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Darwin Correspondence Project

To James Torbitt   4 March 1878


Monday, Mar. 4, 1878

Dear Sir

I have nothing good to report. Mr. Caird called upon me yesterday; both he and Mr Farrer have been most energetic and obliging.1 There is no use in thinking about the Agricult. Soc. Mr. Caird has seen several persons on the subject, especially Mr. Carruthers, Botanist to the Society. He (Mr. Carruthers) thinks the attempt hopeless; but advances, in a long Mem. sent to Mr. Caird, reasons which I am convinced are not sound.2 He specifies two points, however, which are well worthy of your consideration, namely that a variety should be tested 3 years before its soundness can be trusted; and especially it should be grown under a damp climate. Mr. Carruthers’ opinion on this head is valuable because he was employed by the Society in judging the varieties sent in for the prize offered a year or two ago.3 If I had strength to get up a memorial to Government, I believe that I could succeed; for Sir J. Hooker writes that he believes you are on the right path;4 but I do not know to whom else to apply whose judgment would have weight with Government, and I really have not strength to discuss the matter and convert persons.

At Mr. Farrer’s request when we hoped the Agric. Soc. might undertake it I wrote to him a long letter giving him my opinion on the subject; and this letter Mr. Caird took with him yesterday, and will consider with Mr. Farrer whether any application can be made to Government.5

I am however far from sanguine. I shall see Mr. Farrer this evening, and will do what I can. When I receive back my letter I will send it to you for your perusal.

After much reflection it seems to me that your best plan will be, if we fail to get Government aid, to go on during the present year, on a reduced scale in raising new cross-fertilized varieties, and next year if you are able, testing the power of endurance of only the most promising kind. If it were possible it would be very adviseable for you to get some grown on the wet Western side of Ireland. If you succeed in procuring a fungus-proof var. you may rely on it that its merits would soon become known locally and it would afterwards spread rapidly far and wide. Mr. Caird gave me a striking instance of such a case in Scotland. I return home tomorrow morning.

I have the pleasure to enclose a cheque for £100.6 If you receive a Government grant, I ought to be repaid.

With all good wishes I remain | Dear Sir | Yours faithfully | Ch. Darwin.

P.S. If I were in your place I would not expend any labour or money in publishing what you have already done, or in sending seeds or tubers to any one.7 I would work quietly on, till some sure results were obtained. And these would be so valuable that your work in this case would soon be known. I would also endeavour to pass as severe a judgment as possible on the state of the tubers and plants.


James Caird and Thomas Henry Farrer supported Torbitt’s project for breeding blight-resistant potatoes (see letter from T. H. Farrer, 28 February 1878).
William Carruthers’s objections to Torbitt’s proposal are summarised in the letter from James Caird to T. H. Farrer, 2 March 1878; Carruthers’s memorandum has not been found.
CD had pledged £100 to enable Torbitt to continue his experiments for another season (see letter to James Torbitt, 1 March 1878).
In April 1876, Torbitt had sent CD a pamphlet on potato blight (Torbitt 1876) and a packet of 9000 potato seeds; he had sent the same to members of both Houses of Parliament and landowners in Ulster (see Correspondence vol. 24, letter to James Torbitt, 4 April 1876, and DeArce 2008).


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 29 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

DeArce, Miguel. 2008. Correspondence of Charles Darwin on James Torbitt’s project to breed blight-resistant potatoes. Archives of Natural History 35: 208–22.

Torbitt, James. 1876. Cras credemus. A treatise on the cultivation of the potato from the seed, having for proposed results the extinction of the disease, and a yield of thirty, forty or more tons of tubers per statute acre. (Sent, accompanied by a packet of seed, to each member of the House of Lords; each member of the House of Commons; and the principal landlords of Ulster.) Belfast: printed by Alexander Mayne.


No use in thinking about Royal Agricultural Society. William Carruthers, botanist of Society, thinks attempt hopeless. T. H. Farrer and James Caird are thinking of application to Government. Makes suggestions about experiments [on potatoes].

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
James Torbitt
Sent from
London, Bryanston St, 4 Down letterhead
Source of text
DAR 148: 99
Physical description
C 3pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 11399,” accessed on 3 June 2023,