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Robert C. Olby Collection

Identifier: RCO

Scope and Content

The Robert C. Olby Collection consists of material related to the research, writing, and publication of multiple history of science monographs, as well as articles, reviews, teaching files, and correspondence. It includes materials related to the research, writing, and publication of works such as Origins of Mendelism (1966) and Path to the Double Helix (1974). A majority of the materials is related to the research and writing of Francis Crick: Hunter of Life’s Secrets, including correspondence with Francis and Odile Crick. Additional materials include items related to lectures and speaking engagements spanning the length of Olby’s career from 1963 to 2017.

The collection contains copied materials from other archival collections as it pertains to Olby’s projects, most notably Mandeville Special Collections at the University of California San Diego. Photocopied materials provide a structure for Olby’s own work and research over the course of his writing projects.

There are nine series:

  1. Series I: Origins of Mendelism, 1966
  2. Series II: Charles Darwin, 1967
  3. Series III: Path to the Double Helix, 1974
  4. Series IV: Francis Crick: Hunter of Life’s Secrets, 2009
  5. Series V: Scientific Biographies, 1973-2008
  6. Series VI: Articles, 1972-2004
  7. Series VII: Writing by Others, 1960
  8. Series VIII: Personal Correspondence, 1960-2004
  9. Series IX: Teaching & Lectures, 1969-2006


  • Creation: 1939-2017
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1960-2008


Language of Materials

Bulk English; some materials in German, French.

Access Restrictions

Some restrictions apply to this collection. Access is given only by appointment, 8:00 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Use Restriction

Archival materials must remain in the archival reading area. Item duplication is to be done by archivists. Fees are applied to copies made. Digital photography is permitted by users.


A historian of 19th and 20th century biology with a focus on genetics and molecular biology, Robert Cecil Olby (b. 4 October 1933 in Beckenham, England) is Emeritus Research Professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh. He earned a B.Sc. in Botany from the Imperial College of Science and Technology at London University in 1955, and went on to earn his Ph.D. in History of Science from Oxford University in 1963. He is a member of the History of Science Society and the International Academy of the History of Science.

After earning his graduate degree, Olby served as a University Lecturer from 1969 to 1975 while working on and publishing his first two books, Origins of Mendelism (1966, second edition 1985) and Charles Darwin (1967). These books, combined with The Path to the Double Helix: The Discovery of DNA (1974, 1994), made Olby a leading historian of genetics. After publishing Double Helix, he was University Reader in the History of Science at Leeds University from 1975 to 1993. Olby joined the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh in 1994, following a year at Rockeller University as the Andrew Mellon Research Fellow. In 2001, Olby began writing a comprehensive biography of Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick, who, along with James Watson, discovered the structure of DNA in 1953.

Olby and Crick met at Oxford in 1966. The idea of a biography first emerged during their collaboration on Path to the Double Helix, but Crick’s stipulation that the biography not appear until after his death combined with Olby’s various teaching commitments meant the project was shelved until 2001. During its writing, Crick was available for information and to read the first fourteen chapters prior to his death in July 2004. Francis Crick: Hunter of Life’s Secrets was published in 2009 by Cold Spring Harbor Press.


41 Boxes (41 record cartons) : Paper materials, cassette tapes, CDs, color photographs, VHS tapes, floppy disks, microfilm, minidisks, microcassettes, slides, laboratory notebooks, glass plates, Walkman, laptop ; 41 linear feet


The Robert C. Olby Collection (1960-2008) is comprised of materials accrued by Robert Olby during the research, writing, and publication of various history of science monographs and articles, including Origins of Mendelism (1966) and Francis Crick: Hunter of Life's Secrets (2009). It includes correspondence, archival research, drafts and galley proofs, photographs, lecture notes, reprints, and journal pages for a complete and detailed portrait of the historian of science at work.


The materials arrived in 44 boxes of various sizes. Due to manner of packing and delivery, original intellectual arrangement—alphabetical by subject—was evident but fractured and incomplete. The materials were rehoused into 41 record center cartons with original folders and order left intact prior to final arrangement.

It was determined that the series arrangement and order should follow Olby’s work by type, determined by the amount of materials for each series upon initial inventory. The first four series are dedicated to his major book publications in chronological order. Series V, Scientific Biographies, and VI, Articles, follow. The final three series are materials not related to Olby’s history of science writings.


This collection was gifted by Natasha Olby September 9, 2021 from her father's home office. Accession #2021-021. It was inventoried from September 2021 to January 2022 and processed in [processing month, year, archivist].

Related Materials

Related collections in the CSHL Library and Archives include the Sydney Brenner Collection and the James D. Watson Collection.

Related collections in other repositories include the Francis Crick Personal Papers, 1938-2007 at Mandeville Special Collections Library at the University of California-San Diego; and the Robert C. Olby Collection, 1951-1963, at the American Philosophical Society.

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Repository Details

Part of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives Repository

Library & Archives
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
One Bungtown Rd
Cold Spring Harbor NY 11724 USA