The Darwin Correspondence Project was founded in 1974 by an American scholar, Frederick Burkhardt, with the aid of Sydney Smith, a zoologist in the University of Cambridge (UK). They originally set out to locate, research, and publish summaries of all letters written by Charles Darwin (1809-82), the most celebrated naturalist of the nineteenth century. Following a pilot project it was decided to include letters written to Darwin as well as those written by him – an unusual step for a collection of correspondence at the time, and one now widely followed – and to publish complete transcripts in chronological order.
Since then, the Project has had a staff of researchers and editors in both the UK and US, those in the UK being based in Cambridge University Library, which houses the largest single collection of Darwin’s manuscripts, and his own library of books and journals. The Darwin Archive in Cambridge includes around 9000 letters. In 2009 the Project opened a satellite branch at Harvard University.
It took ten years to carry out a systematic search for additional material, to obtain copies, and to transcribe all known letters into an electronic format. This resulted in the creation of the extensive computerised archive which now forms the basis for editorial work, and of the resources on this website. The letters were provisionally dated – less than half have a complete date written on them by the sender – and the identification of unknown correspondents attempted. To date, the project has located, both in libraries and in private collections, a total of more than 15,000 letters exchanged by Darwin with nearly 2000 correspondents around the world between 1821 and his death in 1882. New letters continue to be discovered, and the Project is now engaged in an active hunt for others so that the corpus will be as comprehensive as possible.
Find out more about the Project from our podcasts.