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Darwin Correspondence Project

From James Torbitt   19 April 1876


19th. April, 1876

Ch. Darwin, Esqr. | Down.

My dear Sir,

In continuance of my respects of yesterday— —The seedling plants were not got away, they will go today. The box of tubers was sent, the carriage of all being paid to Orpington.1

The long dark-red tubers are those from which I obtained all the seed I sent out this season. This variety is said to be vigorous; to yield “double crops”, and to be almost free from disease. It is not disease proof, as in selecting the largest for you, I found one diseased tuber. It is, I believe, young, as it yields its seed freely, and in your hands may perhaps be of use in intercrossing.2

The four large roundish pale-reddish tubers are said to be a French variety. They were grown last year with their foliage in contact with the foliage of diseased plants; with diseased plants in all directions around them; and no tuber of them all, failed to resist the infection. They are of a very vigorous growth but do not flower, therefore they must be prevented from forming tubers in order to compel them to give seed. The three small tubers in the linen bag are part of the produce of a single seed, the whole number being 145. Three of the tubers became infected, but they also were grown in contact with diseased plants under circumstances very favourable to the parasite, and perhaps when the conditions are reversed they may recover.

The other small tubers are each different and new varieties, grown from the seed last year. They have noxx merit further than this, that every tuber of each of these plants absolutely resisted the disease last season; they at the same time growing in a perfect hot-bed of disease. It now remains to be seen will they continue to resist?

I am myself perfectly satisfied, I have no fear at all on the subject; perhaps I am too sanguine, but I am fully persuaded that your last letter3 is in reality the death-knell of the peronospora, and with your permission (if you can permit it) I shall make Kolokol ring it out from the Kremlin through the furthest depths of Siberia before the Autumn is over.4 And as the first step may I beg of you to read enclosed advertisement, and if you approve of it have the goodness to let it go forward; and if the accompanying twenty pounds does not buy enough publicity in the “Times” for my purpose I shall try a hundred.

If the title “Death of the peronospora”, seems to audacious, might I beg of you to score it out, and substitute “proposed suppression of the Potato Disease”, or something of the kind, and also to alter the advertisement in any way you may think fit.5

I am ashamed to ask you to take this trouble—but the matter at issue is so vast—and time may be so limited.

I am continually being asked what do I expect to gain by all this trouble and expenditure? I can only reply, what particular benefit could I expect to derive from spending the whole of my life in gathering gold? Why I only want more money for the express purpose of fighting this pest. And as to the trouble, it is no trouble at all; it is le sport in another form and without the death-horror of the prey. The peronospora does not know that we are pressing on its life, nor that every word addressed to you and approved of by you, turns, as it drops from my pen, into a live blood-hound which shall hunt it to the death.

I am sorry the seedling tubers I send you have no merit save immunity from disease.6 They were planted before I thought you might like to have them, so I had to dig them up, and could not well make a selection.

I have still a few thousands seeds of the year 1874, which, being obtained from pretty nearly all the varieties in the North of Ireland which now produce seed, may naturally be expected to give greater variations than that sent out this year, which was all obtained from the one variety; of these I have great pleasure in enclosing one half; they are not, I think too late for experiment

I shall have the intercrossing done here by the most experienced Horticulturalist whose services I may be able to obtain.

I put this in plainer writing than my own, in order to save you trouble, and should have put it in type, only for time being lost.

Lord Templetown’s agent has just handed me the “Telegraph” containing some notice of the matter which I forward.7

Should you be pleased to look at it, I should be happy to explain the matter which Liebig approved of.8

I am my dear Sir with profound respect faithfully yours | James Torbitt

CD annotations

2.1 The … intercrossing. 2.5] ‘(Potatoes)’ added blue crayon; square brackets in ms
2.1 long dark-red tubers] underl red crayon
3.1 The … seed. 3.5] ‘(Potatoes)’ added blue crayon; square brackets in ms
3.1 French variety.] underl red crayon
3.6 The … recover. 3.9] crossed red crayon
4.1 The … season; 4.3] scored red crayon


See letter from James Torbitt, 18 April 1876. Orpington was the nearest railway station to Down House.
For CD’s ideas for intercrossing potato plants to eradicate disease, see the letter to James Torbitt, 14 April 1876. Torbitt’s ideas were published in Torbitt 1876.
Late blight was caused by Peronospora infestans (now Phytophthora infestans), a type of water mould parasitic on the potato. Kolokol (Russian): bell; Torbitt refers to the large Tsar Bell at the Kremlin, Moscow.
The proposed text for the advertisement has not been found, but advertisements entitled ‘Extinction of potato disease’ and offering free seeds had appeared in the The Times, 19, 21, and 22 February 1876, pp. 4, 1, and 1 respectively.
George Frederick Upton, third Viscount Templetown, was an Irish representative peer in the House of Lords. His agent has not been identified. Torbitt’s arguments for the eradication of potato disease and his correspondence with CD were mentioned in an article in the Daily Telegraph, 18 April 1876, p. 5. According to the writer, Torbitt thought potato diseases ‘entirely the result of the present mode of propagating the plant by cuttings of the tuber instead of by fresh seed’. He or she added, ‘nature fixes a certain limit to the life of every individual beyond which, whether animal or plant, its existence cannot be maintained’, and stated that the potato tuber was not a new individual. The article included a paraphrase of CD’s statement in his letter to Torbitt of 4 April 1876: ‘the principle on which Mr Torbitt is acting is right and . . . if he succeeds in his endeavours he will have conferred an enormous benefit on the nation.’
According to Torbitt 1876, p. 4, Justus von Liebig approved of Torbitt’s invention for the condensation and preservation of the potato.


Torbitt, James. 1876. Cras credemus. A treatise on the cultivation of the potato from the seed, having for proposed results the extinction of the disease, and a yield of thirty, forty or more tons of tubers per statute acre. (Sent, accompanied by a packet of seed, to each member of the House of Lords; each member of the House of Commons; and the principal landlords of Ulster.) Belfast: printed by Alexander Mayne.


JT’s crossing experiments on potatoes. Attempts to develop resistance to Peronospora.

Letter details

Letter no.
James Torbitt
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 178: 134
Physical description
LS(A) 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 10458,” accessed on 20 April 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 24