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Darwin Correspondence Project

From F. E. Nipher   10 November 1874

Washington University— St Louis.

Nov 10/74

Mr. Charles Darwin

Dear Sir:

At the risk of boring you, and possibly of exposing my own ignorance, I wish to call to your attention a few things.

I. From what I can learn, the physical and mental condition of every person, depends very much more than most educated persons suppose, upon the mental condition of the mother during pregnancy. I think it is known to you that deformities can be gotten up almost to order, by proper impressions made upon the mother during the early part of this period.1 Almost to order, since different persons are differently impressed by the same phenomena.

I know of an instance in which a child was born without eyeballs, and one or two persons besides her mother knew that it had been caused by a very foolish trick of an exceedingly angry mother.2

I know of many similar cases, affecting the body, and mind of different persons.

It is exceedingly difficult to get any accurate information on this subject, for generally none but the mother knows the cause of the deformity of their children, and they generally know.

It is very difficult to get much information on the subject, and it generally comes through some superstitious old woman. My mother3 has had extensive experience in those matters, and I have learned enough of her to know that there is much yet to be learned on this point.

II If what I have said is true, it shows why useful variations are transmitted, rather than others which are not useful.

I had intended to give one or two examples of reasoning power in dogs, but I suppose you have enough of that kind of material.4

This is a little out of my line of study, and I am not well enough posted to know whether my suggestions are of value or not. I am fully convinced of their truth—

Respectfully— | Francis E. Nipher— | Prof. of Physics— | Washington University | St. Louis. Mo. | U.S.A.

CD annotations

2.4 by … the same phenomena. 2.6] scored blue crayon


CD had expressed scepticism about the effects of maternal imagination on unborn offspring in Variation 2: 263–4, and continued to do so in Variation 2d ed. 2: 251–2. For the belief in the power of maternal imagination, see Huet 1993.
Nipher later explained the circumstances in which this defect, attributed to maternal imagination, had occurred (see the fifth point in the letter from F. E. Nipher, 11 December 1874).
Roxalana Powell Tilden Nipher.
Several examples of the power of reasoning in dogs are given in Descent 1: 46–8, 58. CD retained these, and added a further example, in Descent 2d ed., pp. 75–6, 78.


Descent 2d ed.: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2d edition. London: John Murray. 1874.

Descent: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1871.

Huet, Marie-Hélène. 1993. Monstrous imagination. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press.

Variation 2d ed.: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2d edition. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1875.

Variation: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1868.


Cites examples of the inheritance of maternal impressions.

Letter details

Letter no.
Francis Eugene Nipher
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Washington University, St Louis
Source of text
DAR 172: 69
Physical description
2pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9714,” accessed on 18 January 2022,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 22