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Darwin Correspondence Project

Dining at Down House

Sources|Discussion Questions|Experiment

Dining, Digestion, and Darwin's Domestic Life

While Darwin is best remembered for his scientific accomplishments, he greatly valued and was strongly influenced by his domestic life. Darwin's appreciation of his personal life is illustrated by his statement that marriage "is the best & almost only chance for what share of happiness this world affords." (Darwin to H.W. Bates, 26 January [1863]). In addition to sharing a tender relationship with his wife Emma, Darwin played an active role in the upbringing of his children; he engaged in their schooling and they partook in his scientific endeavours.

One of Darwin's defining characteristics was his poor health. The letters provide insight into this aspect of Darwin's life. Darwin paid significant attention to his health, and from his days on the Beagle to his death, the state of his constitution is a constant theme running through his correspondence. Letters written to and from Darwin, as well as those exchanged between his wife and children, are rife with references to his well-being. This correspondence is fascinating for the glimpse it provides into the bright and engaging personalities of the Darwin children and of family life in the Victorian era.

You can download the entire packet of reading materials here: Dining at Down House course pack



Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. 1859. London: John Murray. (Chapter 14 “Recapitulation and Conclusion”).


Letter Packet: Dining at Down House

Letter 259—Charles Darwin to Caroline Darwin, 13 October 1834

Darwin’s ill health began on his Beagle voyage. In this letter (written amidst the excitement of South American cities, cultures, geography, flora and fauna) Darwin complains to his sister Caroline of the effects of some sour wine on his physical state, and the difficulties of traveling on horseback while ill.

Letter 465—Emma Wedgwood (Emma Darwin) to Charles Darwin, [30 December 1838]
In this letter, written prior to their marriage, Emma expresses her concern for Darwin’s health, her sympathy for the frustration he feels when his symptoms impinge on his ability to work, and her desire that he not be a “holiday husband...always making himself agreeable” for her sake.

Letter 3626—Emma Darwin to T. G. Appleton, 28 June [1862]
Here Emma writes on her husband’s behalf to his American publisher, T. G. Appleton. Darwin, who is too ill to write himself, wishes to thank Appleton for gifts sent from America.

Letter 3597—Darwin to Joseph Dalton Hooker, 11 June [1862]
Among bits of family news and botanical information, Darwin remarks with humour on the difficulties of finding a suitable cook.

Emma Darwin to Henrietta Darwin, [4 November 1863]
In this brief note to her daughter Henrietta, Emma describes a recent consultation with a new doctor at Down, who prescribed cod liver oil and moderate work, among other things, for Darwin’s complaints.

Emma Darwin to Henrietta Darwin, [14 April 1867]
Emma debates the wisdom of making a visit to her relatives while Charles suffers a bout of “rocking & giddiness”.

Emma Darwin to Henrietta Darwin, [5 September 1868]
In this chatty letter to her daughter Henrietta, who was travelling in the south of France at the time, Emma describes typical nineteenth-century luncheon fare.

Letter 8296—Darwin to Francis Galton, 21 April [1872]
In this letter to his cousin Francis Galton, the well known eugenicist, Darwin encourages him to carry out his investigation of spiritualism. Darwin expresses his regrets that his own ill health prevents him from visiting the Scottish medium, Daniel Dunglass Home, with Galton.

Emma Darwin to Henrietta Darwin, [4 December 1873]
Here Emma describes Darwin’s difficulties with one of his many attending physicians. Charles has taken to “doctoring himself” in an attempt to improve his digestion, and is “absolutely gloating over puddings”.

Leonard Darwin to George Darwin, 8 February [1878]
Darwin’s youngest son, Leonard (Lenny), writes from Down House to his older brother George, who was then a professor at Cambridge University. This letter is full of news about the political and military state of affairs in Europe (Lenny was an engineer with the British Royal Corps). Among geopolitics and discussion of his own aches and pains, Lenny reports on their father’s health, noting that Darwin’s frustration with his botanical experiments has taken a toll on his well-being.

Supplementary Reading

Browne, Janet. 1998. "I Could Have Retched All Night: Charles Darwin and His Body," in Science Incarnate: Historical Embodiments of Natural Knowledge, edited by C. Lawrence & S. Shapin. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press: 240-251.


1. How did this week's letters change your perception of Darwin's personal life?

2. How did Darwin's health affect his scientific research? How (if at all) did he leverage his poor health to his benefit?

3. How (if at all) do you think gender influenced Darwin's network of correspondents and his scientific work?


Recreate a Down House dinner!

To get a taste of Darwin's life at Down House, recreate recipes from Emma Darwin's cookbook and enjoy a Darwinian meal during your class discussion! Images of Emma Darwin's own cookbook can be accessed online.

Here is an example of an event 'Dine like Darwin' held at MIT:

We recreated some of the very food that Darwin ate, using authentic recipes from his wife Emma Darwin’s cookbook. Our menu included several courses. We attempted to make the recipes as closely to Emma’s as possible, though we were indebted to the modernization of the recipes in this lovely production of Emma’s recipes. After our discussion, each participant was given a recipe and the rest of the time was spent cooking and sampling the fare as it emerged from the kitchen.  Though everything turned out wonderfully, particular favorites were the cheese straws (flavored with a touch of cayenne pepper), the potato rissoles and the creamed mushrooms. Since Victorian portions are generous, we were all quite full by the end of the session.

The participants, who came from various departments at MIT, were all fascinated to learn more about Darwin’s family and digestive life through his letters. They were particularly intrigued by this letter written from Emma to Charles before they were married. In it Emma expressed her concern for Darwin’s health, her sympathy for the frustration he feels when his symptoms impinge on his ability to work, and her express desire that he not be a ‘holiday husband…always making himself agreeable’ for her sake.

Here is the Menu from the day:


Cheese Straws

Scotch Woodcock

Potato Rissoles

Main Course

Beef Collops

Chicken and Macaroni





Compote of Apple


Learning objectives

In this teaching module you will find the resources necessary to discuss Darwin’s life at Down House, with a particular focus on his health.

1. Use Darwin’s correspondence to gain insight into Darwin’s health and its effects on his personal and professional life.

2. Reflect upon Darwin’s private life – see how Darwin behaved as a father, husband, and patient.