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Darwin Correspondence Project

Origin is 160; Darwin's 1875 letters now online

To mark the 160th anniversary of the publication of Origin of species, the full transcripts and footnotes of nearly 650 letters to and from Charles Darwin in 1875 are published online for the first time.

You can read about Darwin's life in 1875 through his letters and see a full list of the letters.

The year 1875 was a busy one for Charles Darwin; he published a new book, Insectivorous plants, and the second edition of Climbing plants. He also worked on a second edition of Variation under domestication, although it was not published until 1876 owing to floods at the printers. Insectivorous plants was surprisingly successful, given the technical nature of its content, going through three printings before the end of the year. At the same time, Darwin was writing Cross and self fertilisation, also published in 1876. In April, he was busy in London, drafting and circulating a bill to regulate vivisection, hoping to pre-empt Frances Power Cobbe’s more radical bill, and in November he gave evidence before the Royal Commission that was set up to look into the subject. Darwin’s second visit of the year to London, in December, was no more relaxing the first, as Darwin vigorously took up the cause of Edwin Ray Lankester, who had been blackballed by the Linnean Society.

John Burdon Sanderson, Edward Emanuel Klein and others at the Brown Institution, London, had assisted Darwin with his experiments on the digestive fluid of the insectivorous plant Drosera rotundifolia (common or round-leaved sundew) and performed comparative experiments with artificial animal gastric juice to see if it behaved in similar ways to the Drosera secretion. In 1875, Klein was a very controversial witness at the Royal Commission on vivisection. When asked about his use of anaesthetics in research, Klein expressed doubt about the validity of experiments conducted under such conditions, and even asserted that he had ‘no regard at all’ for the sufferings of animals when performing a painful experiment. Huxley told Darwin about Klein’s testimony: ‘I declare to you I did not believe the man lived who was such an unmitigated cynical brute—as to profess & act upon such principles—and I would willingly agree to any law, which should send him to the treadmill.’ Darwin replied to Huxley: ‘I am astounded & disgusted at what you say about Klein. I am very glad he is a foreigner; but it is most painful as I liked the man.’  

Other highlights from the 1875 letters include:

I am very glad of the 14s, for though I much like making money, I care very much more about the wide distribution of my books.  (Letter to R. F. Cooke, 29 June [1875])

Darwin wrote this to his publisher in June 1875; he had succeeded in getting the price of his new book, Insectivorous plants, lowered to 14 shillings. He had been experimenting on these plants since 1859. The highly technical work was a surprising success, with 3000 copies printed in the first month. Mudie’s circulating library bought 150 copies; another circulating library took 500.

I am merely slaving over the sickening work of preparing new Editions.  (Letter to J. D. Hooker, 18 August [1875])

Darwin also completed second editions of Climbing plants and Variation under domestication in 1875. The work was not much to his taste. However, by the autumn he was able to start writing a new book, Cross and self fertilisation, summing up many years of experiments on crossing plants.

I wd gladly punish severely anyone who operated on an animal not rendered insensible, if  the experiment made this possible  (Letter to H. E. Litchfield, 4 January [1875])

Agitation for a law controlling vivisection came to a head in 1875, when Frances Power Cobbe, a journalist and an acquaintance of Darwin’s, raised a petition and managed to get a bill on the subject introduced into Parliament. Darwin thought her bill would damage research in physiology, and spent a week in London organising his friends to submit a rival bill. In the event, the matter was referred to a Royal Commission, before which Darwin gave evidence. An appendix on the issues is here.

Mr. Ffinden accused me in the vestry of having made false statements  (Letter to John Lubbock, 8 April 1875)

Relations between the Darwins and the vicar of Down, George Sketchley Ffinden, continued to be poor. John Lubbock, another local landowner and Darwin’s friend, attempted to make peace, without much success. Emma Darwin was happy to report to John Brodie Innes, the former vicar,  that they had succeeded in again setting up a winter reading room for working men, despite Ffinden’s opposition, and that a temperance society had been organised by a local solicitor and his wife.

Such energy as yours almost always succeeds  (Letter to G. H. Darwin, 13 October [1875])

Darwin wrote encouragingly to his son George, who was engaged on a number of lines of research in physics and mathematics. George also wrote an article on linguistics, supporting William Dwight Whitney’s view of the origin of language against Friedrich Max Müller, for whom language was an impassable barrier between animals and humans. Darwin’s son Francis, who was working as his father’s secretary, was also able to do independent research in botany. Horace, meanwhile, was beginning to help his father and brothers with scientific instruments: in 1875, he designed a hygrometer.

Almost every thing which I have done in science I owe to the study of his great works (Letter to A. B. Buckley, 23 February 1875)

The year was saddened by the death of several of Darwin’s correspondents, including one of his oldest and dearest friends, Charles Lyell.  Lyell had helped to introduce Darwin to scientific society in London, had offered much advice on his early publications in geology, and had been instrumental in the publication of Origin of species, despite enduring reservations over its application to humans.

It seems to me the most disgraceful act which any scientific Socy. has done in my time  (Letter to J. D. Hooker, [12 December 1875])

In December, Darwin was involved in more controversy. He was incensed that Edwin Ray Lankester, a promising young zoologist, was blackballed by the Linnean Society of London. He spent another week in London canvassing members to support Lankester’s application at the next meeting. Emma must have despaired: his visits to London were supposed to be for relaxation.


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