Dictionary of National Biography

The Dictionary of National Biography (or DNB) is a standard work of reference on notable figures from British history.

Seeking to emulate national biographical collections published in separate nations of Europe, in 1882 the publisher George Smith (1824 - 1901), of Smith, Elder and Co., planned a universal dictionary which would include biographical entries on individuals from world history. He approached Leslie Stephen, then editor of the Cornhill Magazine, owned by Smith, to become editor. Stephen persuaded Smith that the work should concentrate on subjects from the UK and its present and former colonies only. An early working title was the Biographia Britannica, the name of an earlier nineteenth-century reference work. The first volume of the Dictionary of National Biography appeared on 1 January 1885. In May 1891 Leslie Stephen resigned the editorship. Sidney Lee, who had been Stephen's assistant editor from the beginning of the project, succeeded him as editor. A dedicated team of sub-editors and researchers worked under Stephen and Lee, combining a variety of talents from veteran journalists to young scholars who cut their academic teeth on dictionary articles at a time when postgraduate historical research in British universities was still in its infancy. While much of the dictionary was written 'in house', the DNB also relied on external contributors, who included several respected writers and scholars of the late nineteenth century. Successive volumes appeared quarterly with complete punctuality until Midsummer 1900, when the series closed with volume 63. The DNB was soon extended by the issue of three supplementary volumes, covering subjects who had died between 1885 and 1900 but who had not been included in the original alphabetical sequence. Conceived as covering British history 'from the earliest times to the year 1900', the supplements brought the whole work up to the death of Queen Victoria on 22 January 1901.

The dictionary was reissued in 23 volumes in 1908 and 1909, incorporating minor revisions. In the words of the 1911 edition of the Encyclopędia Britannica, the dictionary had "elucidated the private annals of the British". Throughout the twentieth century, further volumes were published for those deceased in each decade, beginning in 1912 with a supplement edited by Lee covering those who died between 1901 and 1911. The dictionary was transferred from its original publishers, Smith, Elder and Co., to Oxford University Press in 1917. Until 1996, Oxford University Press continued to add further supplements including subjects who had died during the twentieth century, and, in 1993, an additional volume entitled Missing Persons was published containing about 1,000 notable people who had been omitted from the previous editions of the main dictionary and its supplements.

The supplements published between 1912 and 1996 added about 6,000 lives to the approximately 30,000 included in the Dictionary of National Biography, but the dictionary was not revised and was becoming less and less useful as a reference work. In the early 1990s Oxford University Press committed themselves to compiling a new dictionary of national biography. Work began in 1992 under the editorship of Colin Matthew, professor of modern history at the University of Oxford. Matthew decided that no subjects from the old dictionary would be excluded, however insignificant the subjects appeared to a late twentieth-century eye; that a minority of shorter articles from the original dictionary would remain in the new in revised form; and that room would be made for about 14,000 new subjects. The new dictionary would cover British history, 'broadly defined' (including, for example, subjects from Roman Britain, the United States of America before its independence, and from Britain's former colonies) up until 31 December 2000. The research project was conceived as a collaborative one, with in-house staff co-ordinating the work of nearly 10,000 contributors internationally. Following Matthew's death in October 1999, he was succeeded as editor by another Oxford history professor, Brian Harrison, in January 2000.

The new dictionary, now known as The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (or ODNB), was published on 23 September 2004 in 60 volumes in print at a price of £7,500, and in an online edition for subscribers. At publication, the 2004 edition had 50,113 biographical articles covering 54,922 lives, including all those in the old DNB. A small permanent staff remain in Oxford to update and extend the coverage of the online edition. Brian Harrison was succeeded as editor by another Oxford historian, Dr Lawrence Goldman, in October 2004. The first online update was published on 4 January 2005, including subjects who had died in 2001, and further updates, to include subjects from all periods, will follow in May and October.

Response to the new dictionary has been for the most part positive, but in the months following publication there has been occasional criticism of the dictionary in some British newspapers and periodicals for reported factual inaccuracies, including some in many important entries such as the biographies for Florence Nightingale, Jane Austen, George V, and Edward VIII. According to The Observer,

the acclaimed Oxford don and constitutional specialist Vernon Bogdanor believes the Dictionary of National Biography has failed to come up to Oxford's standards. 'It has indirectly done damage to the university,' he said this weekend. 'I can only comment on the areas of my own expertise, but these entries seem to have been written by the constitutionally illiterate.'" (Observer, March 6, 2005)

However, the number of articles publicly queried in this way was small - only 23 of the 50,113 articles published in September 2004, leading to fewer than 100 substantiated factual amendments representing less than one thousandth of one per cent of the estimated 10 million factual statements conveyed in the dictionary's 60 million words. These and other queries received since publication are being considered as part of an ongoing programme of assessing proposed corrections or additions to existing subject articles, which can, when approved, be incorporated into the online edition of the dictionary.

See also

Richard Bissell Prosser


  • Collini, Stefan (January 20, 2005) "Our Island Story (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v27/n02/coll01_.html)". London Review of Books

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