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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Frans Cornelis Donders   13 May [1870]1

Down | Beckenham | Kent S.E.

May 13th.

My dear Sir,

In about a fortnight’s time I shall begin to arrange my notes on Expression: & it would be a great assistance to me if you could spare time to give me some notion of any conclusion at which you may have arrived, on the cause of the contraction of the muscles round the eyes during screaming &c2

Secondly, can you give me any explanations why tears are poured out when these same muscles are spasmodically contracted, as during violent choking vomiting &c without any mental emotion such as grief being felt. I find that the voluntary, prolonged & strong contraction of these muscles, even with children, does not cause tears to flow, or hardly at all. I hope my questions will not cause you much trouble, as I know your time is taken up by valuable researches.

I have lately read in an English Journal with extreme interest an abstract of your experiments on the rate of the travelling of the nervous powers.3

With very sincere respect | pray believe me, my dear Sir, | yours faithfully | Charles Darwin.


The year is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter from F. C. Donders, 17 May 1870.
CD refers to his research for Expression; Donders had been conducting experiments to answer questions posed by CD, and reiterated here, concerning Charles Bell’s account of the physiology of weeping (see Correspondence vol. 17, letter to F. C. Donders, 6 September 1869 and n. 2, and letter from F. C. Donders, 12 November 1869).
CD refers to Donders’s development of a technique (now commonly called the ‘subtraction method’) for measuring the duration of a psychological process by measuring reaction time. Donders’s article ‘Over de snelheid van psychische processen’ (The speed of mental processes; Donders 1868) appeared in Dutch, German, and French. The English abstract has not been identified, but the article is now available in English (Donders 1969).


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

Donders, Frans Cornelis. 1868. Over de snelheid van psychische processen. Onderzoekingen gedaan in het Physiologisch Laboratorium der Utrechtsche Hoogeschool (1868–9): 92–120.

Donders, Frans Cornelis. 1969. On the speed of mental processes. Acta Psychologica 30: 412–31.

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


In a fortnight will begin to arrange notes on expression. Asks for FCD’s conclusions about the contraction of eye muscles. Is interested in abstract of FCD’s experiments on "rate of travelling of the nervous powers".

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Frans Cornelis (Franciscus Cornelius) Donders
Sent from
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (Mss.B.D25.)
Physical description
C 3pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7187,” accessed on 20 April 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 18