Nikolaas TINBERGEN frs (1907–1988)

Pioneering ethologist, Nobel Laureate

88 Lonsdale Road, Summertown, Oxford

Nikolaas Tinbergen

He was born at The Hague to Dirk Cornelis Tinbergen, school teacher and scholar, and his wife Jeannette (née van Eek).

He read Biology at Leiden University but his interest went beyond the bookish curriculum to ornithology and the study of wasps in the field. His motto was ‘Study Nature and not books’. He received his doctorate in 1932 with the shortest thesis on record at Leiden. In the same year he married Elisabeth (Lies) Rutten and they spent their honeymoon in Greenland, living with the Inuit and studying the snow bunting and other Arctic animals.

Appointed an instructor at Leiden in 1936 he is famously associated with the study of the behaviour of the three-spined stickleback and the herring gull. He formed his first close collaboration with Konrad Lorenz, although their approaches to ethology later diverged. The outbreak of war interrupted his career when he was imprisoned for refusing to co-operate with the Nazi authorities and protesting at the removal of Jewish academics.

In 1949 he took up a lectureship at Oxford as a Fellow of Merton College, later becoming Reader, then Professor in animal behaviour and Fellow of Wolfson College. At Oxford he built up a research group which was to have a profound influence on the development of ethology. He was an inspiring, energetic and egalitarian leader of his team. He highlighted four categories of animal behaviour for the focus of study: causation, development, function, evolution. The Study of Instinct (1951), a seminal work, was concerned with patient fieldwork and detailed observations on the behaviour primarily of herring gulls. He was also a populariser of the subject through books and films.

He later became interested in the applications of ethology to human behaviour, for instance concerning stress and aggression, and collaborated with his wife on a study of human autism.

In 1973 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine together with Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch. Remarkably, his brother Jan Tinbergen had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1969, the only case of siblings achieving this distinction. Nikolaas received many other honours and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1962. He became a British subject in 1954.

88 Lonsdale Road

He lived at 88 Lonsdale Road (above) from 1956 until his death.


  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, article by R. A. Hinde

The plaque was unveiled at 88 Lonsdale Road on 8 June 2022. The speaker was Professor Emerita Marian Stamp Dawkins, FRS, who had been mentored by Tinbergen. Among those attending were Cllr James Fry, Lord Mayor of Oxford; Cllr Susanna Pressel, Chair of Oxfordshire County Council; Tinbergen’s daughters, Gerry and Catrina, and other descendants; Professor E.J. Milner-Gulland, Head of the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, Professor Richard Dawkins, Professor Lord John Krebs, and other eminent scientists.

Photographs taken at the unveiling ceremony:


Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board


Pioneer of studies in
animal behaviour
Nobel Laureate
Lived here

Department of Biology,
University of Oxford

© Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board


Email: oxfordshireblueplaques@gmail.com