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Darwin Correspondence Project

Prize possessions: To Henry Denny, 17 January [1865]

Between 1980 and 2018, I was honorary curator of the Alfred Denny Museum of Zoology in the University of Sheffield. One of our prize possessions was a letter from Darwin to Henry Denny, then curator and assistant secretary of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Leeds (1826–1871). Henry Denny was the father of Alfred Denny who became the first professor of Zoology at the University of Sheffield soon after its formation in the early 1900s.

In his letter, 17 January 1865, Darwin asked Denny about the possibility of human body lice evolving into different species on people on different parts of the world. We presumed that Henry Denny had passed the letter to his son when he came to Sheffield.

The letter was kept — for obvious reasons — in the departmental safe, whose contents were not always known to successive heads of departments! I had taken the letter from the safe to photograph it in order to make a poster display, when I had to speak to my then head of department, Professor John Lee.  On my mentioning the letter, he said ‘Oh yes, I have it on my desk at this very moment’.  I said ‘I don’t think so: I have it on my desk, as we speak’. To our mutual amazement, it turned out that THE Darwin letter was in fact two letters. The second one dated 28 January 1865.

After joining the Advisory Board of the Darwin Correspondence Project in 2000 and realising that the project had no record of Denny’s letters to Darwin, I sent copies. They in turn sent me copies of the intervening letter from Denny to Darwin, dated 23 January 1865.

While not of huge biological significance, the letters provide a wonderful link between the University of Sheffield, Henry and Alfred Denny and Charles Darwin, and I have used this together with copies of the letters on numerous open days for both prospective undergraduates and their parents.

T. R. Birkhead