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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Hugh Falconer to William Sharpey   25 October 1864

Dép. Tarn [et] Garonne | Montauban

25th Oct. 1864.

My dear Sharpey

Busk and myself have made every effort to be back in London by the 27th. inst.1 but we have been persecuted by mishaps—through the breakdown of trains, diligences, &c., so that we have been sadly put out in our reckoning—and have lost some of the main objects that brought us round by this part of France—none of which were idle or unimportant.2

Busk started yesterday for Paris from Briunquel3 to make sure of being present at the meeting of the R. Council on Thursday.4 He will tell you that there were strong reasons for my remaining behind him. But as I seconded the proposal of Mr. Darwin for the Copley Medal, in default of my presence at the first meeting, I beg that you will express my great regrets to the President and Council5 at not being there— and that I am very reluctantly detained. I shall certainly be in London (D.V.) by the second meeting on the 3d proxo. Meanwhile I solicit the favour of being heard, through you, respecting the grounds upon which I seconded Mr. Darwin’s nomination for the Copley Medal.

Referring to the classified list—which I drew up6—of Mr.  Darwin’s scientific labours, ranging through the wide field of 1. Geology; 2. Physical Geography; 3 Zoology; 4. Physiological Botany; 5 Genetic Biology;7 and to the power with which he has investigated whatever subject he has taken up, “Nullum tetegit quod non ornavit”8   I am of opinion that Mr. Darwin is not only one of the most eminent naturalists of his day, but that hereafter he will be regarded as one of the Great Naturalists of all Countries and of all time. His early work on the structure and distribution of Coral reefs9 constitutes an era in the investigation of the subject. As a monographic labour it may be compared with Dr. Wells Essay upon Dew,10 as original, exhaustive and complete—containing the closest observation with large and important generalizations.

Among the Zoologists, his monographs upon the Balanidæ and Lepadidæ, Fossil and Recent in the Palæontographical and Ray Societies’ Publications11 are held to be models of their kind.

In Physiological Botany, his recent researches, upon the Dimorphism of the Genital organs in certain plants, embodied in his papers in the Linnean Journal, on Primula Linum and Lythrum,12 are of the highest order of importance. They open a new mine of observation, upon a field which had been barely struck upon before. The same remark applies to his researches on the structure and various adaptations of the Orchideous flower, to a definite object connected with impregnation of the plants through the agency of insects with foreign pollen.13 There has not yet been time for their due influence being felt in the advancement of the science. But in either subject, they constitute and advance per saltum. I need not dwell upon the value of his Geological Researches, which won for him one of the earlier awards of the “Wollaston Medal”—from the Geological Society—the best of judges on the point.14

And lastly Mr. Darwin’s great essay on the Origin of Species by Natural Selection. This solemn and mysterious subject had been either so lightly or so grotesquely treated before, that it was hardly regarded as being within the bounds of legitimate philosophical investigation. Mr. Darwin after 20 years of the closest study and research, published his views, and it is sufficient to say that they instantly fixed the attention of mankind throughout the civilized world. That the efforts of a single mind should have arrived at success on a subject of such vast scope, and encompassed with such difficulties was more than could have been reasonably expected—and I am far from thinking that Charles Darwin has made out all his case. But he has treated it with such power and in such a philosophical and truth-seeking spirit and illustrated it with such a vast amount of original and collated observation, as fairly to have brought the subject within the bounds of rational scientific research. I consider this great essay on Genetic Biology to constitute a strong additional claim on behalf of Mr. Darwin for the Copley Medal.

In forming an estimate of the value and extent of Mr. Darwin’s researches, due regard ought to be had to the circumstances under which they have been carried out—a pressure of unremitting disease—which has latterly left him not more than one or two hours of the day which he could call his own.15

Yours sincerely | H. Falconer

Dr. Sharpey, F.R.S.


Falconer and George Busk were both members of the Council of the Royal Society of London, which was due to meet to discuss the candidates for the Copley Medal on Thursday 27 October 1864; voting on the award of the medal was due to take place on 3 November 1864 (Royal Society, Council minutes). William Sharpey was secretary of the Royal Society (DNB).
Busk and Falconer were returning from a visit to Gibraltar to examine the geology of Genista Cave, Windmill Hill, and the fossil remains recently recovered from it; Busk gave an account of the trip to the Philosophical Club of the Royal Society on 27 October 1864 (see Bonney 1919, p. 168, and letter from J. D. Hooker, 26[–8] October 1864). The expedition was financed by the British Association for the Advancement of Science (see letter to J. D. Hooker, [1 September 1864] and n. 11, and Falconer 1868, 2: 554–63). On the return journey, Busk and Falconer evidently intended to visit natural history museums and archaeological sites in France, including the cave of Les Eyzies in the Dordogne, which had recently been explored by Henry Christy and Edouard Lartet, and had yielded what Lartet regarded as some of the earliest known examples of Stone Age engravings, and the cave at Bruniquel (see letters from Hugh Falconer to Grace Milne, 5 October 1864 and 19 October 1864, the Falconer Museum, Forres, Scotland, and Falconer 1868, 2: 627–8). See also n. 3, below, and letter from Hugh Falconer, 3 November 186[4].
Bruniquel, a town in Tarn-et-Garonne, forty-one miles east of Montauban in the south of France, was the site of a cave rich in artefacts of early humans, including weapons and implements. These archaeological finds had already been purchased by the British Museum and formed part of the national collections (see Falconer 1868, 2: 630–1). Busk and Falconer had presumably gone to visit the site on their return from Gibraltar to compare it with the cave at Windmill Hill (see n. 2, above).
Busk had nominated CD for the Copley Medal (Royal Society, Council minutes, 23 June 1864). See letter from E. A. Darwin, 27 June [1864].
Edward Sabine was president of the Royal Society. For the other members of the Council in 1864, see the letter from Charles Lyell, 4 November 1864, n. 3, and Appendix IV.
The list has not been found. To assist him in constructing his case in support of CD’s nomination for the Copley Medal, Falconer had obtained a list of CD’s publications (see letter from E. A. Darwin, 27 June [1864], letter to E. A. Darwin, 30 June 1864, and letter from E. A. Darwin to Hugh Falconer, 2 July 1864). See Appendix IV.
Falconer used the term ‘genetic biology’ to refer to the part of CD’s work that focused on the search for common origins and the descent of organisms. The major work in this class was, as Falconer goes on to explain, Origin.
Nullum tetegit quod non ornavit: ‘He touched nothing which he did not adorn.’ The quotation is taken from Samuel Johnson’s epitaph on Oliver Goldsmith (Harbottle 1902, p. 183).
Falconer refers to Coral reefs. For a discussion of CD’s coral-reef theory, see Correspondence vol. 1, Appendix V, and Stoddart 1976.
The reference is to William Charles Wells and to Wells 1814. For a discussion of this publication, see Freeman 1978, p. 300.
Balanidae and Lepadidae are families of Cirripedia (barnacles). Fossil Cirripedia (1851) and (1854) were published by the Palaeontographical Society, and Living Cirripedia (1851 and 1854) was published by the Ray Society. For a discussion of CD’s study of Cirripedia, carried out between 1846 and 1854, see Correspondence vol. 4, Appendix II.
The reference is to ‘Dimorphic condition in Primula’, ‘Two forms in species of Linum’, and ‘Three forms of Lythrum salicaria’. George Bentham commented on the new interest in flower dimorphism stimulated by CD’s researches in his anniversary address to the Linnean Society on 24 May 1864 (see Bentham 1864a, pp. xviii–xix). For discussions of CD’s research on dimorphism, and presentation lists for these papers, see Correspondence vol. 10, Appendix III, Correspondence vol. 11, Appendix IV, and this volume, Appendix III.
Falconer refers to CD’s argument that orchid flowers had developed structures to ensure cross-pollination by insects (see Orchids, pp. 357–60). For a list of reviews of Orchids, see Correspondence vol. 10, Appendix VII.
CD was awarded the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society of London in 1859 (see Correspondence vol. 7, letter to J. D. Hooker, 20 January [1859] and n. 7, and letter to John Phillips, 21 January [1859] and n. 3).
For overviews of CD’s symptoms, see Colp 1977, Bowlby 1990, and Browne 1998.


Describes CD’s qualifications for Copley Medal.

Letter details

Letter no.
Falconer, Hugh
Sharpey, William
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 144: 475
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4644,” accessed on 19 January 2017,