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Darwin Correspondence Project

To William Bowman   30 March [1868]1

Down Bromley Kent [4 Chester Place]

March 30th

My dear Mr Bowman

I called at your house about 3 weeks since & heard that you were away for the whole month, which I much regretted as I wished to have had the pleasure of seeing you, of asking you a question, & of thanking you for your kindness to my son George.—2

You did not quite understand the last note which I wrote to you, viz about Bell’s precise statement that the conjunctiva of an infant, or young child becomes gorged with blood, when the eyes are forcibly opened, during a screaming fit.3 I have carefully kept your previous note, in which you spoke doubtfully about Bell’s statement.4 I intended in my former note only to express a wish that if during your professional work, you were led to open the eyelids of a screaming child, you would specially observe this point about the eye showing signs of becoming gorged with blood, which interests me extremely.— Could you ask anyone to observe this for me in an eye-dispensary or Hospital?

But I now have to beg you kindly to consider one other question, at any time when you may have half an hours leisure.—

When a man coughs violently from choking, or retches violently, even when he yawns, & when he laughs violently, tears come into the eyes. Now in all these cases I observe that the orbicularis muscle is more or less spasmodically contracted, as also in the crying of a child. So again when the muscles of the abdomen contract violently in a propelling manner, & the breath is, I think, always then held, as during the evacuation of a very costive man, & as (I hear) with a woman during severe labour-pain the orbicularis contracts & tears come into the eyes. Sir J. E. Tennant states that tears roll down the cheeks of elephants when screaming & trumpeting at first being captured: accordingly I went to Zoolog. Gardens, & the keeper made 2 Elephants trumpet, & when they did this violently the orbicularis was invariably plainly contracted.5 Hence I am led to conclude that there must be some relation between the contraction of this muscle & the secretion of tears.— Can you tell me what this relation is?

Does the orbicularis press against, & so directly stimulate the lachrymal glands? As a slight blow on the eye causes by reflex action a copious effusion of tears, can the slight spasdomic contraction of the orbicularis act like a blow; this seems hardly possible.— Does the same nerve which runs to the orbicularis send off fibrils to the lachrymal glands; & if so, when the order goes for the muscle to contract is nervous force sent sympathetically at the same time to the glands? I shd be extremely much obliged if you ⁠⟨⁠would⁠⟩⁠ have the ⁠⟨⁠great⁠⟩⁠ kindness to give me your opinion on this point.—

Pray believe me | My dear Mr Bowman | Yours very sincerely | Ch. Darwin


The year is established by the relationship between this letter, the letter to William Bowman, 30 July [1867], and the letter from William Bowman, 5 August 1867 (Correspondence vol. 15; see nn. 3 and 4, below).
George Howard Darwin. The nature of the ‘kindness’ has not been discovered.
See Correspondence vol. 15, letter to William Bowman, 30 July [1867] and n. 3. Charles Bell had argued that an infant, when screaming violently, closed the orbicular muscles so as to compress the eyes and prevent them becoming gorged with blood (C. Bell 1844, pp. 105–6).
See letter from William Bowman, 5 August 1867 (Correspondence vol. 15). Bowman had questioned the reliability of Bell’s finding, noting that in forcing open an infant’s eyes, the pressure of the fingers would modify the condition.
The reference is to James Emerson Tennent and his book Ceylon; an account of the island (Tennent 1859, 2: 364, 376). In Expression pp. 165–6, CD cited Tennent’s description of elephants crying and also remarked on the observations made at the Zoological Gardens.


Bell, Charles. 1844. The anatomy and philosophy of expression as connected with the fine arts. Preface by George Bell, and an appendix on the nervous system by Alexander Shaw. 3d edition, enlarged. London: John Murray.

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

Expression: The expression of the emotions in man and animals. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1872.

Tennent, James Emerson. 1859. Ceylon, an account of the island, physical, historical, and topographical, with notices of its natural history, antiquities and productions. 3d edition. 2 vols. London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts.


Clarifies his earlier query on Bell’s observations. Seeks confirmation of Bell’s statement that the conjunctiva of a child whose eyes are opened forcibly during a screaming fit become engorged with blood. CD has noted a relationship between contraction of the orbicular muscle and secretion of tears; can WB explain why they appear related?

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
William Bowman, 1st baronet
Sent from
Source of text
Doris Harris Autographs (dealer) (no date)
Physical description
ALS 5pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6071,” accessed on 23 April 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 16