Darwin’s Scientific Women

In Darwin’s lifetime women were expected to mainly become wives and mothers but his letters reveal a surprising range of careers that women carried out beyond the home. Women contributed to Darwin’s scientific work in a variety of ways and his letters are a fantastic source of information about the lives of women we may not be aware of.



American botanist and writer Mary Treat carried out experiments and collected plants and insects for leading naturalists including Asa Gray and Charles Darwin. Her writings about the natural world gave her respect and reputation during her lifetime. Like Darwin she worked at home, creating what she referred to as her ‘Insect Menagerie’, an enclosed space from which she observed the minutiae of the natural world around her. Darwin commented:

‘Your observations and experiments on the sexes of butterflies are by far the best, as as far as is known to me, which have ever been made.’


Marianne North is best known for vivid botanical paintings on permanent display in the gallery she had built at Kew Gardens, but less is known about the extent of her travels. After her parents died, Marianne sold the family home and began travelling with the aim of painting the flora of different countries. Between 1871 and 1885 Marianne North visited America, Canada, Jamaica, Brazil, Tenerife, Japan, Singapore, Sarawak, Java, Sri Lanka, India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Seychelles and Chile. During this time she travelled alone through the interior of Brazil for a year and India for 18 months, often exploring areas unknown to Europeans. Darwin wrote to her in 1881:

‘To the present time I am often able to call up with considerable vividness scenes in various countries which I have seen, and it is no small pleasure; but my mind in this respect must be a mere barren waste compared with your mind.’


Travel featured highly in the life of Lady Florence Dixie who explored the depths of Patagonia. Her fearless confidence transcends expectations of Victorian women as she writes to Darwin about being chased by a puma:

‘The mother attacked me & followed me up a tree, in self-defence I was obliged to shoot her but saved one of the cubs from the gauchos.’

She brought the cub home and reared it as a pet, walking it in Windsor Great Park until it attacked some deer and she reluctantly gave it to the zoological society.


Lydia Becker exchanged botanical information, seeds and plants with Darwin. She published ‘Botany for Novices’ in 1864, which she described to Darwin as being ‘chiefly intended for young ladies’. Becker was founder and president of the Manchester Ladies’ Literary Society and persuaded Darwin to send a scientific paper for the society to discuss. She was a leading member of the women’s suffrage movement, and was editor of and a regular contributor to the Women’s Suffrage Journal from 1870.


Women contributed to Darwin’s science through providing careful observations and challenging new ideas, but it is often only in the letters that their efforts are rewarded. On International Women’s Day we celebrate the lives of such intrepid and pioneering women.


We are currently working on a cross curricula pack for secondary schools entitled ‘Darwin’s Scientific Women’ which will be complete with activities and resources for English, Science, RE, History and Citizenship, and will be available soon. If you are interested in testing the resource, please get in touch.


Saltwater Seeds at Harvard!

One of the most fascinating things about Darwin’s science is how he used simple experiments to help him understand larger ideas. While Darwin was travelling around the world on HMS Beagle, he asked himself, why would plants on islands be similar to those on the mainland? He was not satisfied by the explanation given by some naturalists of his day that organisms were specially created for their geographic location. So in the 1850s he started a series of experiments to test whether seeds could survive being soaked in salt water. If he was right, it would suggest that plants could get to an island from the mainland and continue to evolve.


Our education team has put together a recreation of Darwin’s experiment. You can access a copy of the lesson here. Recently the experiment was done in a Freshman Seminar at Harvard College. Each of the students were given two types of garden variety seeds, and they placed them in jars of salt water for five weeks. Then they planted the seeds in trays and waited for them to germinate. You can see the results below!
















As you can see, several of the species germinated. The students were able to experience one of Darwin’s simplest and most exciting experiments first hand.

‘If it was not for sea-sickness the whole world would be sailors.’

During Darwin’s five year Beagle voyage he spent many months on land, collecting specimens. It seems, from his letters and diary entries, that this must have provided great relief as he suffered terribly from sea-sickness. He writes to his father at the begnning of the voyage:


In the Bay of Biscay there was a long & continued swell & the misery I endured from sea-sickness is far far beyond what I ever guessed at.— I believe you are curious about it. I will give all my dear-bought experience.— Nobody who has only been to sea for 24 hours has a right to say, that sea-sickness is even uncomfortable.— The real misery only begins when you are so exhausted—that a little exertion makes a feeling of faintness come on.— I found nothing but lying in my hammock did me any good.

As a doctor, Darwin’s father may indeed have been curious about his son’s condition.


Darwin’s cabin, shared with members of the crew and their belongings was roughly 10ft x 11ft. Space was so limited that he had to remove the top drawer from a chest every evening in order to rig up his hammock. Despite this, he describes the ship to his father as ‘a comfortable house, with everything you want‘. Perhaps he did not want his father to regret finally agreeing to the voyage but a diary entry written in the same month (February 1832), does not depict life below deck so ‘comfortably’.


This has been the first day that the heat has annoyed us, & in proportion all have enjoyed the delicious coolness of the moonlight evenings: but when in bed, it is I am sure just like what one would feel if stewed in very warm melted butter. — This morning a glorious fresh trade wind is driving us along; I call it glorious because others do; it is however bitter cruelty to call anything glorious that gives my stomach so much uneasiness. — Oh a ship is a true pandemonium, & the cawkers who are hammering away above my head veritable devils. —[1]

Only four more years to go Charles…


[1]Richard Darwin Keynes (ed), Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary, (Cambridge, 1988), p. 35


(More interesting snippets will be available soon from the interactive Beagle Voyage Activity Pack; a cross-curricula pack for 11-14 years, free to download.)

‘Young tortoises make capital soup’

In a recent episode of QI, the television programme chaired by Stephen Fry, it was suggested that Giant Tortoises were not given a scientific name until 300 years after their discovery, in part due to the fact that they were incredibly tasty. This led to speculation by team members that British sailors would arrive back at the docks with guilty expressions and a lot of empty shells…


Darwin’s diary entries from the Beagle voyage note from his time on the Galapagos Islands that tortoise did indeed feature heavily in the diet of the ship’s crew: ‘such numbers yet remain that it is calculated two days hunting will find food for the other five in the week’ However even in Darwin’s time the supply was becoming limited and was reckoned to last approximately 20 years.[1]


Tortoises were fascinating food-stuffs for Darwin: ‘The average size of the full-grown ones is nearly a yard long in its back shell: they are so strong as easily to carry me, and too heavy to lift from the ground’[2] Despite this fascination, he only fully understood the significance of the existence of different tortoise species on neighbouring islands some time after he returned to England. In a letter to his former botany professor John Stevens Henslow in 1838, Darwin comments that he has gained ‘some curious facts… regarding the lizards and tortoises of those same islands’. With support and wider evidence, his curious facts about the islands lay the groundwork for understanding adaptive radiation.


In 1839, in the Addenda to his Journal of Researches, Darwin regrets ‘not having procured a perfect series in every order of nature from the several islands’ as he had not anticipated while on the Beagle `that islands in sight of each other should be characterized by peculiar faunas’.[3] A reminder that we should pay more attention to what we eat.


[1] Richard Darwin Keynes (ed), Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary, (Cambridge, 1988), p.356

[2] ibid, p. 361

[3] Charles Darwin, Journal of Researches, 1839, p.629


Picking Scientific Minds


Drosera rotundifolia, drawing by George DarwinLast month,  PGCE Biology students from the University of Cambridge’s Education Department applied their fresh and enquiring minds to the question of how to create Key Stage 3-5 science resources based on Darwin’s own experiments. Some were issued with extracts from his book Insectivorous Plants (specifically sections on Drosera and Dionaea) and with letters concerning experiments he had carried out on the entrapment and absorption of food.


Darwin's Experiment Book (CUL DAR157a)Other groups chose to focus on seed vitality or viability with extracts from Darwin’s own Experiment Book (also held here in the library),  and his letters relating to seed dispersal with correspondents all over the world.


The final selection of materials concerned the weed garden that Darwin established at Down House. Using letters, an extract from On the Origin of Species and pages from his Experiment Book, students set about designing experiments informed by Darwin’s own. The weed garden was an opportunity for Darwin to look at the survival rates of self-sown seeds in a defined patch of ground over the course of several months.


Student ideasStudents came up some fantastic ideas – many of which will be worked up for this website shortly! From designing your own insectivorous plant, to dissecting an owl pellet to look for seeds, then planting them to test for viability. Look out for more details soon. Maybe this kind of design-your-own-Darwin experiment activity could be used with sixth formers?Students at work


Cumbria pupils take charge

A class of Year 9 English pupils from Ulverston Victoria High school have been using Darwin’s letters to find out more about his personality, the way he worked and who he worked with. Teacher Alison Smith began the study without a mention of Darwin, but encouraged her pupils to do some detective work. Using the date and content of selected letters, pupils had to deduce who was the recipient.


Pretty soon, Darwin was identified and they began to research some of the 2,000 people who corresponded with him. They studied how Darwin’s tone and style changed according to who he was writing to and the differences between personal and public writing. Pupils commented how the letters enabled them to find out so much more about him, beyond the big idea that he was associated with.


Groups of pupils then created their own lesson plans, including learning objectives, and delivered a lesson to their class based on selected letters. On the day that they agreed to be filmed the lesson addressed whether the Beagle voyage met Darwin’s expectations or not.  Some very helpful debate followed.


In a follow- up interview with a group of pupils it was interesting to hear what they were surprised to learn about Darwin:

‘I kind of thought of him as old and grey I didn’t think he’d started to go on the journey when he was 22′

‘I was quite surprised to find that he was so sociable because you always think of scientists as quite isolated people who just study on their own, but I was surprised that he had so many contacts and that he shared all his ideas.’  See ‘It worked for me’ for more details.

There’s more to Darwin than the £10 note.

Welcome to the first post of the Darwin Correspondence Project’s schools blog!

At a recent Schools Masterclass as part of the  Science Festival, pupils were asked to name what they knew about Darwin. Unsurprisingly the most common association was with evolution and natural selection but the £10 note was also mentioned. We wondered what can Darwin’s correspondence teach us about the man on the money?


After studying letters sent to Darwin during his Beagle voyage, pupils were asked to consider how they would have transported specimens back to England from the other side of the world in the nineteenth century. What part of a plant would they send? What packing materials would be used? What would be the advantage of sending back dead animal specimens over live ones? The letters show us that, at this stage, the young explorer had a lot to learn.

pupil on Darwin


They also discussed letters from later life in greater detail to understand how Darwin’s research methods worked. How do you find out about plants and animals in faraway places if you can’t get there yourself? You write letters to ask others to find out information for you. Darwin’s reliance on the contributions of others is clear, as his gratitude and respect for the 2000 people who were happy to correspond with him and to carry out research. His team of helpers included family members of whom he was particularly appreciative.


When asked at the end of the class what they knew about Darwin, the pupils had a whole lot more to say about the man on the £10 note.