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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Francis Darwin   30 May [1881]1

Down, | Beckenham, Kent. | (Railway Station | Orpington. S.E.R.)

May 30th

My dear Backy

I have nothing in the world to do, so I write to you.— I have done a good deal of packing up already, but no degree of ingenuity can thus occupy 3 whole days.2 The horrid pain of idleness makes me look forward with dread to the future & God knows what I shall do, for I have hardly strength to begin any new subject requiring much work.—3

I have been thinking that I wd. have another look at absorption by roots & root-hairs, when I come home.— I saw the other day somewhere an account (& like an ass did not mark passage) of colouring matter which from being crystalline, wd. pass through living membrane, & colour the protoplasm.

Fuchsin was one & some name like Eosin was a second & what third was I do not know.— Will you try & find out what colouring substances there are which will by endosmos pass through living membrane & is not poisonous. (If you can, get some) I shd like thus to try Drosera after feeding it, & roots.4

Bernard is all right: he is going to tea this evening to the Tomkins, which he pronounces to be “a hideous bother.”.5 He has picked up somehow another expression, which he utters in a satirical voice. “Where shall we go now, if you please?”

The poor dear little man is growing very sensitive, for having found out that there are griefs in this poor world: at luncheon yesterday Bessy said that she could not keep him with her after luncheon, meaning not for a long time, as she was going out.— He looked at her for a long time with extreme gravity & then burst out into the most piteous wailing.— He cut out your Uhlan going to Church & carried it about with him the whole life-long day.6

Bessy is starting for London & Woodhouse, but coming back tomorrow evening—& on Thursday morning, the Lord have mercy on us, we all start.7

N.B. If I had shown Wortmann the clinostats I shd. have said that I could not possibly have allowed him to have the device but that he must order one from Cambridge!8

Your affectionate Father | C. Darwin


The year is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter to Francis Darwin, 20 May 1881.
The Darwins began their journey to the Lake District on 2 June 1881; they stayed at Patterdale until 4 July (see ‘Journal’ (Appendix II)).
CD had almost finished correcting proof-sheets of Earthworms.
CD evidently had read ‘Recherches sur l’absorption des matières colorantes par les racines’ (Research on the absorption of colourants by roots; Cornu and Mer 1878). The authors, Maxime Cornu and Émile Mer, experimented with various colouring agents and found they could be categorised into two groups; the first accumulated in the thick cell walls, the second in the thin layer of protoplasm (cell membrane). However, these were toxic even in small concentrations. Fuchsine, eosine, violet quinoline, and brown aniline belonged to the first group. The advantage of using colouring agents that as solids formed crystals was that this enabled researchers to measure with great precision the exact concentration of the solutions that were tried (see ibid., p. 67 n. 3).
The Tomkins family lived at Petleys, a house in Down village, formerly the home of Sarah Wedgwood, CD’s aunt. George Gordon Tomkins was about the same age as Bernard Darwin, Francis’s son.
Elizabeth Darwin. Francis regularly sent paper soldiers to Bernard; Uhlans were light cavalry soldiers (lancers) and the different regiments often had elaborate uniforms (see letter from Francis Darwin, 19 [May 1881] and n. 13).
Elizabeth Darwin went to London to see the Darwin family dentist, Alfred James Woodhouse.
Julius Wortmann was Anton de Bary’s assistant in the laboratory where Francis was working. CD had mentioned receiving a manuscript about a clinostat (klinostat; a rotating plant-holder used to test the influence of gravity), probably a version of the instrument built by Horace Darwin (see letter to Francis Darwin, 20 May 1881 and n. 3). Francis may have given Wortmann such an instrument, but since Horace had recently set up the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company, CD probably wanted Wortmann to buy one from there.


Cornu, Maxime and Mer, Émile. 1878. Recherches sur l’absorption des matières colorantes par les racines. In Comptes rendus sténographiques du Congrès international de botanique et d’horticulture tenu à Paris du 16 au 24 août 1878. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale.

Earthworms: The formation of vegetable mould through the action of worms: with observations on their habits. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1881.


CD looks forward with dread to future as he does not have the strength to begin any new subject requiring much work.

Plans to look again at the absorption by roots and root-hairs.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Francis Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 211: 79
Physical description
ALS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 13184,” accessed on 4 June 2023,