Coming soon to a library near you


We were very excited this morning to receive a package with our first Darwin with volume 20copies of volume 20 of The correspondence of Charles Darwin, which contains letters from the year 1872. This was a very significant year for Darwin, who was not only re-visiting material from the Origin of species in order to produce a cheap edition, but at the same time was finishing his work on  Expression of the emotions, continuing his experiments on insectivorous plants, and also starting in earnest to gather information on worms. Additionally, Darwin’s friend Joseph Dalton Hooker was involved in a dispute  with Acton Smee Ayrton, first commissioner of works, about the running of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew; Darwin did some  some discreet lobbying behind the scenes to drum up support for Hooker. The breadth of subjects covered in this volume is astonishing, even for Darwin, so it was a fascinating one to produce. We hope  it will also be an engaging read.

A year in Darwin’s life – in (dirty) pictures

Work in progress: 1873 visuals during preparation

Work in progress: 1873 visuals during preparation

Behind every great website…. lies a lot of research, and quite often, a printed book. Or several.


Some of you may not be aware that in addition to appearing on this website, all of Charles Darwin’s letters are being published by Cambridge University Press in a series of large, green hardcover volumes as The correspondence of Charles Darwin . The first seven volumes each cover several years, but from volume 8 (which covers 1860) each volume contains the correspondence of just one year of Darwin’s life. We sent the most recent, volume 21, to press this week (and yes, we did celebrate), and when it is published, you will be able to read all the letters Darwin wrote and received in 1873.


For a great snapshot of Darwin’s life and work that year you just have to look at the many visuals contained in the letters. Darwin’s correspondents that year sent him delicate watercolours of sprouting seeds from France, tracings of ancient Egyptian pictures of dogs and oxen, ink drawings of a hairy ear and a frightened lemming, a photograph of two Dutch students – clutching their very own Darwin letter – not to mention lots of botanical illustrations and sketches of pieces of experimental apparatus. There is even a pencil drawing of a pair of lacy knickers sent by an Australian museum curator along with an English translation of a dirty poem by a German physiologist! It’s an unusually large and varied set, and has provided hours of entertainment for our technical experts who prepared all these for publication, often from high quality digital images taken by the Library’s Imaging Services Department, before being inserted into the letter texts.


Watch this space to find out the publication date of volume 21, and in the meantime we hope very soon to announce the publication of volume 20!

5000 letter images go online

We are collaborating with the Cambridge Digital Library to publish images of 1200 letters exchanged by Darwin with his closest friend, Joseph Dalton Hooker – more than 5000 images in total.  This is the single largest publication of images of Darwin’s letters and 300 of the letters are previously unpublished.


No single set of letters was more important to Darwin than those exchanged with the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911). Their letters account for around 10% of Darwin’s surviving correspondence and provide a structure within which all the other letters can be explored.  They are a connecting thread that spans forty years of Darwin’s mature working life from 1843 until his death in 1882, and bring into sharp focus every aspect of Darwin’s scientific work throughout that period. They illuminate the mutual friendships he and Hooker shared with other scientists, but they also provide a window of unparalleled intimacy into the personal lives of the two men.


The 300 previously unpublished, cover the last decade of Darwin’s life and give almost day to day detail on the experiments that led to his books on insectivorous plants and plants that move – both crucial evidence of the relatedness of plants and animals (and humans of course). And also to his final and most popular book – on earthworms, published shortly before he died. They cover the death of Hooker’s first wife, Frances, and his remarriage to Hyacinth Symonds. And Darwin’s behind-the-scenes involvement in lobbying parliament to control, but not altogether to ban, vivisection.


Read more about the letters here.

Telegram for Charles Darwin…

Charles Darwin was born on 12 February 1809, so would have been 204 this year!

The Naples Zoological Station were among many to have sent Darwin birthday wishes during his lifetime. He received this telegram from them in 1874.


Darwin's birthday telegram from Naples in 1874, DAR 172:1, Reproduced by permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library

Darwin’s birthday telegram from Naples in 1874, DAR 172:1, Reproduced by permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library


The ‘Darwin behind the scenes’ exhibit goes virtual!

Men of the Day, No. 33. “Natural Selection.”, Vanity Fair (30th September, 1871)


In the summer of 2011, the Darwin Correspondence Project put together an exhibit based around Charles Darwin’s personal letters. The aim was to use his correspondence to understand better the ways he worked and thought. Was Darwin a solitary thinker? Who and what influenced his work?


We decided to focus on the letters exchanged around the writing and publication of two of Darwin’s major works, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). Because Darwin often thought about subjects for years before he published on a topic, this means that the correspondence we used spanned several decades, sometimes dating back to his youth or to the early years of his marriage.


William Swale to Charles Darwin (13th July, 1858)

The correspondence and the documents that we have selected give a glimpse of the man as well of the scientist – the writer who was worrying with his publishers, the father or husband who enrolled his family in scientific collecting and experimentation, the friend who became interested in the latest technologies of the day.


For practical reasons, the exhibition had to be limited to Cambridge University Library readers, and to those who participated in the Open Cambridge Festival. Going online is now allowing us to offer some of the visual and intellectual riches of Cambridge University’s collections to all.


Visit the online exhibit here to discover Charles Darwin and his life in a new light.


The exhibit was supported by the Bonita Trust, John Templeton Foundation, National Science Foundation, and Arts and Humanities Research Council.

“Get to know Darwin” – a student’s-eye view

Reading Darwin’s correspondence is the best way to meet him, both as a scientist and as an individual. We have just launched the first modules in a new set of resources to help students – in and out of formal education – “get to know Darwin”.  The materials are arranged into eleven thematic modules, with six available now and the remaining five to come online shortly. Topics released include Darwin’s observation of slave-making ants and its contribution to our understanding of instinct and the evolution of the mind, his experiments with seeds to test ideas in biogeography, his work on barnacles, and his use of pigeons to explore variation; others, such as his interest in floral dimorphism, and his experiments on earthworms, are to come. Each module has a carefully selected set of letters, discussion questions, excerpts from Darwin’s publications, and suggested activities, along with introductions to both the material and the concepts. The modules can be used in any university discipline engaging with history of science – history, gender studies, or the biology lab. All the material is freely available for use in education. Course providers are free to use or adapt a single module, or include all eleven.  The modules are also available for anyone to use anywhere in the world for private study.

These resources have been compiled as part of a pilot collaboration with the “Getting to Know Darwin” seminar course at Harvard College.  The concept was developed by research assistants from the Harvard office of the Darwin Correspondence Project and a teaching team led by Ned Friedman, director of the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard. The partnership began last autumn and continues through this year. Although we have designed these modules to stand on their own, we have included sample activities from the course at Harvard to provide suggestions and inspiration for all course settings.   We’ll be writing more about our experiences teaching the course this year as we release further modules.

Hairy experience in the Darwin archive!

The Darwin archive not only contains letters, manuscript material, photographs, books and articles but also all sorts of small, dry specimens, mostly enclosed with letters. Many of these enclosures have become separated from the letters or lost altogether, but we always try to track them down.


Some of the strangest were discovered when we recently edited two letters from the physiologist and Hebrew scholar Frank Chance (1826–97). The first is undated but we know it was written before 25 April 1871 because Darwin alluded to a case from ‘One other gentleman’ in his reply to a similar report by the pigeon-fancier W. B. Tegetmeier, 25 April [1871]. In his letter Chance is responding to the following passage in Descent of Man (vol. 2, p. 319):


Even in the colour of the beard there is a curious parallelism between man & the Quadrumana, for when in man the beard differs in colour from the hair of the head, as is often the case, it is, I believe, invariably of a lighter tint, being often reddish.


Chance held himself up as an exception to this statement:


My hair is brown, neither dark nor yet very light, whilst my beard & whiskers are (or were for they are changing colour) very much darker & would usually be called black, although the blackness is not that which one sees in Italy, Spain or in tropical countries. My moustache is or was more of the colour of my hair & has a slightly reddish tinge without being red. In my beard & whiskers there is no reddish tinge.

My eyebrows & eyelashes are between my hair & my beard & whiskers, being darker than the one & rather lighter than the other. The hair on my body is of the colour of my beard with the exception of that under the armpits which is rather lighter than my hair & has a somewhat reddish tinge & that on the pubes which is darker than my hair but has a distinctly brown tinge.

My eyes are bluish grey.

I enclose a specimen from my hair & another from my beard & whiskers.

(Letter from Frank Chance, [before 25 April 1871])


Responding to this meticulous self-observation (and the similar one by Tegetmier ([before 25 April 1871]), who was ‘chaffed’ as a student for dyeing his beard but ‘never was given to personal adornments’), CD annotated the letter with what was probably a draft of the following addition to the second edition of Descent (p. 558):


I have repeatedly observed this fact in England; but two gentlemen have lately written to me, saying that they form an exception to the rule. One of these gentlemen accounts for the fact by the wide difference in colour of the hair on the paternal and maternal sides of his family. Both had been long aware of this peculiarity (one of them having often been accused of dyeing his beard), and had been thus led to observe other men, and were convinced that the exceptions were very rare.



When we were editing volume 19 (1871), Chance’s enclosure of beard and scalp hair could not be found. However, while footnoting a second letter from Chance in 1873, a discovery was made.  This letter 31 July–7 August 1873 also tackled the issue of hair colour, but this time in ponies in England. Chance enclosed samples of hair from the pony’s body, mane and tail to show how the pony’s coat became lighter in winter. He was responding to another passage in Descent:


In your work on the “”Descent of Man”" (ed. 1871) ii. 298, 299, in speaking of the change of colour of mammals in the winter, you quote a statement from Pallas that in Siberia the coat of the domestic horse becomes paler in the winter, though even there it does not appear to become quite white. I infer from this that you are not aware that in England any change of colour has ever been observed to take place in the horse in winter; and therefore, as an undoubted case has come under my notice in which the coat of a pony in England has not only become paler in the winter but has actually turned \quite white\

(Letter from Frank Chance, 31 July–7 August 1873)


The pony hair turned up in the archive in a box containing miscellaneous items (DAR 142), with each sample carefully wrapped in dusty white paper. In the same package were the beautifully preserved samples of Chance’s beard and scalp hair.



CD replied from his eldest son William’s house near Southampton on 10 August [1873]. William had followed up on a similar case that CD had observed on 13 May 1871. William’s letter of 5 June 1871 reported the forest pony that had not quite moulted was a dirty pale dun, with its tail and mane remaining white. Responding to these cases, Darwin made a slight change to the second edition of Descent (1874, pp. 229–30, italics indicate the phrase added):


Pallas states, that in Siberia domestic cattle and horses become lighter-coloured during the winter; and I have myself observed, and heard of similar strongly marked changes of colour, that is, from brownish cream-colour or reddish-brown to a perfect white, in several ponies in England. Although I do not know that this tendency to change the colour of the coat during different seasons is transmitted, yet it probably is so, as all shades of colour are strongly inherited by the horse. Nor is this form of inheritance, as limited by the seasons, more remarkable than its limitation by age or sex.


Apart from his penchant for hair, we do not know much else about Frank Chance. A very short obituary appeared in Notes and Queries, describing him as one of their ‘most constant and respected contributors’. After receiving a B.A. from Trinity College, Cambridge, he trained for the medical profession at Kings College, London, but ceased practising in 1865 to pursue his passion: the study of languages. In 1858 he translated Rudolf Virchow’s Berlin lectures on cellular pathology into English, and in 1864 edited his Cambridge tutor Hermann Hedwig Bernard’s translation and notes on The Book of Job. However, his letters to Darwin not only contained some bizarre enclosures, but also provide a fascinating insight into how Darwin used the observations of his readers and correspondents as evidence to make changes to subsequent editions of his works.

Darwin, environmental tinkering and a tale of two bees

Tree bee (Bombus hypnorum) showing unique colour pattern

We have a new page in our ‘Darwin and Life Science’ section for World Environment Day on 5 June.  Inspired by the sight of a bee that only arrived in the UK in the last ten years, and by the recent attempts to reintroduce another that had gone extinct here, it looks at Darwin’s fascinating work on bees and at our changing attitudes to environmental impact.


The tree bee (Bombus hypnorum) was first reported in Wiltshire in 2001 and is now spreading North and West, apparently without causing any damage.  The short-haired bee (Bombus subterraneus) was taken to New Zealand in Victorian times, was declared extinct in the UK in 2000, but was reintroduced here last month using specimens from Sweden – ones from New Zealand didn’t survive the journey and the population there suffers from serious inbreeding.


Darwin was fascinated by bees; he devised experiments to study the comb-building technique of honey bees, and on one occasion stationed his children round his property as markers to help him track the flight paths of bumblebees.


Today, the sight of any new species leads to worry about its environmental impact, a very different attitude from that of most Victorians, for whom the large-scale introduction of any useful – or even just attractive – animal or plant was seen as positive or at least unproblematic. It was Darwinian evolution theory that fundamentally changed the way we understand the environment and even led to the coining of the word ‘ecology’.


In On the Origin of Species, Darwin put forward his ‘entangled bank’ idea of nature: an unsettling picture of an ever-changing, dynamic world in which species were ephemeral, and habitats, once destroyed, could not easily be recreated. One correspondent who understood the full implications of Darwin’s ‘entangled bank’ was John Lubbock.  Lubbock seems very much ahead of his time when, in a letter to Darwin in 1867, he comments on Edward Wilson’s plan to introduce humble-bees (as bumblebees were then more commonly known) to Australia: ‘As to the Humble Bees they would if once landed in Australia probably destroy some native insect & I wish Mr. Wilson would leave the Australian fauna alone.’ A sentiment many Australians today would probably agree with.


It’s not so easy to turn back the clock in the natural world, but we hope that the short-haired bumble bee does as well in the next ten years as the tree bee has done in the last ten.

The importance of having the right Beard

William Beard: The Youthful Darwin Discussing his Theories (Image 3021 AMNH Library)

William Beard: The Youthful Darwin Discussing his Theories (Image 3021 AMNH Library)

No, not the famous beard belonging to Charles himself, but the right member of the Beard family, two generations of whom were artists in or around New York in the nineteenth century.


A short while ago we asked for help in finding an image mentioned in a letter Darwin received in 1872.  We knew that the artist was a Mr Beard and the title was given in the letter as “The Young Darwinian”.    You can read the original post here.   Thanks to readers of this blog we found the right image  just in time to include it in the next volume of the Correspondence of Charles Darwin (vol. 20) which is about to go to press.


From the context, we thought we were looking for a caricature drawn by the comic illustrator, Thomas Francis (Frank) Beard , but it turns out that what Darwin was sent was a copy of an engraving made from an oil painting by Frank Beard’s  uncle, William.


The original painting “The Youthful Darwin Discussing his Theories”, is now in the  Division of Vertebrate Paleontology archives at the American Museum of Natural History.  It depicts a young humanoid with a nicely vestigial tail, showing a pair of sceptical (and slightly amused) older apes a series of organisms from a fish to an amphibian.  It is painted almost entirely in black, white, and shades of grey, with just a little sepia in the foreground, presumably to mimic a photograph.  The image was popularised in June 1871, shortly after the publication of Darwin’s Descent of Man, when a copy of the engraving was exhibited at the Century Club in New York.


William Holbrook Beard (1825-1900) specialised in satirical paintings substituting animals for humans. He was born in the US, then studied in Italy and Germany before settling in NYC in 1861.   His older brother, James Henry Beard, was also a commercial artist, as were James’s three sons, James Carter Beard, Daniel Carter Beard, and Thomas Francis.


We are delighted to have been put right in time, and are grateful to Michael Barton and Glenn Branch for their sleuthing, and to Mai Qaraman of AMNH for help with a copy of the image.  This is the first time we have used the blog to crowd source an editing problem, but we’ll certainly do it again.

Rehabilitating Henrietta, or the importance of Data when Dating

A small lockable leather diary in the archive at Cambridge University Library is leading us to reassess one of the key relationships in Charles Darwin’s life.


Volume 19 of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, published today, is making the short but  intensely revealing personal journal of Darwin’s daughter, Henrietta, public for the first time.  Written over the period March to July 1871, the year of the 28-old Henrietta’s sudden marriage to a man she had known for less than three months, the journal introduces a confident, intelligent, reflective, and passionate young woman. To anyone who has only met her as the overly anxious hypochondriac aunt in Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece, this Henrietta is unrecognisable.


Henrietta Darwin at the time of her marriage

By permission of Cambridge University Press and Henrietta’s family you can also read the text of her diary on our website here.


1871 was also the year in which Henrietta’s father published his most enduringly controversial work The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, a book she helped edit, and, taken together with Darwin’s letters from the period, the journal dramatically overturns previous perceptions of her character and role.  Often dismissed as a conservative or even a negative influence on her father’s work,  driven by a desire for respectability to acts of censorship, Henrietta emerges instead as a free-thinker; she was  sceptical of the contagious emotion of evangelical missions, and unable to reconcile the idea of a personal , benevolent God either with the concept of free will or with the suffering and wastefulness of the natural world.


“I want him to take me in his arms & say I shall never leave him.”

4 July 1871: an insufficiency of data!

In June 1871 Henrietta met Richard Buckley Litchfield, a barrister and lecturer in music at the London Working Men’s College;  they were married in the parish church in her parents’ village of Downe, Kent, on 31 August.  The intimate and deeply reflective journal entries from July, which hint at originally unrequited passion, cover the period of their courtship.  Reading at times like teenage romantic fiction, with all the agonies of uncertainty and longing, it also dissects Henrietta’s reasons for choosing to be married in church–a decision she did not reach lightly–and her sadness at leaving her parents.   She was very much her father’s daughter: waiting for Litchfield to propose Henrietta fretted  “How long, how long has this twelve hours been . . . I go over every chance every possibility, in so far as I can conceive them—but come to no conclusions” then came down to earth with the comment “not unnaturally considering the insufficiency of my data”!


“This view seems to cast what few convictions I have to the winds.”

In a very rare glimpse of the intellectual life of the women in Darwin’s circle, Henrietta reflects on a wide-ranging debate with one of her cousins, Frances Julia Wedgwood – known to the family as Snow – on free will, good and evil, and the possibility of eternal life.  Both women demonstrate a striking sophistication of thought in their differing assessment of the implications for religious thinking of Darwin’s “Development Theory”, but although Henrietta’s arguments are reminiscent of Darwin’s own discussion of religious belief in his correspondence and other writings, the journal reveals a thoughtful woman reasoning her way to a humanistic position that is very much her own.


You can read more about Darwin’s life in 1871 in the introduction to Volume 19 of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, online here.