Letter summaries

Darwin's Scientific Women

In Darwin’s day, women were generally expected to become wives and mothers but Darwin exchanged letters with many women botanists, travellers, observers, writers and naturalists who all contributed to his research. This pack explores the life and times of key women involved in Darwin’s work and provides a range of subject specific activities aimed at KS3 and 4.

1. Select your subject Teacher's Notes
  • Science KS3 and 4
  • History / Citizenship KS3 and 4
  • Religious Education KS3 and 4
  • English KS3 and 4
2. Click on a portrait to find out more about the surprising lives of these scientific women.

Pick a theme


Emma Darwin(2 May 1808 - 7 October 1896)

Wife of Charles Darwin and mother of 10 children, assisted her husband

See also

  • Religious Education KS3 and 4

My reason tells me that honest & conscientious doubts cannot be a sin, but I feel it would be a painful void between us. I thank you from my heart for your openness with me & I should dread the feeling that you were concealing your opinions from the fear of giving me pain.
- Emma Darwin to Charles Darwin, 21-22 November, 1838

About Emma Darwin


Emma Darwin (born Wedgwood) was born at the family estate of Maer Hall, Maer, Staffordshire. She was the youngest of seven children and was Charles Darwin’s first cousin. Her family belonged to Unitarian church and Emma’s faith remained important to her. It was something that she explored and discussed with Darwin at length before they married, and continued to be actively analysed and debated between them.

Emma Wedgwood married Charles Darwin on 29 January 1839 and they were the parents of 10 children, three of whom died at early ages. Emma assisted Darwin, writing on his behalf during his many bouts of illness. She also received letters of observations (particularly from female correspondents) regarding the behaviour and emotions of children. She and Darwin kept notebooks of the observations of their own children as they grew up. Such observations informed Darwin’s later works on human emotion and behaviour. Outside of the family, Emma wrote concerning issues of animal cruelty, slavery and the American Civil War.

English activities

Female Language

How do the letters of women writing to Darwin compare to those from men? We look at letters from two naturalists; Mary Treat, in America and Mary Barber, from South Africa. Both women made important scientific observations and discoveries that Darwin would have not otherwise have known. How did they communicate their findings?

Portrait of a Marriage

Charles Darwin and his wife Emma shared a long and happy relationship. We look at how this relationship is conveyed through the language and tone of their letters.

To the activities

Mary Elizabeth Barber(5 January 1818–4 September 1899)

Naturalist, artist and writer in South Africa

I am very glad you showed Mr Darwin my paper on the 'Stone Grasshopper' will you be so kind as to let him see that on 'Duvernoia &c' if you think it will interest him, for I have Darwin to thank for nearly all I know on the subject of fertilization, my eyes were opened by reading his books, especially that on the Fertilization of Orchids.
- Mary Barber to Joseph Hooker 9 March, [1869]

About Mary Elizabeth Barber


Mary Barber (born Bowker) was born in Wiltshire, England but her family emigrated to South Africa when she was 2 years old. She followed her older brother’s keen interest in natural history. Barber studied birds, moths, reptiles, and plants, often creating detailed and accurate paintings. A number of species of insects and plants that she discovered were named after her. She corresponded with leading scientists and exchanged letters with Joseph Hooker at Kew Gardens for 30 years. Hooker read some of her scientific papers at the Linnaean society and several were published under Darwin’s recommendation.


English activities

Female Language

How do the letters of women writing to Darwin compare to those from men? We look at letters from two naturalists; Mary Treat, in America and Mary Barber, from South Africa. Both women made important scientific observations and discoveries that Darwin would have not otherwise have known. How did they communicate their findings?

Portrait of a Marriage

Charles Darwin and his wife Emma shared a long and happy relationship. We look at how this relationship is conveyed through the language and tone of their letters.

To the activities

Mary Lua Adelia Treat(7 September 1830-11 April 1923)

Naturalist, botanist, writer

See also

  • Science KS3 and 4

The unlucky fly - a common house fly - would no sooner be caught by the sticky glands of the leaf, than the blade would at once commence to fold about its victim.
- Mary Treat to Charles Darwin 20 Dec 1871

About Mary Treat


Mary Treat (born Davis) was born in Trumansburg, New York but after marriage moved to Vinelands, New Jersey. Her studies of the natural world gave her respect and reputation during her lifetime. Like Darwin she worked at home, creating what she referred to as her ‘Insect Menagerie’, an enclosed space from which she observed the minutiae of the natural world around her. After Treat separated from her husband Dr Joseph Burrell Treat in 1874, she supported herself by writing popular science articles for widely read magazines and published 5 books.

Treat carried out experiments and collected plants and insects for leading naturalists including Asa Gray and Charles Darwin. Darwin commented: ‘Your observations and experiments on the sexes of butterflies are by far the best, as far as is known to me, which have ever been made.’ Darwin encouraged Treat to publish her results in an academic journal but she remarked: ‘You may wonder at my selecting a literary magazine rather than a scientific one, but I am wholly dependent on my own exertions and must go where they pay best,’ Darwin acknowledged Treat’s work in his book ‘Insectivorous Plants’ (1875) and exchanged more letters with her than with any other female correspondent.

English activities

Female Language

How do the letters of women writing to Darwin compare to those from men? We look at letters from two naturalists; Mary Treat, in America and Mary Barber, from South Africa. Both women made important scientific observations and discoveries that Darwin would have not otherwise have known. How did they communicate their findings?

Portrait of a Marriage

Charles Darwin and his wife Emma shared a long and happy relationship. We look at how this relationship is conveyed through the language and tone of their letters.

To the activities

Women travellers

Lady Florence Dixie(24 May 1855 – 7 November 1905)

Traveller, war correspondent, writer and feminist

The mother attacked me & followed me up a tree, in self defence I was obliged to shoot her but saved one of the cubs from the gauchos.
- Florence Dixie to Charles Darwin, 4 Nov 1880

About Lady Florence Dixie


Florence Dixie (born Douglas) was born in Dumfries, Scotland. She was educated at home and in a convent. In 1879 she travelled to Patagonia with her husband and enjoyed big game hunting (although she later turned against blood sports). She brought home a jaguar and kept it as a pet, describing to Darwin how she had to give it to the zoo as it had grown too big to keep safely. In 1881, Dixie was appointed as a field correspondent of the Morning Post of London to cover the First Boer War. Dixie was politically active; she was strongly in favour of Irish home rule and women’s suffrage. In the preface to her utopian feminist novel, ‘Gloriana’, 1890 she wrote:
‘Nature has unmistakeably given to woman a greater brain power. This is at once perceivable in childhood... Yet man deliberately sets himself to stunt that early evidence of mental capacity, by laying down the law that woman's education shall be on a lower level than that of man's... I maintain to honourable gentlemen that this procedure is arbitrary and cruel, and false to Nature.’
Dixie wrote to Darwin of her observations on Patagonian animal life.

Traveller activities

Some women just don’t want to stay at home. The lives of some of Darwin’s female correspondents were dangerous and full of adventure.

In this activity we look at letters from Lady Florence Dixie and Marianne North to assess how untypical their lives were.

To the activities

Women travellers

Marianne North(24 October 1830 - 30 August 1890)

Botanical artist, traveller

To the present time I am often able to call up with considerable vividness scenes in various countries which I have seen, and it is no small pleasure; but my mind in this respect must be a mere barren waste compared with your mind.
- Charles Darwin to Marianne North, 2 August 1881

About Marianne North


Marianne North was born in Hastings where her father became a Liberal MP. Her family supported Marianne’s attempts at singing and painting as suitable activities for a Victorian lady. After her parents died, Marianne sold the family home and began travelling with the aim of painting the flora of different countries. Between 1871 and 1885 Marianne North visited America, Canada, Jamaica, Brazil, Tenerife, Japan, Singapore, Sarawak, Java, Sri Lanka, India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Seychelles and Chile.

During this time she travelled alone through the interior of Brazil for a year and through India for 18 months, often exploring areas unknown to Europeans. Darwin is supposed to have recommended to North that she visit Australia. On her return she visited Down House in 1881, to show the Darwins her paintings of Australian flora. Back in England she approached Kew Gardens to show her work and paid for a gallery to be built to house the collection. It is part of the attractions at Kew today.

Traveller activities

Some women just don’t want to stay at home. The lives of some of Darwin’s female correspondents were dangerous and full of adventure.

In this activity we look at letters from Lady Florence Dixie and Marianne North to assess how untypical their lives were.

To the activities

Progress Activities

Elizabeth Garrett(9 June 1836 – 17 December 1917)

Physician and supporter of women’s rights

I have had the opportunity of watching Miss Garretts career closely & of frequently observing & testing her scientific acquirements and know them to be of a high order -& also that her industry & zeal are beyond all praise
Letter 4940, Edward Cresy Jnr to Emma Darwin, 20 Nov 1965

About Elizabeth Garrett Anderson


Elizabeth Garrett was born in Whitechapel, London. She was initially educated at home but at13 sent to boarding school. She was always interested in politics and current affairs but decided to pursue a career in medicine at a time when women were excluded from formal medical training.


Garrett worked as a nurse whilst studying privately and was eventually allowed to attend the dissecting room and lectures at Middlesex Hospital until a petition by male students forced her to leave. She was refused entry to several medical schools but continued to study privately until taking her Society of Apothecaries exam in 1865 and was awarded a licence to practice medicine. She was the first British woman qualified to do so but could not work at any hospital so set up her own practice, eventually providing medical care to poor women and children across London. She co-founded the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874, the only teaching hospital to offer courses for women. A colleague of Darwin’s wrote to Emma Darwin to ask her to support Garrett becoming Professor of Physiology at Bedford College for Girls.

The progress of women activities

Despite having no political rights during the nineteenth century, changes in family law meant that, in principle, women’s rights started to improve.

In these activities we look at women’s roles and some of the influential women campaigners who challenged what was expected of them.

To the activities

Progress Activities

Clemence Royer(21 April 1820 – 6 February 1902)

Scholar who wrote on economics, philosophy, science and feminism and translated ‘On the Origin of Species’ into French.

The doctrine of M. Darwin is the rational revelation of progress, pitting itself in logical antagonism with the irrational revelation of the fall.
Clemence-Auguste Royer in her translator’s preface to Darwin, ‘De l’origine des especes, ou des lois du progress chez les etres organises’ (Paris 1862), pplxiii- lxiv

About Clemence Royer


Royer was born in Nantes, Brittany and was mainly educated at home. She taught herself French, arithmetic and music to qualify as a teacher in a secondary school, living in Paris and then England. Royer moved to Lausanne, Switzerland and in 1859 gave a series of lectures aimed at women and was a great advocate of women’s rights. She was a strong supporter of Darwin’s ideas and is most known for her French translation of ‘On the Origin of Species’ in 1862. Her preface was a strongly expressed 60 page essay against organised religion and she added her own footnotes to Darwin’s text. Darwin wrote to his friend and colleague Asa Gray: ‘I received 2 or 3 days ago a French translation of the Origin by a Madelle. Royer, who must be one of the cleverest & oddest women in Europe: is ardent deist & hates Christianity, & declares that natural selection & the struggle for life will explain all morality, nature of man, politicks &c &c!!!’.

The progress of women activities

Despite having no political rights during the nineteenth century, changes in family law meant that, in principle, women’s rights started to improve.

In these activities we look at women’s roles and some of the influential women campaigners who challenged what was expected of them.

To the activities

Progress Activities

Antoinette Blackwell(May 20 1825 – November 5 1921)

Ordained minister, writer, feminist and social reformer

Woman herself must speak hereafter, or forever holding her peace, consent meekly to crown herself with these edicts of her inferiority.
- 'The Sexes Throughout Nature', 1875, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, p.235

About Antoinette Brown Blackwell


Antoinette Brown was born in Henrietta, New York. In early life she began to preach in her local Congregational Church and went on to teach. Throughout her life she was a renowned public speaker. Brown was the first woman to be ordained as a minister in the United States. She was a vociferous social reformer and promoter of women’s rights. She later became a Unitarian and remained committed to the idea of that women’s participation in religion could improve their status in society.

She was also a keen philosopher and scientist. She believed Darwin to be one of the most influential thinkers of her time. After sending Darwin a copy of her book ‘Studies in General Science’, Darwin’s reply to thank the author began ‘Dear Sir’, as he assumed it had been written by a man.

The progress of women activities

Despite having no political rights during the nineteenth century, changes in family law meant that, in principle, women’s rights started to improve.

In these activities we look at women’s roles and some of the influential women campaigners who challenged what was expected of them.

To the activities

Extract from The Sexes Throughout Nature by Antoinette Brown Blackwell, 1875

Progress Activities

Lydia Ernestine Becker(24 Feb 1827 – 18 July 1890)

Suffragist, botanist and astronomer

Our society appears likely to prosper beyond my expectations … The ladies who had the privilege of listening to the paper desire to express their thanks to you for it.
- Lydia Becker to Charles Darwin, 6 Feb 1867

About Lydia Ernestine Becker


Lydia Becker was born in Chadderton, Lancashire and was educated at home. She studied botany and astronomy and was awarded a Horticultural Society gold medal in 1862. She published 'Botany for Novices', 1864, which she described to Darwin as being 'chiefly intended for young ladies'. She was founder and president of the Manchester Ladies' Literary Society and persuaded Darwin to send articles for the society to discuss. She was a leading member of the women's suffrage movement, becoming secretary to the Manchester Women's Suffrage Committee from 1867, and later to the Manchester National Society for Women's Suffrage. She was editor of and a regular contributor to the ‘Women's Suffrage Journal’ from 1870. She moved to London and was elected as President of the newly formed National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1887. Becker exchanged botanical information, seeds and plants with Darwin, as well as sharing papers and a copy of her book.

The progress of women activities

Despite having no political rights during the nineteenth century, changes in family law meant that, in principle, women’s rights started to improve.

In these activities we look at women’s roles and some of the influential women campaigners who challenged what was expected of them.

To the activities

Mary Lua Adelia Treat(7 September 1830-11 April 1923)

Naturalist, botanist, writer

See also

  • English KS3 and 4

The unlucky fly - a common house fly - would no sooner be caught by the sticky glands of the leaf, than the blade would at once commence to fold about its victim.
- Mary Treat to Charles Darwin 20 Dec 1871

About Mary Treat


Mary Treat (born Davis) was born in Trumansburg, New York but after marriage moved to Vinelands, New Jersey. Her studies of the natural world gave her respect and reputation during her lifetime. Like Darwin she worked at home, creating what she referred to as her ‘Insect Menagerie’, an enclosed space from which she observed the minutiae of the natural world around her. After Treat separated from her husband Dr Joseph Burrell Treat in 1874, she supported herself by writing popular science articles for widely read magazines and published 5 books.

Treat carried out experiments and collected plants and insects for leading naturalists including Asa Gray and Charles Darwin. Darwin commented: ‘Your observations and experiments on the sexes of butterflies are by far the best, as far as is known to me, which have ever been made.’ Darwin encouraged Treat to publish her results in an academic journal but she remarked: ‘You may wonder at my selecting a literary magazine rather than a scientific one, but I am wholly dependent on my own exertions and must go where they pay best,’ Darwin acknowledged Treat’s work in his book ‘Insectivorous Plants’ (1875) and exchanged more letters with her than with any other female correspondent.

Science activities

Darwin’s female correspondents contributed to his understanding of the natural world through their observations and experiments.

Focussing on American botanist Mary Treat we see that, like Darwin, she worked from home, closely observing her surroundings.

In these experiments we observe moths and feed insectivorous plants.

To the activities

Emma Darwin(2 May 1808 - 7 October 1896)

Wife of Charles Darwin and mother of 10 children, assisted her husband

See also

  • English KS3 and 4

My reason tells me that honest & conscientious doubts cannot be a sin, but I feel it would be a painful void between us. I thank you from my heart for your openness with me & I should dread the feeling that you were concealing your opinions from the fear of giving me pain.
- Emma Darwin to Charles Darwin, 21-22 November, 1838

About Emma Darwin


Emma Darwin (born Wedgwood) was born at the family estate of Maer Hall, Maer, Staffordshire. She was the youngest of seven children and was Charles Darwin’s first cousin. Her family belonged to Unitarian church and Emma’s faith remained important to her. It was something that she explored and discussed with Darwin at length before they married, and continued to be actively analysed and debated between them.

Emma Wedgwood married Charles Darwin on 29 January 1839 and they were the parents of 10 children, three of whom died at early ages. Emma assisted Darwin, writing on his behalf during his many bouts of illness. She also received letters of observations (particularly from female correspondents) regarding the behaviour and emotions of children. She and Darwin kept notebooks of the observations of their own children as they grew up. Such observations informed Darwin’s later works on human emotion and behaviour. Outside of the family, Emma wrote concerning issues of animal cruelty, slavery and the American Civil War.

Women and faith activities

Darwin’s theory of natural selection caused anxiety for Victorian Britain for the challenges that it presented to the church and to personal belief.

The relationship between science and religion is still widely debated. In this activity we look at letters from Emma Darwin (Darwin’s wife) and Mary Boole (a maths teacher), to see how they expressed their anxieties about the compatibility between God and Darwin’s ideas.

To the activities

Mrs Charles Darwin’s Recipe Book, Down

Mary Everest Boole(1832 – 1916)

Mathematician and teacher

But I have lately read remarks, on the probable bearing of your theory on religious & moral questions, which have perplexed & pained me sorely…I cannot feel sure that they are mistaken unless you will tell me so.
- Mary Boole to Charles Darwin, 13 December 1866

About Mary Everest Boole


Mary Everest was born in Wickwar, Gloucestershire. She was a self-taught mathematician and married fellow mathematician George Boole in 1855. They had 5 daughters but Mary was widowed when she was 32. Mary Boole is best known for her popular and creative methods of teaching maths to children.

She believed that children should be given mathematical objects to play with in order to gradually develop an understanding of pattern and structure. In 1909 she published ‘Philosophy and Fun of Algebra’. She was interested in science, publishing ‘The Preparation of the Child for Science’ in 1904. A committed Christian, Boole wrote to Darwin seeking clarification that his theory might be compatible with her religious faith and was reassured by his response.




Women and faith activities

Darwin’s theory of natural selection caused anxiety for Victorian Britain for the challenges that it presented to the church and to personal belief.

The relationship between science and religion is still widely debated. In this activity we look at letters from Emma Darwin (Darwin’s wife) and Mary Boole (a maths teacher), to see how they expressed their anxieties about the compatibility between God and Darwin’s ideas.

To the activities

Maths through creativity: curved stitching

Family Activities

Henrietta Darwin(25 September 1843 - 17 December 1929)

Assistant to her father and editor of his published work

After reading once right through, the more time you can give up for deep criticism or corrections of style, the more grateful I shall be.
- Charles Darwin to Henrietta Darwin, 8 February 1870

About Henrietta Darwin


Henrietta was the third daughter of Charles and Emma Darwin, born at Down House, the family home in Kent. Henrietta and her brothers and sisters worked closely with their father making observations and carrying out experiments, even as children. As she grew up, Henrietta also liaised with many of Darwin’s correspondents requesting specific observations and collating their responses. Most significantly, Darwin entrusted Henrietta to edit a large proportion of his published work, including the publication ‘The Descent of Man’ regarding which Darwin to referred to Henrietta as ‘my very dear coadjutor and fellow-labourer'. (Charles Darwin to Henrietta Darwin 20 Mar 1871).

In replying to Heniretta’s suggested revisions he wrote:
‘All your remarks, criticisms doubts and corrections are excellent, excellent, excellent’ (Charles Darwin to Henrietta Darwin, 26 July 1867). In August 1871 she married Richard Buckley Litchfield who was also born in Downe, Kent. Henrietta edited two volumes of family letters after the death of her parents; ‘Emma Darwin, Wife of Charles Darwin’ (1904 and 1915).

Darwin's family workforce activity

Darwin relied heavily on the support of his family – in particular his wife and children.

In this activity we look at letters from his female family members to see what contribution they made and how (or if) it was recognised.

To the activities

Jane Gray's letter to her sister, 28 October 1868


The oldest daughter Henrietta is one of those people who grow most wonderfully on acquaintance. She looks so youthful & childish that I wondered at first, at her decided expressions & her independent opinions. But she is older that she looks, very highly educated & soundly informed, has been her father’s great assistant in a great deal of his work; knows & means what she says, & “is quick & bright,” Dr. Gray says, “as steel”— To hear her argue with Dr. Hooker, or answer her father’s reference, or lay herself out that Harriet should have a good time, restring rosaries into bracelet & necklace as if the arrangement were of serious import, contrive for her walks, & rides on the pony, it did one good— And yet she is a sharp critic, I venture to say, not easily pleased, & friends & intimates few— She had just returned from a journey in Switzerland with Miss Bonham Carter, travelling alone, no doubt to the surprise of many of their acquaintances; certainly to that of a Mallachian gentleman whom they met, & who did not restrain his rather severe expressions of wonder—

Jane Gray to Susan Loring, 28 October – 2 November 1868