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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Anton Dohrn   7 February 1875

Naples. Palazzo Torlonia.


Dear Mr. Darwin!

This time Your birthday does not overtake and force me to use electric means to arrive in time with my sincerest felicitations.1 I have long waited for this date to be entitled to write to You,—(the origin of this title, of course, is a mere usurpation)—and to tell You, that thanks to Your generous and quick help in a most dangerous moment both the Zoological Station and its founder have returned back to health and are, if not vigorous, but well enough to venture further on upon their old courses.2

In fact, the Zoological Station is flourishing and the last rocks have been safely got over by a new grant of the German Empire amounting to another £.1500.3 This new subvention is not only a great step in a financial point of view, but it proves, that the Government at Berlin is well disposed towards the young Institution, and I am happy to add, that public opinion in Germany is quite in favour of the idea, that the Government once may enter into possession and take the administration of the Zoological Station, should I be forced to abandon it. This is a great satisfaction for me; it was one of my worst feelings during the two years of nervous depression, that after all I had only worked “pour le roi de Prusse” but not for the true one. If I therefore succeed in developing the Station further and further, I may once,—say in three or four years—have to put my name under an arrangement, which secures for a long period to the young Institution the powerful help of the Berlin-Government.4

It is therefore with a feeling of double satisfaction, that I look out for the next British Association, to come once more to the cherished island and speak loudly my thanks, and then I will ask Your permission to pay a visit also to Yourself, if Your health will permit You to receive me.5

When I was last time in England,—or I believe before last time—I made some allusions to a very much differing view of mine, regarding the question of ancestry of Vertebrates. I have now embodied some of my opinions in a little pamphlet, entitled: “The Origin of Vertebrates and the Principle of Succession of Functions” which I hope I may be able to send to You before the end of this month.6 It seems rather likely to me, You will not be pleased with it,—but then, I have been troubling my brains with these thoughts for more than seven years, and at last thought it best, to bring them out, when I got a pamphlet of Prof. Semper, wherein a strong justification of my general view was arrived at, and together with it a very shortsighted range of speculations.7 To annull these and to open the way for a new series of theoretical questions, I ventured upon the ocean of printed paper,— who knows whether I shall have a better fate than so many other “Polar” Expeditions?! As far as I can see, there will be no friend for my little book, and though I have kept away from any polemics, I feel rather sure, that an outcry shall be raised against me.

Happily I am living here with the grandest view possible, before my windows, and the cry of the Napolitans (—and they have the greatest mouth-cavities I ever saw—) does not reach up to my mountain-palace.8 I have thus accustomed my eye to long distances, and the echo of a gun takes very long before it comes back to the place where the gun was fired off. Therefore I hope I may quietly wait for the echo of my little gun, but shall be only impatient, what You will say to it.

As I hope next to speak publicly, also in English Journals, of the Zoological Station, I don’t tell You now any particulars and conclude this letter with my heartiest wishes for Your health.9

With kindest regards to Yourself and Your family | Very faithfully Yours | Anton Dohrn


CD’s birthday was 12 February. Dohrn had sent a telegram in 1874 (see Correspondence vol. 22, telegram from Anton Dohrn, 12 February 1874).
CD and several other British researchers had organised a subscription to raise money for the Zoological Station at Naples, of which Dohrn was the founder and director (see letter from Michael Foster, 30 January 1875).
Dohrn had received a grant of 30,000 Reichsmarks from the German Empire in November 1874 (Heuss 1991, pp. 160–1).
The idea that the imperial German government might take over the station was first suggested by Helmuth von Moltke in 1874 (Heuss 1991, p. 159). For more on the role of the German government in the support of the station, see Heuss 1991, pp. 159–61, 190–9. ‘Pour le roi de Prusse’: for the king of Prussia (French); in France, ‘to work for the King of Prussia’ meant to work for nothing. Dohrn’s remark played on the literal and figurative sense of the phrase.
The forty-fifth meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science took place in Bristol in August 1875. Dohrn had been a corresponding member of the association since 1870. Dohrn did not visit CD in 1875 (see letter from Anton Dohrn, 29 July 1875).
While in England in the summer of 1872, Dohrn had outlined his view that the ancestors of vertebrates were annelids (segmented worms; see Correspondence vol. 20, letter from Anton Dohrn, 28 August 1872). CD supported the competing theory that vertebrates were descended from ascidians (sea squirts; see Descent 1: 205–6). CD’s copy of Dohrn’s monograph (Dohrn 1875) is in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.
In his recent work ‘Die Stammesverwandtschaft der Wirbelthiere und Wirbellosen’ (The genealogical relationship of vertebrates and invertebrates; Semper 1874), Carl Gottfried Semper had argued that the segmented excretory tubules found in embryonic sharks were homologous with the nephridia (segmented excretory tubes) of annelids. For more on annelid theory as proposed by Dohrn and Semper, see Bowler 1996, pp. 157–62.
Dohrn lived at Palazzo Torlonia, the home of Maria Dohrn’s family in Naples, from 1871 to 1875 (Groeben 2008, p. 150). The building was near the small port of Mergellina at the foot of Posillipo Hill.
The formal inauguration of the Zoological Station took place on 11 April 1875. A description of the event with highlights of Dohrn’s inaugural address and a summary of the work of the station appeared in Nature, 6 May 1875, pp. 11–13.


Bowler, Peter John. 1996. Life’s splendid drama: evolutionary biology and the reconstruction of life’s ancestry, 1860–1940. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

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

Dohrn, Anton. 1875. Der Ursprung der Wirbelthiere und das Princip des Functionswechsels. Genealogische Skizzen. Leipzig: Wilhelm Engelmann. [Reprinted in Theory in Biosciences 125 (2007): 181–241.]

Groeben, Christiane. 2008. Tourists in science: 19th century research trips to the Mediterranean. Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences 4th ser. 59: 139–54.

Heuss, Theodor. 1991. Anton Dohrn: a life for science. Translated from the German by Liselotte Dieckmann. Berlin and New York: Springer Verlag.


Thanks to CD’s help Zoological Station has passed a crisis and is now flourishing.

Is writing pamphlet on "the origin of vertebrates and the principle of succession of functions" [see 9991 and 10003]. It is likely CD will not be pleased with it, but he thinks he must now, after seven years, bring it out. Seeks to open the way for a new series of theoretical questions.

Letter details

Letter no.
Felix Anton (Anton) Dohrn
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 162: 215
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9845,” accessed on 15 May 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 23