Darwin’s correspondence helps bring to light a community of women who participated, often actively and routinely, in the nineteenth-century scientific community. Below is a selection of letters exchanged between Darwin and his workforce of women observers, experimenters, fieldworkers, editors and critics.
Associated selected readings.
1. What sorts of scientific work did women do, and for whom?
2. Where did women carry out their work?
3. What motivated women to participate in the world of science?
4. What do these letters tell us about Victorian women’s i) perceived expertise and ii) lived experiences?
Letter 3787 – Darwin, H. E. to Darwin, [29 October 1862]
In this letter, Henrietta Darwin provides her father with observations of cats’ instinctive behaviour.
Letter 4523 – Wedgwood, L. C. to Darwin, [6 June 1864]
In this letter, Darwin’s niece, Lucy, responds to Darwin’s request for observations to be made on seeds of Pulmonaria officinalis.
Letter 7223 – Darwin to Wedgwood, L. C., [8 June 1867 - 72]
In this letter, Darwin asks his niece, Lucy, to observe the expression of emotion in her pet dog and birds.
Letter 5817 – Darwin to Huxley, T. H., [30 January 1868]
In this letter, Darwin asks Thomas Huxley to pass on a questionnaire to his wife, Henrietta. Darwin comments that another woman from his neighbourhood is making similar observations for him.
Letter 6535 – Vaughan Williams, M. S. to Darwin, H. E., [after 14 October 1869]
In this letter Darwin’s niece, Margaret, passes on observations of a crying baby to Darwin’s daughter, Henrietta.
Letter 7179 – Wedgwood, L. C. to Darwin, [5 May 1870]
In this letter Darwin’s niece, Lucy, provides observations on the expression of emotion in horses and babies. She also reports briefly on her ongoing observations of wormholes.
Letter 8611 – Cupples, A. J. to Darwin, E., [8 November1872]
In this letter Anne Jane Cupples, wife of the Scottish scientist George Cupples, shares her observations on the expression of emotion in dogs with Emma Darwin.
Letter 8676 – Treat, M. to Darwin, [13 December 1872]
In this letter, Mary Treat details her observations of, and experiments on, Drosera filiformis. She also references her observational work on butterflies and offers to observe birds, insects or plants on Darwin’s behalf.
Letter 8683 – Roberts, D. to Darwin, [17 December 1872]
In this letter, Dora Roberts reports an incidence of “misguided maternal instinct”, observed in her hen house. She also passes on brief observations of an angry pig and her niece’s ears.
Letter 9616 – Marshall, T. to Darwin, [September 1874]
In this letter, Theodosia Marshall sends Darwin observations made by her and her father of plants and insects.
Letter 1701 – Morris, M. H. to Prior, R. C. A., [17 June 1855]
In this letter, Margaretta Hare Morris describes her work on fish and insects, undertaken on the shores of mountain lakes in Pennsylvania.
Letter 8144 – Darwin to Wedgwood, L. C., [5 January 1872]
In this letter, Darwin asks his niece, Lucy, to probe wormholes on steep slopes with blunt knitting needles.
Letter 4235 – Becker, L. E. to Darwin, [8 July 1863]
In this letter, Lydia Becker sends Darwin a number of plant samples which she had gathered from her local woods. She also comments on the variation, hybridity, and inheritance of parasites in Lychnis diurna.
Letter 8168 - Ruck, A. R. to Darwin, H., [20 January 1872]
In this letter, Amy Ruck reports the results of her fieldwork on furrows and earthworm activity to her brother-in-law, Horace. She has dug a number of trenches, measured soil depths and tried, but failed, to find worm castings on the family’s croquet lawn.
Letter 8224 – Darwin to Ruck, A. R., [24 February 1872]
In this letter, Darwin asks his “geologist in chief for N. Wales” to provide observations and take measurements of hillside worm casting ridges.
Letter 8169 – Wedgwood, L. to Darwin, [20 January, 1872]
In this letter Darwin’s niece, Lucy, gives the results of probing worm-holes with wire. She will send more results once she has “dug some more trenches”.
Letter 9606 – Harrison, L. C. to Darwin, [22 August 1872]
In this letter Darwin’s niece, Lucy, sends a sample of Pinguicula which she found near a bog. She also sends a selection of insects, which are carefully packed in a tin box.
Letter 10439 – Treat, M. to Darwin, [3 April 1876]
In this letter, Mary Treat describes a field trip in Florida. She sends Pinguicula specimens and believes she may have discovered a new species of waterlily.
Letter 12389 – Johnson, M. to Darwin, [January 1880]
In this letter, Mary Johnson tells Darwin about her work on worms and about a recent geological ramble she had taken with her father. During their walk they had stumbled across Prof. Rollerston from Oxford with whom she spent “an interesting day among the bones”. Noting the conspicuousness of her presence, Rollerston commented that she was probably the first woman “except a she bear or so” to have entered the cave “since the flood”.
Letter 12745 - Darwin to Wedgwood, K. E. S., [8 October 1880]
In this letter Darwin asks his niece, Katherine, to keep an eye out for worm castings during her walks on the Heath.
Letter 12760 - Wedgwood, K. E. S. to Darwin, [15 October 1880]
In this letter Darwin’s niece, Katherine, reports the results of her fieldwork on the common.
Letter 1113 - Darwin to Whitby, M. A. T., [2 September 1847]
In this letter, Darwin questions Mrs. Whitby, whom he had previously met at a meeting of the British Association, on the difference in flight capacity of male and female silkworm moths. He also requests the results of experiments she has undertaken to determine the heritability of dark “eyebrows”.
Letter 4258 – Becker, L. E. to Darwin, [31 July 1863]
In this letter, Lydia Becker details her observations and dissection of the hermaphroditic Lychnis plant. She also mentions her attempts to artificially fertilise plants in her garden.
Letter 8113 - Treat, M. to Darwin, [20 December 1871]
In this letter, Mary Treat describes her experiments on the relationship between butterfly sex and larval feeding time.
Letter 8989 – Treat, M. to Darwin, [28 July 1873]
In this letter, Mary Treat provides a detailed report on her experiments with fly-catching Drosera.
Letter 9485 – Treat, M. to Darwin, [8 June 1874]
In this letter, Mary Treat details her experiments on Dionaea which she undertakes alongside Dr. Wood of Wilmington.
Letter 10390 - Herrick, S. M. B. to Darwin, [12 February 1876]
In this letter, Sophia Herrick asks Darwin to provide further detail on some of the plant experiments described in Insectivorous Plants. Sophia describes her own experiments, including her use of microscopes to examine Dionea in more detail.
Family letter: Darwin, E. to Darwin, W. E., [January 23rd 1887]:
In this letter, Emma Darwin tells her eldest son, William, that her third eldest son, Francis, is receiving help with his plant experiments from Miss Bateman, the first woman admitted to Linnean Society.
Editors and Critics
Letter 2345 – Darwin to Hooker, J. D., [20 October 1858]
In this letter, Darwin describes to Joseph Hooker the part played by his “non naturalist relations” in critiquing and challenging ideas.
Letter 2447 – Darwin to Murray, J., [5 April 1859]
In this letter Darwin asks his publisher, John Murray, to forward a manuscript copy of the first three chapters of Origin of Species to Georgina Tollet for proofreading and criticisms of style.
Letter 3896 – Darwin to Huxley, T. H, [before 25 February 1863]
In this letter, Darwin offers the results of his proofreading of Huxley’s Lectures to Working Men. This letter also includes critical feedback from his daughter, Henrietta.
Letter 4010 – Huxley, T. H. to Darwin, [25 February 1863]
In this letter, Huxley praises Henrietta’s criticisms of his work, Lectures to Working Men. He hopes that her tenderheartedness will help her forgive his errors and would be obliged if she could send further criticisms in the future.
Letter 4038 – Darwin to Lyell, C., [12-13 March 1863]
In this letter, Darwin secretly passes on Henrietta’s insightful comments on Lyell’s Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man. She has read Lamarck’s work under her own steam and is a “first rate critic”.
Letter 7124 – Darwin to Darwin, H. E., [8 February 1870]
In this letter, Darwin seeks Henrietta’s editorial help with chapters three and four of Descent of Man. He seeks her “deep criticisms” as well as her help with tone and style.
Letter 7123 - Darwin to Darwin, H. E., [March 1870]
In this letter Darwin thanks his daughter, Henrietta, for editing a manuscript version of chapter two of Descent, which was on the mental powers of man and lower animals. She has thoroughly mastered Darwin’s manuscript; her corrections and suggestions are “excellent” and her transpositions “most just”.
Letter 7858 – Darwin to Wallace, A. R., [12 July 1871]
In this letter, Darwin tells Wallace that he will let his family determine the worth of a paper on Mivart. While Henrietta, “who is a great critic”, thought the article worth reprinting, Emma was less convinced.
Letter 8089 – Darwin to Litchfield, H. E., [2 December 1871]
In this letter, Darwin sends a chapter on voice from Expression for Henrietta’s perusal. Darwin asks Henrietta for corrections as well as input on style and praises her patience.
Letter 8427 – Darwin to Litchfield, H. E., [25 July 1872]
In this letter, Darwin thanks Henrietta for her editorial help with Expression. Her alterations are “all good” and most have been accepted.