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Darwin Correspondence Project

To J. S. Henslow   14 October [1837]


October 14th.—

My dear Henslow

Pray do not take fright at the size of this letter: but first for business.— I have written to the printer to tell him not to send the slips after the post of the 18thto Hitcham. I leave Shrewsbury for Staffordshire on Thursday evening. Therefore will you send the slips after your post on Tuesday to 36 Grt Marlborough Stt;—where I shall arrive at the end of the week.—

I am much obliged to you for your message about the Secretaryship:1 I am exceedingly anxious for you to hear my side of the question, & will you be so kind as afterwards to give me your fair judgment.— The subject has haunted me all summer. I am unwilling to undertake the office for the following reasons.— 1st. My entire ignorance of English geology, a knowledge of which would be almost necessary in order to shorten many of the papers before reading them, before the Society, or rather to know what parts to skip— Again my ignorance of all languages; & not knowing how to pronounce even a single word of French,—a language so perpetually quoted. It would be disgraceful to the Society to have a Secretary who could not read French. 2d. The loss of time. Pray consider, that I shall have to look after the artists, superintend & furnish materials for the government work,2 which will come out in parts, & which must appear regularly. All my geological notes are in a very rough state, none of my fossil shells worked up, and I have much to read. I have had hopes by giving up society & not wasting an hour, that I should be able to finish my geology in a year and a half, by which time the description of the higher animals by others would be completed & my whole time would then necessarily be required to complete myself the description of the invertebrate ones.3 If this plan fails, as the government work must go on, the geology would necessarily be deferred till probably at least three years from this time.

In the present state of the science a great part of the utility of the little I have done, would be lost, and all freshness and pleasure quite taken from me. I know from experience the time required to make abstracts, even of my own papers, for the Proceedings. If I was secretary & had to make double abstracts of each paper, studying them before reading, and attendance would at least cost me three days (& often more) in the fortnight. There are likewise other accidental and contingent losses of time.— I know Dr Royle found the office consumed much of his time.—4 If by merely giving up any amusement, or by working harder than I have done, I could save time, I would undertake the secretaryship, but I appeal to you, whether, with my slow manner of writing,—with two works in hand,—and with the certainty, if I cannot complete the geological part within a fixed period, that its publication must be retarded for a very long time, whether any Society whatever has any claim on me for three day’s disagreeable work every fortnight. I cannot agree that it a duty on my part, as a follower of science, as long as I devote myself to the completion of the work I have in hand, to delay that by undertaking what may be done by any person, who happens to have more spare time than I have at present. Moreover so early in my scientific life, with so very much as I have to learn, the office, though no doubt a great honour &c for me, would be the more burdensome. Mr Whewell, I know very well, judging from himself, will think I exaggerate the time the Secretaryship would require, but I absolutely know, the time, which with me the simplest writing consumes. I do not at all like appearing so selfish as to refuse Mr Whewell, more especially as he has always shewn, in the kindest manner, an interest in my affairs.— But I cannot look forward with even tolerable comfort to undertaking an office, without entering on it heart and soul, and that would be impossible with the Government work and the geology in hand.

My last objection, is that I doubt how far my health will stand, the confinement of what I have to do without any additional work. I merely repeat, that you may know I am not speaking idly, that when I consulted Dr Clark5 in town, he at first urged me to give up entirely all writing and even correcting press for some ⁠⟨⁠w⁠⟩⁠eeks. Of late, anything which flurries me completely knocks me up afterwards and brings on a b⁠⟨⁠ad⁠⟩⁠ palpitation of the heart. Now the Secretaryship would be a periodical source of more annoying trouble to me, than all the rest of the fortnight put together. In fact till I return to town and see how I get on, if I wished the office ever so much, I could not say I would positively undertake it.

I beg of you to excuse this very long prose all about myself; but the point is one of great interest.— I can neither bear to think myself very selfish and sulky, nor can I see the possibility of my taking the secretaryship with making a sacrifice of all my plans, and a good deal of comfort.— If you see Whewell would you tell him the substance of this letter; or if he will take the trouble, he may read it.— My dear Henslow, I appeal to you in loco parentis,—pray tell me what you think. But do not judge me by the activity of mind, which you and a few others possess, for in that case, the more different things in hand, the pleasanter the work but, though I hope I never shall be idle, such is not the case with me.6

Ever, dear H. | Yr. most truly, | C. Darwin


See letter to William Whewell, [10 March 1837] for CD’s response to Whewell’s initial letter asking him to become one of the Secretaries of the Geological Society.
In the event, the three volumes covering the geology of the Beagle voyage were not completed until 1846; nor did CD realise his intention of describing the invertebrate animals he had collected.
John Forbes Royle served as Secretary of the Geological Society from February 1837 to February 1838.
Probably James Clark, physician in ordinary to Queen Victoria. See Colp 1977 for a full account of CD’s ill health and a discussion of the extensive literature on the subject.
CD eventually yielded to Whewell’s insistence. He was elected one of the two Secretaries of the Geological Society on 16 February 1838 and served until 19 February 1841.


Colp, Ralph, Jr. 1977. To be an invalid: the illness of Charles Darwin. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.


CD’s reasons for his reluctance to take the Secretaryship of the Geological Society.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
John Stevens Henslow
Sent from
Source of text
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (Henslow letters: 42 DAR/1/1/42)
Physical description
ALS 3pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 382,” accessed on 4 March 2024,

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