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Darwin Correspondence Project

Darwn's letters from 1878 online


Bernard Darwin
Bernard Darwin, May 1878. Papers of Nora Barlow, CUL MS Add 8904.4: 1158
By permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library

Investigating the movements and 'sleep' of plants, being entertained by the mental faculties of his young grandson Bernard, finally elected a corresponding member of the French Académie des sciences, trying to secure a government grant to support an Irish correspondent's attempts to breed a blight-resistant potato... and a complete stranger proposed to leave him a large bequest in recognition of his work in science. The transcripts and footnotes of over 550 letters written to and from Darwin in 1878 are now online. Read more about Darwin's life in 1878 and see a full list of the letters.


The whole of this last year on the circumnutating Movements of plants & bloom.

Darwin summed up his work in 1878 briefly in his journal. Throughout the year he worked with his son Francis on plant movements such as circumnutation and ‘sleep’, carrying out experiments and observations at his home in Down, and sending to Kew Gardens for seeds and specimens. His work on plant movement was published in 1880; Francis published some of their work on bloom on leaves in 1886.


Alas Frank is off tomorrow to Wurzburg, & work by myself will be dull work.

Francis spent over two months studying at Julius Sachs’s laboratory in Würzberg, Germany, one of the leading centres of botanical research in Europe. Father and son exchanged long and detailed letters about their work, enabling Darwin to tap into, and critique, the latest research methods.


I conclude that a child—just under 2 years is inferior in intellect to a monkey.

Darwin missed having Francis to talk to; but his grandchild Bernard offered a wealth of non-intellectual entertainment. Darwin sent Francis some of Bernard’s more notable sayings, and playfully commented on Bernard’s failure to use a magnifying glass as skilfully as a monkey that he had once seen.


my wife is going to take me for 17 days holidays: oh Lord how I wish that they were over.

In the summer, the Darwins set off on a round of visits to relatives at Leith Hill and Abinger in Surrey, and then on a rare visit to Barlaston in Staffordshire, to see Emma’s brother Frank and his family. Darwin deplored the loss of time from his work, but accepted that it was necessary for his health.


It is funny the Academy having elected a man as Corr: member in Botany, who does not know the characters of a single natural order!

In August, Darwin was elected a corresponding member of the French Académie des sciences. The accolade came after five unsuccessful nominations, and was in the botany section rather than in zoology, where Darwin’s work was more controversial. In private correspondence, Darwin confessed that he was unimpressed by the whole affair.

Our governing men are so ignorant of science and so immersed in political squabbles that they will do nothing.

Darwin spent some time trying to secure a government grant to support his Irish correspondent James Torbitt’s attempts to breed a blight-resistant potato. His efforts came to nothing, and in the end Darwin sent Torbitt a cheque for £100 on his own account, and advised him to concentrate his efforts on experimental work rather than on publicity. Politicians were no doubt distracted by the prospect of war, first in Turkey, then in Afghanistan; Darwin signed two anti-war petitions in 1878.

I may say with truth that I have worked at science my whole life, as hard as my health wd permit, & that I have earnestly endeavoured to discover the truth.

At the end of the year, Darwin was surprised to hear that a complete stranger, Anthony Rich, proposed to leave him a large bequest, in recognition of his work in science. Darwin pointed out to Rich that he was already sufficiently wealthy, but accepted on behalf of his seven children. Darwin’s friend Joseph Dalton Hooker greeted the news with optimism: ‘I have no doubt that it is the precursor of many such acts; as knowledge increases, so must appreciation of the people & institutions to whom we owe it.’


Further information: 

Read a detailed account of Darwin's life in 1878 in 'Darwin's life in letters'.

See a full list of Darwin's 1878 letters.

In this section:

More Information

Read a detailed account of Darwin's life in 1878 here, in Darwin's life in letters, '1878: Movement and sleep'.

See a full list of Darwin's 1878 letters.

Volume 26 (1878) of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin is available to buy from Cambridge University Press.