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Darwin Correspondence Project

From V. O. Kovalevsky   10 May 1871


10 May— 71.—

Dear Sir

Six weeks ago seeing by all German papers that Paris is “à feu et à sang” and having the Zwischensemester before me I got here with my wife and stayed the whole time studying the eocene and miocene vertebrate fauna of France in the collections of the Jardin des Plantes and Ecole des Mines.1 The confusion in this part of Palaeontology is really lamentable; genera and subgenera spring every day, founded on the most slight differences, and I have seen many of the Creators of genera, not excepting Mr Gervais himself,2 who could on no account show reason why they did rise such and such forms into a genus. It is really high time that some good comparative anatomist with a critical and destructive turn of mind should go to work and bring some light into this confusion. Yesterday I have seen in the laboratoire of Mr Gervais a fact that shall certainly interest You; his son, a young medical man,3 succeeded in fertilizing artificially the eggs of Axolotls (Amblystoma) by the sperm of common Triton; his first experiments were done the last year and he got some bastards Axolotlo-Triton which unhapilly did not live more than six weeks; the young are alike distinct from both parents externally, but till now no minute investigation was undertaken to see the differences in the dental system and so on. This spring he succeded a second time in pairing male Tritons with female Axolotl ant the larvae are swimming merilly, there is a hope that they will live, as the first experiment has given some hints as to the best manner of their food and exposition to light. Such distinct animals giving (fertile) offspings, that should be a really remarkable fact.—4

Seeing that Paris is now in hands of “brigands”, assasins, socialists” and so on, one is astonished at the quiet mode of life it is still possible to have here; unhappily Mr Thier persist in saving us from the fictitious brigands and introducing “order”, so the cannon is booming without interruption day and night, but we are so acustomed to the sound that it seems quite natural.5 Having taken a walk in the Champs Elysèes I have seen two shells at ten yards, happily they did not burst, but some days ago while walking with my wife and sister a shell exploded some fifty yards from us without doing us any harm.6 I dont think the Versaillais will ever get into Paris, even if an assault should succeed under cover of the Mont Valerien and the large batteries of St. Cloud, the troops could not advance in the streets covered now by solid earth fortifications and armed with mitrailleuises; it seems however that under the pression of the newly elected municipalities Versailles shall make peace.7

Have You seen the brief description in the new Paleontologie generale of Gervais, of the Typotericum; there is nearly a complete skeleton in the museum of this remarkable animal found in Your pampean mud of South America8

Please to remember me to Mrs. Darwin and the ladies9 | Yours very truly | W. Kowalevksy

P.S. I hope to return to Berlin in some days, so my adress in th same, Anatomical Museum.—

CD annotations

2.1 Seeing that] after opening square bracket, pencil
Top of first page: ‘(Write to him & say I wrote) about German Book’10 pencil, crossed pencil; ‘(Answered)’ pencil; ‘Post Restante’ pencil, crossed pencil


À feu et à sang: in fire and blood (French). Civil war had broken out in France following its defeat in January 1871 by Germany in the Franco-Prussian war. Much of the violence was concentrated in Paris from March until the end of May 1871, culminating in a battle between the army of the provisional government, and the national guard and radical republicans led by the Paris Commune (Annual register 1871, pp. 175–201, Tombs 1981). Zwischensemester: between semesters, that is, a university vacation (German). Kovalevsky had previously been in Berlin (letter from V. O. Kovalevsky, 14 March 1871); he was working on his doctoral dissertation at Jena University, while his wife, Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya, was studying mathematics in Berlin (Koblitz 1983, pp. 100–2).
Paul Gervais.
Henri Frédéric Paul Gervais.
The axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum) is a large neotenic salamander in the family Ambystomatidae. Triton is a former genus name for some salamanders that are in the family Salamandridae. No publications by Henri Gervais reporting on this research have been found.
Louis Adolphe Thiers was head of the French provisional government during the conflict with republican forces in Paris (Tombs 1981, pp. 2–5).
Sofia Kovalevskaya’s sister was Anna Vasilyevna Korvin-Krukovskaya. The Champs-Elysées is an avenue in Paris. For details on the Kovalevskys’ stay in Paris and their political involvement, see Koblitz 1983, pp. 104–11.
The army of the provisional government was based at Versailles. Mont Valérien and Saint Cloud were fortifications to the west of Paris (Tombs 1981, p. 72). A mitrailleuse was an early machine gun, with a multiple barrel that was turned and reloaded manually (Wawro 2003, p. 53).
In Gervais 1867–9, 1: 134–7, Paul Gervais described Typotherium (also known as Mesotherium) an extinct South American mammal. In Journal of researches, pp. 81–4, CD described ‘a great Pampian formation’ of reddish mud and clay, where he found the fossil remains of large extinct mammals, including Megatherium, Megalonyx, Scelidotherium, and Toxodon.
Kovalevsky refers to Emma, Henrietta Emma, and Elizabeth Darwin; he last visited Down in late August or early September 1870 (Correspondence vol. 18, Appendix II).
See letter to V. O. Kovalevsky, 3 May 1871; CD refers to Körte 1829. His annotations are notes for his letter to Kovalevsky of 17 May [1871].


Annual register: The annual register. A view of the history and politics of the year. 1838–62. The annual register. A review of public events at home and abroad. N.s. 1863–1946. London: Longman & Co. [and others].

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

Gervais, Paul. 1867–9. Zoologie et paléontologie générales: nouvelles recherches sur les animaux vertébrés vivants et fossiles. 2 vols. Paris: Arthur Bertrand.

Journal of researches: Journal of researches into the geology and natural history of the various countries visited by HMS Beagle, under the command of Captain FitzRoy, RN, from 1832 to 1836. By Charles Darwin. London: Henry Colburn. 1839.

Koblitz, Ann Hibner. 1983. A convergence of lives: Sofia Kovalevskaia, scientist, writer, revolutionary. Boston: Birkhäuser.

Körte, Franz Friedrich Ernst. 1829. Strich-, Zug- oder Wander-Heuschrecke vom Eie an beobachtet und beschrieben. Berlin: August Rücker.

Tombs, Robert. 1981. The war against Paris, 1871. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wawro, Geoffrey. 2003. The Franco-Prussian war: the German conquest of France in 1870–1871. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Paris is in the hands of "brigands and socialists", but one grows accustomed to sporadic bombardment,

and VOK is peacefully studying invertebrate palaeontology collections.

Reports on Paul Gervais’ successful cross between a Triton and an axolotl.

Letter details

Letter no.
Vladimir Onufrievich Kovalevsky (Владимир Онуфриевич Ковалевский)
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 169: 89
Physical description
4pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7752,” accessed on 14 July 2020,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 19