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Darwin Correspondence Project

From J. D. Hooker   2 July 1860

Botanic Gardens Oxford

July 2/60

Dear Darwin

I have just come in from my last moonlight saunter at Oxford & been sililoquizing over the Ratcliffe & our old rooms at the corner & cannot go to bed without inditing a few lines to you my dear old Darwin.1 I came here on Thursday afternoon & immediately fell into a lengthened revirie: without you & my wife I was as dull as ditch water & crept about the once familiar streets feeling like a fish out of water—2 I swore I would not go near a Section & did not for two days—but amused myself with the Colleges buildings & alternate sleeps in the sleepy gardens & rejoiced in my indolence. Huxley & Owen had had a furious battle over Darwins absent body at Section D.,3 before my arrival,—of which more anon. H. was triumphant— You & your book forthwith became the topics of the day, & I d—d the days & double d—d the topics too, & like a craven felt bored out of my life by being woke out of my reveries to become referee on Natural Selection &c &c &c—   On Saturday I walked with my old friend of the Erebus Capt Dayman4 to the Sections & swore as usual I would not go in; but getting equally bored of doing nothing I did. A paper of a yankee donkey called Draper on “civilization according to the Darwinian hypothesis” or some such title was being read,5 & it did not mend my temper; for of all the flatulent stuff and all the self sufficient stuffers—these were the greatest, it was all a pie of Herbt Spenser & Buckle without the seasoning of either—6 however hearing that Soapy Sam7 was to answer I waited to hear the end. The meeting was so large that they had adjourned to the Library8 which was crammed with between 700 & 1000 people, for all the world was there to hear Sam Oxon—   Well Sam Oxon got up & spouted for half an hour with inimitable spirit uglyness & emptyness & unfairness, I saw he was coached up by Owen & knew nothing & he said not a syllable but what was in the Reviews— he ridiculed you badly & Huxley savagely—   Huxley answered admirably & turned the tables,9 but he could not throw his voice over so large an assembly, nor command the audience; & he did not allude to Sam’s weak points nor put the matter in a form or way that carried the audience. The battle waxed hot. Lady Brewster fainted,10 the excitement increased as others spoke—my blood boiled, I felt myself a dastard; now I saw my advantage—I swore to myself I would smite that Amalekite Sam11 hip & thigh if my heart jumped out of my mouth & I handed my name up to the President (Henslow) as ready to throw down the gauntlet—12 I must tell you that Henslow as president would have none speak but those who had arguments to use, & 4 persons had been burked13 by the audience & President for mere declamation: it moreover became necessary for each speaker to mount the platform & so there I was cocked up with Sam at my right elbow, & there & then I smashed him amid rounds of aplause—   I hit him in the wind at the first shot in 10 words taken from his own ugly mouth—& then proceeded to demonstrate in as few more 1 that he could never have read your book & 2 that he was absolutely ignorant of the rudiments of Bot. Science—   I said a few more on the subject of my own experience, & conversion & wound up with a very few observations on the relative position of the old & new hypotheses, & with some words of caution to the audience—   Sam was shut up—had not one word to say in reply & the meeting was dissolved forthwith leaving you master of the field after 4 hours battle. Huxley who had borne all the previous brunt of the battle & who never before (thank God) praised me to my face, told me it was splendid, & that he did not know before what stuff I was made of— I have been congratulated & thanked by the blackest coats & whitest stocks in Oxford (for they hate their Bishop quite [section illeg] love) & plenty of ladies too have flattered me—but eheu & alas never is14

CD annotations

Top of letter: ‘(Keep)’ pencil


Hooker alludes to the 1847 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Oxford, which both he and CD attended (see Correspondence vol. 4).
Hooker had become engaged to Frances Harriet Henslow during the 1847 meeting (see L. Huxley ed. 1918, 1: 219, and Correspondence vol. 4).
Hooker refers to an exchange between Thomas Henry Huxley and Richard Owen that occurred during the Thursday session of the botanical and zoological section (Section D). For a report of the discussion, see Correspondence vol.8, Appendix VI. See also L. Huxley ed. 1900, 1: 180–1, and F. Darwin ed. 1892, pp. 236–42.
Joseph Dayman had served as mate on HMS Erebus, on which Hooker served as assistant-surgeon and botanist during the Antarctic voyage commanded by James Clark Ross (1839–43).
John William Draper was professor of chemistry and dean of the medical school of the University of the City of New York. His belief that chemical forces were the source of elementary organisation led him to accept the inheritance of acquired characteristics and transmutation. His paper applied these ideas, first enunciated in his leading textbook of physiology (Draper 1856), to the development of society (Draper 1860). See Fleming 1950. For a summary of Draper’s paper, see Correspondence vol.8, Appendix VI.
Hooker refers to the developmentalist views of Herbert Spencer and Henry Thomas Buckle.
Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Oxford, acquired the nickname ‘Soapy Sam’ as a result of his prolonged vacillation over the appointment of Renn Dickson Hampden to the see of Hereford in 1847 (DNB). As a vice-president of the British Association, Wilberforce was entitled to attend and contribute to sessions of the Oxford meeting.
Hooker refers to the library of the new Oxford University Museum, in which Section D held its meeting. The museum was a product of the university’s decision to create a central teaching facility for natural science and to unite its various natural history collections (Simcock 1984).
The precise wording of Huxley’s response to Wilberforce has never been established. In one version of the story, the bishop had asked Huxley whether he preferred to be descended from an ape on his grandfather’s or his grandmother’s side. Huxley gave his own account of the proceedings in a letter to Frederic Daniel Dyster about two months later: ‘If then, said I, the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means and influence and yet who employs those faculties for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion—I unhesitantly affirm my preference for the ape’ (Jensen 1988, p. 168). See also Appendix VI. The events of the session have been documented in LL 2: 320–3; F. Darwin ed. 1892, pp. 236–42; L. Huxley ed. 1900, 1: 179–89; L. Huxley ed. 1918, 1: 521–7; and Jensen 1988.
Jane Kirk Purnell became David Brewster’s second wife in 1857.
The Amalekites were the arch-enemies of Israel (Gen. 24:12–16; 1 Sam. 15).
John Stevens Henslow was president of Section D for zoology and botany, including physiology.
To burke: ‘To smother, “hush up”, suppress quietly’ (OED). After William Burke, the criminal executed in Edinburgh in 1829 for smothering persons in order to sell their bodies for medical dissection (Onions ed. 1966).
The passage ‘(for they … never is’ has been heavily inked over.


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

DNB: Dictionary of national biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. 63 vols. and 2 supplements (6 vols.). London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1912. Dictionary of national biography 1912–90. Edited by H. W. C. Davis et al. 9 vols. London: Oxford University Press. 1927–96.

Draper, John William. 1856. Human physiology, statical and dynamical; or, the conditions and course of the life of man. London.

Draper, John William. 1860. On the intellectual development of Europe, considered with reference to the views of Mr Darwin and others, that the progression of organisms is determined by law. Report of the 30th meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science held at Oxford, Transactions of the sections, pp. 115–16.

LL: The life and letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter. Edited by Francis Darwin. 3 vols. London: John Murray. 1887–8.

OED: The Oxford English dictionary. Being a corrected re-issue with an introduction, supplement and bibliography of a new English dictionary. Edited by James A. H. Murray, et al. 12 vols. and supplement. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1970. A supplement to the Oxford English dictionary. 4 vols. Edited by R. W. Burchfield. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1972–86. The Oxford English dictionary. 2d edition. 20 vols. Prepared by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1989. Oxford English dictionary additional series. 3 vols. Edited by John Simpson et al. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1993–7.


JDH reports on the debate on the Origin at Oxford [BAAS] meeting.

Letter details

Letter no.
Joseph Dalton Hooker
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Oxford Botanic Gardens
Source of text
DAR 100: 141–2
Physical description
inc †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2852,” accessed on 23 June 2024,

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