A birthday cake for the Origin, and memories of Darwin’s greatest friend

Dr Tim Hooker (left) cuts a birthday cake marking the 150th anniversary of the publication of On The Origin Of Species. With him is Martin Sturge, BRLSI Darwin and Beyond Programme Manager.
Tuesday November 24th: Today was the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species, and the BRLSI celebrated with a 150th birthday cake (with slightly fewer than 150 candles). Before that we were treated to an absorbing talk by BRLSI member and botanist Dr Tim Hooker, who spoke of his great-great grandfather Sir Joseph Hooker, Charles Darwin’s greatest friend.
That Darwin and Hooker were, indeed, great friends is clear from the correspondence between them, which amounts to over 1,500 known pages plus the occasional new item, such as one found recently by Tim Hooker’s father down the back (literally) of a sofa. What began as a mentoring relationship between Darwin, veteran of the Beagle, and the younger Hooker, himself about to embark on travels to Antarctica and India, matured into a friendship of equals as Hooker, now a botanist of international stature, succeeded his father as Director of Kew Gardens, and became Darwin’s principal sounding-board during the development of his theory of evolution.
Tim Hooker read from many examples of their correspondence, including the famous “it’s like confessing murder” letter in which Darwin first admitted that he thought species might be mutable after all. There was more personal communication too, as the men offered consolation to each other after the death of their young children. And there was humour – none more so than in Hooker’s confession that his children had inadvertently used pages of Darwin’s Origin manuscript as drawing paper.
Sir Joseph Hooker lived on until 1911, by which time he’d accumulated a staggering 203 degrees from universities around the world. His family were offered a burial in Westminster Abbey near his friend Darwin, but Hooker had already stated that he wished to be buried in his beloved Kew; they put a plaque in the Abbey instead. Tim Hooker’s talk was a fascinating insight into the personalities of two of the 19th century’s greatest scientific figures – and the cake was very good too!