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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Charles Lyell   [19 February 1840]

Wednesday Morn—

My dear Lyell

Many thanks for your kind note.— I will send for the Scotsman.1 Dr. Holland thinks he has found out, what is the matter with me, & now hopes he shall be able to set me going again.—2 Is it not mortifying it is now nine weeks, since I have done a whole day’s work, & not more than four half days.— But I wont grumble, any more, though it is hard work to prevent doing so.— Since receiving your note, I have read over my chapter on Coral,3 & I find I am prepared to stand by almost everything.— it is much more cautiously & accurately written, than I thought. I had set my heart upon having my volume4 completed before your new edition,5 but not, you may believe me, for you to notice anything new in it (for there is very little besides details) but you are the one man in Europe, whose opinion of the general truth of a longish argument I should be always most anxious to hear.—

My M.S. is in such confusion, otherwise I am sure you should most willingly, if it had been worth your while, looked at any part you chose.—

I will briefly notice, two or three points, which will be different in my volume.— Although I believe that coral-reefs do not exist at greater depth than 20 fathoms (mentioned incidentally at p. 558, Journal) in the open oceans, it appears, contrary to what Ehrenberg has said, that in the Red Sea there are beds of coral in 25 fathoms.—6 The argument drawn from the fact of coral-reefs not existing at great,7 that there must have been subsidence in the large areas, scattered with reefs, stands firm, even should coral-reefs be hereafter found to live at much greater depths that I suppose; for I find the areas are immense in which every island is low, & of coral-formation.

My classification of reefs is somewhat modified viz

(1) Lagoon islands (or atolls, as I mean always to call them). to avoid the word lagoon, which refers only to the interior lake.

(2).‘Encircling reefs’,—of which the ‘Barrier” reefs are a mere modification & not a separate class as I have made them in my Journal

(3). Fringing reefs.

(4). Irregular reefs, springing up from shoal water, & fringing banks of sediment.—

Lastly.— I shall have only very slightly to modify my general conclusions. (p. 567 Journal).— it will chiefly consist in speaking rather less positively—& using the words alternate areas more frequently than “parallel bands” I shall not be able to throw any light on distribution of organic forms in the Pacific as I had hoped p. 568.—

I hope these remarks may be worth your reading— I send them, as other wise my conscience would not have been easing.— If I am able, I certainly will come on Saturday & will let you know in time, if I find I am too unwell—

Yours, C. D.—


The Scotsman of 15 February 1840 carried a report of an essay by William Kemp read to the Galashiels Geological Society on 31 January in which Kemp described how CD’s Glen Roy theory had inspired him to look for similar terraces. Kemp found such terraces in the Eildon Hills and elsewhere and believed that his observations corroborated CD’s theory that these roads or terraces were raised sea beaches.
Henry Holland was a second cousin of the Darwins. CD’s Account Book (Down House MS) shows three payments of a guinea each to Dr Holland during February and March, but CD’s hopes of a cure were not realised. No information (except for a passing reference in letter to Robert FitzRoy, [20 February 1840]) on either Dr Holland’s diagnosis or treatment is available. See Colp 1977, p. 21 and n. 9, for a plausible conjecture based on Holland’s recommended treatment of dyspepsia.
Journal of researches, pp. 539–69.
Coral reefs was not published until May 1842.
C. Lyell 1840.
Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg observed corals growing only to a depth of six fathoms (Ehrenberg 1834, p. 50), but CD was told by British naval officers of corals growing at twenty-five fathoms (Coral reefs, p. 83).
CD means that living corals do not exist at great depths.


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

Coral reefs: The structure and distribution of coral reefs. Being the first part of the geology of the voyage of the Beagle, under the command of Capt. FitzRoy RN, during the years 1832 to 1836. By Charles Darwin. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1842.

Ehrenberg, Christian Gottfried. 1834. Über die Natur und Bildung der Coralleninseln und Corallenbänke im rothen Meere. Berlin.


Remarks on his illness and treatment.

Discusses MS [of Coral reefs] and changes in his view of coral reefs since Journal of researches. Mentions C. G. Ehrenberg’s observations on coral reefs.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Sent from
London, Upper Gower St, 12
FE 19 1840
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (Mss.B.D25.21)
Physical description
ALS 6pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 554,” accessed on 18 May 2024,

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