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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Maxwell Tylden Masters   7 April [1860]1

Down Bromley Kent

Ap. 7th

Dear Sir

I hope that you will excuse the liberty which I take in writing to you & begging a favour.— I have been very much interested by the abstract (too brief) of your Lecture at Royal Institution.2 Many of the facts alluded to are full of interest for me. But on one point I shd. be infinitely obliged if you could procure me any information; namely with respect to Sweet Peas.3 I am a great believer in the natural crossing of individuals of the same species. But I have been assured by Mr Cattell of Westerham, that the several vars. of Sweet Pea can be raised close together for a number of years without intercrossing.4 But on other hand he stated that they go over the beds, & pull up any false plant which they very naturally attribute to wrong seeds getting mixed in the lot.— After many failures I succeeded in artificially crossing two vars. & the offspring out of the same pod, instead of being intermediate, were very nearly like the two pure parents; yet in one, there was a trace of the cross & these crossed peas in the next generation showed still more plainly their mongrel origin.—

Now what I want to know whether there is much variation in Sweet Peas which might be owing to natural crosses. What I shd. expect would be that they would keep true for many years, but that occasionally, perhaps at long intervals, there would be a considerable amount of crossing of the varieties grown close together. Can you give or obtain from your Father any information on this head & allow me to quote your authority?5 It would really be a very great favour & kindness.—

I hope that you will forgive me asking you thus to oblige me, & believe me dear Sir | Yours very faithfully | C. Darwin

P.S. | As it seems you have read my “Origin”, I need not say that, if you have leisure, how infinitely I shd be obliged for any facts bearing on any of the points discussed.—6


Dated by the reference to Masters’s lecture at the Royal Institution (see n. 2, below).
Masters was a lecturer in botany at St George’s Hospital, London. He read a paper on the relation between normal and abnormal formations in plants on 16 March 1860 at the Royal Institution (Masters 1860). There is an annotated copy of the paper in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL. In the lecture, Masters specifically addressed CD’s views in relation to the question of whether variability could be considered a natural phenomenon in plants.
In the conclusion of his lecture, Masters stated, on the authority of his father William Masters, that white flowering sweet peas seldom, if ever, vary. He went on to say that ‘in proportion as the flower becomes darker in colour, so is the liability to vary greater: and these changes are not confined to the colour merely, but affect the pods and other organs.’ (Masters 1860, p. 227). The passage is marked in CD’s copy of the paper.
John Cattell was a nurseryman in Westerham, Kent, from whom CD frequently ordered seeds. CD cited Cattell’s information about sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus) in the manuscript of his ‘big species book’ (Natural selection, p. 70).
Masters’s father, William Masters, was a nurseryman in Canterbury. CD had made a similar inquiry to William Masters in 1850 (Correspondence vol. 4, letter from William Masters, 3 April 1850) and cited the information in Natural selection, p. 70. Additional information provided by William Masters is given in Variation 1: 329 and 2: 20.


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

Masters, Maxwell Tylden. 1860. On the relation between the abnormal and normal formations in plants. [Read 16 March 1860.] Notices of the Proceedings at the Meetings of the Members of the Royal Institution of Great Britain 3 (1858–62): 223–7.

Natural selection: Charles Darwin’s Natural selection: being the second part of his big species book written from 1856 to 1858. Edited by R. C. Stauffer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1975.

Variation: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1868.


Much interested in MTM’s lecture at Royal Institution ["On the relation between the abnormal and normal formations in plants", Notes Proc. R. Inst. G. B. 3 (1860): 223–7].

Asks for information about crossing of varieties of peas. Describes his own experimental results: "the offspring out of the same pod, instead of being intermediate, was very nearly like the two pure parents; yet in one, there was a trace of the cross & the next generation showed still more plainly their mongrel origins".

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2749,” accessed on 12 September 2023,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 8