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Darwin Correspondence Project

Correspondents

Darwin exchanged letters with nearly 2000 people during his lifetime. These range from well known naturalists, thinkers, and public figures, to men and women who would be unknown today were it not for the letters they exchanged with Darwin.


William B. Bowles

As a famous figure in the debates surrounding human evolution, Darwin could be something of a lightning rod for eccentric thinkers with their own ideas about his theories. The idea of a “missing link” compelled one such enthusiast to write to him about the possible origins of humankind. Having read an “exposition of the ‘Darwinian theory’” that posited the missing link as an extinct “race of ‘Speechless Men,’” an American banker living in Paris by the name of William B. Bowles suggested to Darwin that, in fact, the “missing link” was neither speechless nor extinct.

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Benjamin Renshaw

How much like a monkey is a person? Did our ancestors really swing from trees? Are we descended from apes? By the 1870s, questions like these were on the tip of everyone’s tongue, even though Darwin himself never posed the problem of human evolution in quite these terms.

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Charles Harrison Blackley
http://enriqueta.man.ac.uk/luna/servlet/s/2os6gx
Charles Harrison Blackley
MMC/2/BlackleyC/1/29
Copyright of The University of Manchester

Charles Harrison Blackley

You may not have heard of Charles Harrison Blackley (1820–1900), but if you are one of the 15 million people in the UK who suffer from hay fever, you are indebted to him. For it was he who identified pollen as the cause of the allergy. Darwin was fascinated by Blackley’s experiments testing whether pollen could be carried large distances in the upper regions of the atmosphere, experiments that had been inspired by Darwin’s discussion of collecting atmospheric dust at Porto Praya in his Journal of researches (2nd edition, p. 5).

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Mary Treat
http://www.vinelandhistory1864.org/
Mary Treat
Courtesy of the Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society

Mary Treat

Mary Treat was a naturalist from New Jersey who made significant contributions to the fields of entomolgy and botany. Over the period 1871–1876, she exchanged fifteen letters with Darwin - more than any other woman naturalist.

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Virginia Isitt: Darwin’s secretary?

In an undated and incomplete draft letter to a “Miss I.”, Emma Darwin appears to be arranging for Miss I. to come to Down for a trial period as a secretary. When the letter first came to light, no one had heard of the mysterious “Miss I.” and, as far as we knew, Darwin never employed a secretary. Members of his family acted as his amanuenses, read to him, helped with experiments, and read drafts of his work; from time to time he employed someone to make fair copies of his manuscripts. His children’s German governess helped with translations, even after she had left the family.

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Joseph Dalton Hooker
Joseph Dalton Hooker
CUL DAR 257: 114
Cambridge University Library

Joseph Dalton Hooker

The 1400 letters exchanged between Darwin and Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911) account for around 10% of Darwin’s surviving correspondence and provide a structure within which all the other letters can be explored.  They are a connecting thread that spans forty years of Darwin’s mature working life from 1843 until his death in 1882 and bring into sharp focus every aspect of Darwin’s scientific work throughout that period. They illuminate the mutual friendships he and Hooker shared with other scientists, but they also provide a window of unparalleled intimacy into the personal lives of the two men. 

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John Murray
John Murray
CUL 456.d.91.291
Cambridge University Library

John Murray

Darwin's most famous book On the origin of species by means of natural selection (Origin) was published on 22 November 1859. The publisher was John Murray, who specialised in non-fiction, particularly politics, travel and science, and had published Darwin's account of the Beagle voyage, Journal of researches. He was the grandson of John Macmurray, a Scot who had arrived in London, altered his name and in 1768 acquired a publishing house. The third John Murray, who followed his father as head of the business in 1843, made a successful business decision when he included Charles Darwin among his authors and added Origin to his list. Successive John Murrays ran the publishing house; the seventh sold the business in 2002. The John Murray Archive was acquired by the National Library of Scotland: it contains more than two hundred letters from Darwin, from his first negotiations in 1845 until his final years.

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Henrietta Emma Darwin
Henrietta Emma Darwin
CUL DAR 225: 52
Cambridge University Library

Henrietta Emma Darwin

Henrietta “Etty” Darwin (1843–1927) was the eldest of Charles Darwin’s daughters to reach adulthood. She married Richard Buckley Litchfield in 1871. She was a valued editor to her father as well as companion and correspondent to both of her parents.

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Asa Gray
Asa Gray
CUL DAR 257:109
Cambridge University Library

Asa Gray

Darwin’s longest running and most significant exchange of correspondence dealing with the subjects of design in nature and religious belief was with the Harvard botanist Asa Gray.  Gray was one of Darwin’s leading supporters in America. He was also a devout Presbyterian. The vigorous and yet civil and humble manner in which the two men debated matters of intense personal belief and social consequence serves as a model of constructive engagement. The entire extant correspondence, consisting of about 300 letters written between 1854 and 1881, is now available for the first time.

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Jane Loring Gray
http://botlib.huh.harvard.edu/libraries/Gray_Bicent/gray_jane.htm
Jane Loring Gray , 1886
Courtesy of the Gray Herbarium

Jane Gray

Jane Loring Gray, the daughter of a Boston lawyer, married the Harvard botanist Asa Gray in 1848 and evidence suggests that she took an active interest in the scientific pursuits of her husband and his friends. Although she is only known to have corresponded directly with Darwin once, sending him observations about the behaviour of her dog (letter from J. L. Gray, 14 February 1870), she also passed on information through her husband, and is one of few women cited in Darwin’s Expression of Emotions. The Grays visited Charles and Emma Darwin twice, spending several days as guests at Down House in October 1868, and visiting again in August 1869. Although they never met again, the two couples became close friends. 

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