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Darwin Correspondence Project

To William Bowman   2 April [1868]1

Down. | Bromley. | Kent. S.E.

Ap. 2.

My dear Mr Bowman

It is extremely kind of you to take so much trouble for me. I will copy out all that Bell says, so that you need take no trouble in referring to his works.— In the Anatomy of Expression 3rd Ed. page 105 he says “During every violent act of expiration (as in cases quoted in my last note) the eyeball is firmly compressed by the fibres of the orbicularis; & this is a provision for supporting & defending the vascular system of the interior of the eye from a retrograde impulse communicated to the blood in the veins at that time .... the blood is even regurgitated into the minute branches. Were the eye not properly compressed at that time, & a resistance given to the shock, irreparable injury might be inflicted on the delicate textures of the interior of the eye— Hence we see reason for the closed state of the eyelids & the wrinkling of the surrounding skin” &c. He then quotes from his own Nervous System p. 175, as follows “If we separate the eyelids of a child to examine the eye, while it cries & struggles with passion, by taking off the natural support to the vascular system of the eye, & the means of guarding it against the rush of blood then occurring, the conjunctiva becomes suddenly filled with blood & the eyelids everted.’ The Nervous System is not his 4to publication, but an Essay appended to the 2nd Ed. of the Anat. of Exp. which I have not as yet been able to see.2

I remember noting more than 20 years ago with one of my own infants, that sometimes the first sign of a fit of passion was its naked head becoming red just before even a frown commenced.3 I am very anxious to have some confirmation of Bell’s statement of the cause of the contraction of the orbicularis during screaming &c, as it is the key-stone of a whole class of expressions, & I am unwilling to trust to a single observer however good he may be.4

I shall hereafter be very curious to hear whether you believe that the whiteness of the eyes in scrofulous ophthalmia is any way caused by the strong pressure of the orbicularis.5

I shall be equally curious to learn yr conclusion in regard to the relation between the contraction of the orbicularis & the secretion of at least some few tears.

With cordial thanks for your most kind assistance—I remain yours very sincerely | Charles Darwin.

P.S. | Perhaps it is worth notice that hard voluntary contraction of the Orbicularis does not cause secretion of tears.

At least several of my children contracted this muscle till their eyes ached, & their eyes were hardly moist; whilst a good yawn &c will make the tears almost overflow.6 Can different muscular fibrils act or is it difference of a voluntary & involuntary contraction?


The year is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter to William Bowman, 30 March [1868].
For the quoted passages from Charles Bell, see C. Bell 1844, pp. 105–6, and C. Bell 1836, p. 175. The parenthetical passage is CD’s own and replaces Bell’s ‘whether in hearty laughter, weeping, coughing, or sneezing,’. There is an annotated copy of C. Bell 1844 in the Darwin Library–CUL (see Marginalia 1: 47–9). CD quoted Bell’s statements in Expression, pp. 158–9.
When his eldest son William was born in December 1839, CD began to keep a notebook on his development (DAR 210.17; for a transcription of the notebook, which also includes CD’s and Emma Darwin’s observations of their other children, see Correspondence vol. 4, Appendix III). On 1 May 1840, CD recorded in the notebook: ‘When getting in a passion, which he often does—the blood gushing into whole skin scalp of head, is almost the very first symptom—’ (Correspondence vol. 4, Appendix III, p. 415). CD included this information in Expression, pp. 151–2.
For the experimental results that substantiated Bell’s claim, see Expression, pp. 160–3.
In Expression, p. 169, CD mentioned his children’s attempts to contract these muscles forcibly.


Bell, Charles. 1836. The nervous system of the human body: as explained in a series of papers read before the Royal Society of London. 3d edition. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black. London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longman.

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. 27 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.

Marginalia: Charles Darwin’s marginalia. Edited by Mario A. Di Gregorio with the assistance of Nicholas W. Gill. Vol. 1. New York and London: Garland Publishing. 1990.


Gives Charles Bell’s explanation of the contraction of the orbicularis during screaming and seeks confirmation of his view because the action is "the key-stone of a whole class of expressions". Curious to learn WB’s conclusion in regard to the relation between contraction of the orbicularis and secretion of tears. Notes that voluntary contraction of the orbicularis causes no tears.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
William Bowman, 1st baronet
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 249: 72 (photocopy)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6081,” accessed on 21 September 2020,

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