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Darwin Correspondence Project

Frank Chance

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 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.