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Darwin Correspondence Project

Lydia Becker

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Lydia Ernestine Becker
Lydia Ernestine Becker, The Graphic, Jan 1874, p44
CUL NPR.c.53
Cambridge University Library

Becker was a leading member of the suffrage movement, perhaps best known for publishing the Women’s Suffrage Journal. She was also a successful biologist, astronomer and botanist and, between 1863 and 1877, an occasional correspondent of Charles Darwin.

Most of the correspondence between Becker and Darwin, starting with a letter she wrote to him in 1863, concerns botany. Becker provided Darwin with specimens of plants indigenous to her home town, Manchester. She also sent detailed observations for Darwin's work on plant dimorphism. In return, Darwin responded to her questions, gave feedback on her writing and advised on where best to publish her articles.

Perhaps most surprising was Darwin’s willingness to provide Becker with material for an education initiative at her local women's scientific organisation, the disarmingly titled Manchester Ladies’ Literary Society. On December 22nd 1866 Becker wrote to Darwin to ask if he would “be so very good as to send us a paper to be read at our first meeting”. “Of course we are not so unreasonable as to desire that you should write anything specially for us” she continued, “but I think it possible you may have by you a copy of some paper such as that on the Linum which you have communicated to the learned societies but which is unknown and inaccessible to us unless through your kindness.”

Darwin responded by sending not one but three papers to be read at the ladies’ inaugural meeting (`Climbing plants’, `Dimorphic condition in Primula‘ and probably `Three forms of Lythrum salicaria‘). Whether Darwin realised that he was providing materials for a feminist organisation is unclear, although Becker’s use of headed paper and the enclosure in her letter to Darwin of the society’s first pamphlet certainly made no secret of her political affiliations.