History of the Dictionary of National Biography

Today’s Oxford DNB has its origins in the late-Victorian Dictionary of National Biography. The first DNB was completed in 1900 and included entries on around 30,000 men and women active in the British past. Neither the original DNB nor the modern Dictionary include living subjects, all those included are deceased. 

Throughout the twentieth century new volumes were added to the DNB, in a series of Supplement volumes which extended the Dictionary’s coverage of notable figures up to those who died up to the year 1990.

In 1992 work began on a completely new Dictionary, published in 2004 as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. This edition offered a new biography for every person already included in the original DNB, and added first-time entries for a further 16,300 men and women from all periods of history up to those who had died in or before the year 2000. Since 2004 the Oxford DNB has continued to be extended and developed with regular online updates.

The following timeline gives a summary of the Dictionary's evolution and publishing history from its inception in 1882 up to the present day.

i. The Dictionary of National Biography, 1882-1900

Work on the original Dictionary of National Biography began in 1882. It was led by its founding editor—the historian and biographer, Leslie Stephen (1832-1904), who is today perhaps best known as the father of Virginia Woolf. The first Dictionary was published in alphabetical sequence at quarterly intervals between 1885 and 1900. This punishing schedule placed many burdens on Stephen who retired in 1891, handing on the editorship to his deputy—the literary scholar Sidney Lee (1859-1926)—who carried the project to its conclusion.

On completion, the first DNB offered biographies of 29,333 people written by 653 contributors.

By 1901 Sidney Lee had begun work on the DNB’s first supplementary volumes to cover just over 1000 ‘missing persons’, who had died between 1885 and January 1901; and in 1908-9 Lee oversaw publication of a corrected reissue of the complete DNB. Far from being a collection of British ‘worthies’, Stephen’s DNB was remarkably wide-ranging in its selection of subjects and often sharp (sometimes rude) in its assessment of a life. It also began the Dictionary’s interest in Britons active worldwide and visitors to Britain: the first DNB entry was the French-born Jacques Abbadie and the last Wilhelm Zuylestein, who was born near Utrecht.

1885: publication of the first volume of the Dictionary of National Biography (Abbadie -), edited by Sir Leslie Stephen; successive volumes of c.600 biographies each appeared at quarterly intervals.

1891: resignation of Sir Leslie Stephen as DNB editor; appointment of Sidney Lee as second editor.

1900: publication of the 63rd, and final, volume Dictionary of National Biography (- Zuylestein).

1901: publication of a 3-volume ‘Missing Persons’ volume covering people not included in the 1885-1900 sequence; this includes a 98,000 word entry on Queen Victoria, by Sidney Lee.

1904: the death of Sir Leslie Stephen; his DNB life, written by Sidney Lee, was published in 1912.

1908: publication under Sidney Lee of a revised and corrected second edition of the DNB (in 22 volumes).

ii. Supplement volumes, 1912-1996

In the twentieth century, the DNB’s coverage was extended with 10 Supplement volumes, covering figures who had died in the very recent past. The first volume, published in 1912, included entries on those who died between 1901 and 1910; the last, published in 1996, took the DNB’s coverage up to the year 1990. Three years earlier a volume of ‘Missing Persons’ from all historical periods, edited by Christine Nicholls, was published and brought the Dictionary’s full complement of lives to 38,607.

1912: publication of the first of Supplement volume covering people who died in the period 1901-1911—among them the Dictionary’s founding editor, Leslie Stephen. A further nine volumes appeared between 1927 and 1996.

1917: the DNB’s publisher, Smith, Elder & Co., gives the DNB to the University of Oxford which entrusts it to Oxford University Press.

1926: death of Sidney Lee; his DNB life, written by E.I. Carlyle, is published in 1937.

1992: publication of a consolidated 3-volume Concise Dictionary of National Biography covering lives up to 1985.

1993: publication of Missing Persons, edited by Christine Nicholls.

1996: publication of the final Supplement volume (to 1990) and the complete DNB (to 1985) as a CD-Rom.

The text of the last print version of the DNB is preserved in the Archive Edition. This contains the revised text published in 1908-9 (which derives from the original DNB published between 1885 and 1900, but was substantially revised by Sidney Lee), as well as the extended series of supplements published from 1912 until 1996, and Missing Persons (1993). This text was originally digitised in the first production phase of the new ODNB, and was captured through hand keying carried out by Alliance Phototypesetters of Pondicherry, India. It is available online through links inserted in the modern ODNB edition.

iii. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 1992-2004

By the later twentieth century, Stephen and Lee’s DNB (i.e. the revised and corrected second edition of 1908-9) and the early Supplements were seen as increasingly dated. In 1992 Oxford University and OUP, in association with the British Academy, began a research and publishing project to rewrite and considerably extend the Dictionary’s coverage.

This entirely new edition of the Dictionary assimilated historical and biographical research undertaken from the early 1900s, and added first-time lives of people active in newer fields of historical enquiry—such as business, science and technology, medicine, popular entertainment, and sport. Much greater attention was also paid to the contribution of women to the British past, and to individuals’ personal lives and circumstances.

1992: appointment of Professor Colin Matthew FBA (1941-1999) as the founding editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Colin was a historian of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain and a fellow of St Hugh's College, Oxford University. His major biography Gladstone, 1809-1898 was the culmination of his work on the 'Grand Old Man' of Victorian politics, for which he was awarded the Wolfson prize for history in 1995; he also completed the landmark fourteen-volume edition of The Gladstone Diaries (1968-1994). As the ODNB’s founding editor, Colin laid out the detailed intellectual agenda for the new Dictionary, and led the project team in Oxford and a network of 10,000 advisers and contributors worldwide.

1995: the first articles of the new Dictionary are commissioned, written, and edited; by 1998 all of the project’s 12 thematic research areas are underway.

2000: appointment of Professor Sir Brian Harrison FBA as the second Editor of the Oxford DNB following Colin Matthew’s death. Brian was then a fellow in Modern History at Corpus Christi College, Oxford University. After specialising in 19th century British history, Brian in the 1980s incorporated the 20th century among his research interests. His publications include the two final volumes for the 'New Oxford History of England', Seeking a Role. The United Kingdom, 1951-1970 (2009) and Finding a Role? The United Kingdom, 1970-1990 (2010).

2002: completion of the ODNB’s biographical content: 54,922 lives in 50,113 articles; work begins to to assimilate and publish the new Dictionary as a single text.

2004: publication (23 September 2004) of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography in 60 print volumes and online. The ODNB then comprised the biographies of 54,922 men and women who had died in or before the year 2000.

iv. Extending the Oxford DNB online, 2004-

With publication of the ODNB in 2004 there began an ongoing ‘continuation project’ to extend the Dictionary’s coverage and add thematic essays setting biographies in historical context. Each year the ODNB adds several hundred new lives incorporating both recently deceased and historical figures as well as updating existing articles.

2004: appointment of Professor Lawrence Goldman as the third Editor of the Oxford DNB. Lawrence was then a Fellow and Tutor in Modern History at St Peter’s College, Oxford. On leaving the ODNB in 2014 Lawrence was appointed Director of the Institute of Historical Research, University of London.

2005: online updates to the ODNB begin. Since January 2005 three annual updates have been added to the Oxford DNB, in January, May and September of each year. January updates add biographies of c.220 recently deceased men and women who died in a single calendar year. This began in 2005 with those who died in the year 2001. May and September updates add new biographies of men and women active across all historical periods. Updates also correct and add to existing entries in the light of new research.

2005: Oxford DNB receives the Longman / History Today Trustees Award, and the American Library’s Association’s Dartmouth Medal.

2007: Oxford DNB awarded a Queen's Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education.

2008: start of the Oxford DNB’s biography podcast; more than 250 episodes now available.

2014: Professor Sir David Cannadine FBA is appointed General Editor of the Oxford DNB. More about David.

2016: publication (September) of the Oxford DNB’s 60,000th biography (Eileen Lucy "Tirzah" Garwood, 1908-1951, wood engraver and artist).

2017: publication (January) of the ODNB’s biography of Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013) by David Cannadine: at 33,000 words, this is now the 4th longest entry in the Dictionary.

2017: centenary of the Dictionary becoming a research and publishing project of Oxford University and Oxford University Press.