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History of the Biographical Archive

Thomas Baker, the College's first historian, who died in 1740, left a collection of about forty manuscript volumes that include both notes on the history of St John's and biographical notes on College Members. Another Fellow, J. E. B. Mayor, edited Baker's History of the College of St John the Evangelist for publication, and also published an edition of the College Admissions Registers, with extensively researched biographical notes, for the period from 1629 to 1715. Publication was continued by Sir Robert Scott (Master 1908-33) for the Registers up to 1802. Scott and another Fellow, F. P. White (Fellow 1919-69), actively researched into the lives of College Members and together provided much of the information on Johnians published in J. and J. A. Venn's Alumni Cantabrigienses. This is a reference work covering all Members of Cambridge University up to 1900. White also began to transfer all the existing information onto individual record sheets, so that there is now a single sheet, or page in a bound volume, for every Member, many of them annotated and cross-referenced to other sources. White also began to add to these from his daily searches through the newspapers and leading journals, a process continued by Norman Buck (Sub Librarian 1956-82) and then by Malcolm Pratt, Sub Librarian, who retired in 1990. The College was also one of the earliest clients of an international press cutting agency, receiving regular cuttings from the 1930s onwards.

Since 1990 the paper archive has been supplemented by a database of biographical information, which is kept up to date as a result of members of College providing details of what they have gone on to do since leaving the College. Together the archive and the database provide material for the Register of Twentieth-Century Johnians, a publication in two volumes which will include over 17,000 entries, arranged alphabetically, with a list of members arranged within academic years provided at the back. Volume 1 (including all those who matriculated between 1900 and 1949) was published in 2004; and work is underway regarding the entries for those who were admitted to the College in the second half of the century. The backbone of each entry are the details of birth, parentage and schooling (recorded for every member in the Admissions Registers), together with basic details of College and University career, but supplemented wherever possible by information on later occupations, achievements, marriages and children. Johnians who matriculated in the first half of the twentieth century were given an opportunity to check their entries, and those who matriculated in the second half of the century will have their draft entries forwarded to them in advance of the publication of Volume 2.

Although it is the comprehensiveness of the collection that makes it special, the Biographical Archive includes material on such famous Johnians as: Actors - Sir Derek Jacobi, Jonathan Miller; Architects - Sir Hugh Casson, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner; Explorers - Sir Vivian Fuchs, Sir James Wordie; Nobel Laureates - Sir Edward Appleton, Sir John Cockcroft, Allan Cormack, Paul A. M. Dirac, Sir Neville Mott, Abdus Salam, Frederick Sanger, Maurice Wilkins; Novelists - Douglas Adams, Frederic Raphael, Piers Paul Read; Poets - Matthew Prior, William Wordsworth; Scientists - John Couch Adams (discovered the planet Neptune), Sir John Herschel (astronomer and pioneer photographer), Sir Harold Jeffreys (mathematician and geophysicist), Sir Charles Parsons (inventor and builder of the first turbine engine); Sportsmen - Rob Andrew (rugby), Trevor Bailey (cricket), Chris Brasher (athletics and marathon), and Mike Brearley (cricket).