skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

About Darwin

To many of us, Darwin’s name is synonymous with his theory of evolution by natural selection.  But even before the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, he was publicly known through his popular book about the voyage of the Beagle, and he was esteemed by scientific colleagues for his work in geology and zoology.  Rather than being the culmination of his career, the Origin was the point of departure for Darwin’s important works on variation, human heredity, and the evolution of emotions.  His long intellectual life is worth studying both as a window into the wider world of the nineteenth century and for its lasting significance in science, culture, and the discussion of religion.


ice_bag_treatment.jpg

1873 advertisement for John Chapman’s spinal ice bag treatment.
Internet Archive/Open Knowledge Commons/Harvard Medical School, http://archive.org/details/casesofneuralgia00chap

Darwin's notes for his physician, 1865

On 20 May 1865, Emma Darwin recorded in her diary that John Chapman, a prominent London publisher who had studied medicine in London and Paris in the early 1840s, visited Down to consult with Darwin about his ill health. In 1863 Chapman started to treat epilepsy with ice and developed a theory of ‘neuro-dynamic medicine’ according to which many diseases were treatable through applications of heat or cold to the spine over long periods.

Read more

DARWIN-C-R-03-00001.jpg

Charles Darwin on his horse, Tommy
Charles Darwin on his horse, Tommy
CUL DAR 225: 116
Cambridge University Library

Darwin’s Photographic Portraits

Darwin was a photography enthusiast. This is evident not only in his use of photography for the study of Expression and Emotions in Man and Animal, but can be witnessed in his many photographic portraits and in the extensive portrait correspondence that Darwin undertook throughout his lifetime. His close friend and botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker would come to call Darwin’s epistolary exchange of photographic images as his “carte correspondence”.

Read more

Origin-Spines.jpg

6 editions of 'The Origin of Species' by Charles Darwin
http://wellcomeimages.org/
6 editions of 'The Origin of Species' by Charles Darwin
L0051092
Wellcome Library, London

On the Origin of Species

From a quiet rural existence at Down in Kent, filled with steady work on his ‘big book’ on the transmutation of species, Darwin was jolted into action in 1858 by the arrival of an unexpected letter (no longer extant) from Alfred Russel Wallace outlining a remarkably similar mechanism for species change. This letter led to the first announcement of Darwin’s and Wallace’s respective theories of organic change at the Linnean Society of London in July 1858 and prompted the composition and publication, in November 1859, of Darwin’s major treatise On the origin of species by means of natural selection.

Read more

DAR 119_001.jpg

Inside the front cover of Darwin's 1830s reading notebook
Inside the front cover of Darwin's 1830s reading notebook
CUL DAR 119: 1
Cambridge University Library

What Darwin Read

Follow the links to resources about the books and papers, mostly scientific, that Darwin read as student at Edinburgh, during the Beagle voyage, and later in his life.

Darwin and his family also read works of fiction by Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, and Jane Austen, among others.

Read more

The Voyage of the Beagle

It was a letter from his friend and former teacher, John Stevens Henslow, that brought the 22-year-old Charles Darwin news of the offer of a place on board the Admiralty surveying vessel, HMS Beagle, on a voyage to chart the coast of South America. It took weeks to pursuade his reluctant father to agree to the trip.  What was originally planned as a two-year voyage around the world stretched to five but they were the most formative years of Darwin's life.

Read more

MS-DAR-00225-000-00072.jpg

Darwin family at Caerdeon
Darwin family at Caerdeon, 1869 (from left, Henrietta, Francis, Leonard, Horace, Elizabeth)
CUL DAR 225: 72
Cambridge University Library

Family life

From the long letters exchanged with his sisters during the Beagle voyage, through correspondence about his marriage to his cousin, Emma Wedgwood, the births—and deaths—of their children, to the  contributions of his sons and daughters  to his scientific work, Darwin’s letters show how important his family was to him. Once settled at Down House in Kent, where he and Emma moved in 1842, he worked constantly surrounded by family—and servants.   His entire household, wife, children, and servants, contributed in various ways to his working life.

Read more