first edition of the DNB.

Alongside its diversity of coverage, the ODNB’s commitment to revision is among its greatest strengths. Its biographical core has remained – now totalling nearly 62,428 articles – but the ODNB’s remit has expanded to include more than 500 thematic essays placing lives in greater historical context, nearly 12,000 paintings, drawing, engraving and other likenesses in association with the National Portrait Gallery, and the ‘Oxford Biographies’ podcast, with over 250 life stories (and counting) in audio format.

Most importantly, the ODNB represents something of an ideal of humanities research: a global, interdisciplinary and collaborative process of real-time adjustment, correction and addition to the store of human knowledge – in which scholarly egos and harmful ‘impact evaluations’ like the Research Excellence Framework are less important than a commitment to collegiality, academic excellence, and the co-operative transmission of history. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography deserves to be cherished as a British national treasure and an intellectual wonder of the world.


Josh Mcloughlin