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Darwin Correspondence Project

To [E. M. Dicey?]   [1877]1

My dear Mrs. D.

The answer to your two letters to my wife I have pleasure in giving you my opinion, which you can communicate to anyone, as you may think fit; but I must beg you to observe that I am not a physiologist & that my opinion can have no special value.—2

I should regret that any girl who wished to learn physiology shd. be checked, because it seems to me that this science is the best or sole one for giving to any person an intelligent view of living beings, & thus to check that credulity on various points which is so common with ordinary men & women. I shd look at it as a Sin to discourage any boy from studying physiology who had the wish to do so; & I make the distinction between a boy & a girl, because as yet no woman has advanced the science. I believe much physiology cd. be learned without seeing any experiments performed or any organ in action; but I do not believe that a person could learn several parts of the subject with ⁠⟨⁠the⁠⟩⁠ vividness & clearness, which is necessary for well instructing others, unless he saw some of our organs in action.— All that I have said here with respect to ordinary students applies with greatly increased force to medical students; though no doubt very many perhaps most medical men practice their profession by the mere rule of thumb. With respect to you not liking a girl to see an animal operated on, though quite insensible, I can quite understand it & shd. sympathise fully with you, if it were out of mere idle curiosity; but if a person with a wish ⁠⟨⁠to⁠⟩⁠ learn physiology was thus prevented, I shd. consider it a weakness.— I may add that I have bitterly repented this very weakness in my own case, as I cd. not get over my horror at seeing men dissected when I was young.—3 Even to take the extreme case of an animal becoming sensible before the operation was over, it wd take only a few seconds either to kill it or render it again insensible. Nor can I see the least reason to suppose it wd suffer more during such few seconds than it wd do for hours during any severe illness to which men & animals are liable. By dwelling too much on humanity, though Heaven knows this until lately has been a rare error, do you not think that there is danger of compassion becoming morbid?4

Pray believe me, dear Mrs D | Yours very sincerely | Ch Darwin


The correspondent is conjectured from a pencil annotation, ‘Dicey?’; the year is established by a pencil annotation, probably made by Francis Darwin. Dicey was involved in the foundation of Newnham Hall, soon to become Newnham College, a women’s college at the University of Cambridge (Sutherland 2006).
The letters have not been found; they probably concerned the admission of women to physiological laboratories at Cambridge. For more on the development of facilities for women, see Richmond 1997.
CD had given up medical studies at Edinburgh after seeing two operations performed without anaesthetic; he had been unable to stay for the duration of either procedure. He developed a revulsion at the sight of blood, which he never overcame. (See Browne 1995, pp. 62–3.)
For more on CD’s support for the use of animals in physiological experiments and his involvement in the Parliamentary debate about vivisection, see Correspondence vols. 23 and 24.


Browne, Janet. 1995. Charles Darwin. Voyaging. Volume I of a biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

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

Richmond, Marsha L. 1997. ‘A lab of one’s own’: the Balfour Biological Laboratory for Women at Cambridge University, 1884–1914. Isis 88: 422–55.

Sutherland, Gillian. 2006. Faith, duty and the power of mind: the Cloughs and their circle 1820–1960. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Gives his opinion on the education of girls in physiology. Would regret that any girl who wished to learn physiology should be checked.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Elinor Mary Bonham-Carter/Elinor Mary Dicey
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 202: 41
Physical description
ADraftS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 10746,” accessed on 14 April 2024,