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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Caroline Darwin   [19 May – 16 June 1837]

36. Great Marlborough St.

My dearest Caroline,

Many thanks for your letter, which you will say I am answering in a great hurry, but I want to ask my Father some questions, and a very odd string they are— But in the first place you have my direction wrong, it 36 & not 46.— I had no idea that Marianne1 had the Globe, else I would never have thought of asking about it. You must send and let her know my true direction, but if it is not gone really I think, it had better not— if it is gone, I will call, at 46 & leave my card.— Catherine tells me to say that the Rhododendrons went by Jelby’s Van for Shrewsbury— Now for the odds & ends— Will you ask my Father whether he did not say that floods of the Severn from Snow were less muddy & less destructive to the soil than those from heavy rains, or was it vice versa or what was it? Is it in the Zoonomia or notes to Botanic Garden where there is a passage about acquired instincts, such as crows learning Guns are dangerous—2 I have been much interested at finding so many cases where ships with all their crew in good health have yet caused strange contagious disorders at Station Islands in the Pacific— Mr. Williams, a missionary, boldly asserts that the first mingling, where both are healthy of the European race with the natives of distant climes always produces disease.3 I am very much inclined to suspect that there is some such mysterious law connected with the destruction of the Aborigines in both Americas—Cape of Good Hope—Australia & Polynesia.— I recollect years ago my Father mentioning (from Macculloch) some little Island where the people had influenza whenever a ship arrived—& such was thought to be explained by Vessels always arriving with certain wind.4 Will you ask my Father what my memory is alluding to.— Again, are there not cases where people packed together have produced most deleterious contagion without themselves being affected.— Was not the “black Assize of Oxford” such a case?5 What year was it? Have I not heard my Father mention some other parallel instance.— Now will you be a good lady & look at Ellis’ Polynesian Researches, & see if he does not at Tahiti make some remarks about the belief that Capt. Cook’s visits produced some kinds of illness— There is some ridiculous story about humpbacks, but perhaps some truth in other cases after all.—6 Ellis is so well divided into Chapters, that you will easily find a probable chapter to read, if not don’t trouble yourself— Will you ask my Father whether he has ever heard of any experiment to try, as the puncture from instruments in dissecting a man is so fatal to another man whether a dead dog for instance, would so act to living dog.—7 Was there ever such an odd string of questions? The Governor will think I am gone mad; I cannot in letter show connection of questions—8

On Thursday I am going to spend the day at Chatham. I am going to visit Dr. Richardson (the Arctic man)9 he being a person of experience is going to tell me the best means of extracting funds from Government. I have got through Rt. Browne’s10 assistance the Duke of S——11 signature—so all that is settled, but whether Government will help me is another question. If they do I shall thank Providence, & if they don’t I shall thank Providence for having rid me of a heavy job, so I am determined to be pleased.

I most devoutly long to be with you, my very dear Caroline. Give my most affectionate love to my Father & say I hope the questions wont plague him. Good bye. C. Darwin—

You, who can write, and do always write such nice letters, have no business to say Shrewsbury is dull, or any other place dull, & that there is no news—

Miss Darwin. | Shrewsbury.


The passage is in Zoonomia (Darwin 1794–6, 1: 158): ‘[rooks] evidently distinguish, that the danger is greater when a man is armed with a gun.’ CD had become interested in the inheritance of ‘acquired instincts’ by the tameness of the animals on the Falkland and Galápagos islands (see Journal and remarks, p. 478).
J. Williams 1837, pp. 281–2.
MacCulloch 1824, 3: 191: ‘the whole world knows, that whenever a stranger lands in St. Kilda, all the inhabitants “catch a cold” ’.
In 1577 an outbreak of ‘gaol fever’ at the assizes in Oxford Castle killed 300 people (see Crossley, ed. 1979, p. 296).
Ellis 1829, 2: 269, refers to a ‘kind of dysentery’ that appeared after a visit of Vancouver’s ship in 1790 and ‘proved fatal to a vast portion of the population.’ The description of the spinal disease occurs on pp. 272–3. Ellis comments, ‘Some say this singular complaint was unknown to their ancestors, and has only prevailed since they have been visited by foreign shipping.’
CD’s Red notebook (see Notebooks) has a similar note (p. 178), made at about the same time (June 1837): ‘Puncture one animal with recent dead body of other, & see if same effects, as with man.’ CD’s interest in this subject may have been heightened by the fact that his uncle, Charles Darwin, eldest son of Erasmus, died of an infection contracted while dissecting a cadaver in 1778 (see LL 1: 7).
Most of the requested references are cited in chapter 21 of Journal and remarks in the discussion of the ‘mysterious’ causes of extinction of native populations. ‘Wherever the European has trod, death seems to pursue the aboriginal.’ (p. 520).
John Richardson accompanied Sir John Franklin on his two polar expeditions and supplied appendixes on natural history and meteorology to Franklin’s Narratives (Franklin 1823, 1828). He also published, with government support, Richardson 1829–37.
Robert Brown.
Edward Adolphus Seymour, 11th Duke of Somerset, President of the Linnean Society, 1834–7 (DNB).


Crossley, Alan, ed. 1979. A history of the county of Oxford vol. 4: The city of Oxford. In The Victoria history of the counties of England. Oxford: published for the Institute of Historical Research, London, by Oxford University Press.

Darwin, Erasmus. 1794–6. Zoonomia; or, the laws of organic life. 2 vols. London: J. Johnson.

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.

Ellis, William. 1829. Polynesian researches, during a residence of nearly six years in the South Sea islands. 2 vols. London.

Franklin, John. 1823. Narrative of a journey to the shores of the Polar Sea, in the years 1819, 20, 21, and 22. London: John Murray.

Journal and remarks: Journal and remarks. 1832–1836. By Charles Darwin. Vol. 3 of Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty’s ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836, describing their examination of the southern shores of South America, and the Beagle’s circumnavigation of the globe. London: Henry Colburn. 1839. [Separately published as Journal of researches.]

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

MacCulloch, John. 1824. The highlands and western isles of Scotland … founded on a series of annual journeys between the years 1811 and 1821 … in letters to Sir Walter Scott, Bart. 4 vols. London.

Notebooks: Charles Darwin’s notebooks, 1836–1844. Geology, transmutation of species, metaphysical enquiries. Transcribed and edited by Paul H. Barrett et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press for the British Museum (Natural History). 1987.

Richardson, John. 1829–37. Fauna Boreali-Americana; or, the zoology of the northern parts of British America. Assisted by William Swainson and William Kirby. 4 vols. London and Norwich: John Murray; Richard Bentley; J. Fletcher.

Williams, John. 1837. A narrative of missionary enterprises in the South Sea islands; with remarks upon the natural history of the islands, origin, languages, traditions, and usages of the inhabitants. London.


Sends a number of questions (to put to his father), mainly concerned with transmission of diseases, between Europeans and natives, "people packed together", etc.

Is investigating how to get Government support [for Zoology].

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Caroline Sarah (Caroline) Darwin/Caroline Sarah (Caroline) Wedgwood
Sent from
London, Gt Marlborough St, 36
Source of text
DAR 154: 52
Physical description
C 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 360,” accessed on 3 June 2023,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 2