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Dr Janet Browne, Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, on 12 November 1999
Janet Browne worked for many years on the Darwin correspondence project in Cambridge. She is the author of a biography of Charles Darwin, Voyaging (Pimlico, 1996).
Although it is well-known that Charles Darwin, the Victorian naturalist and proposer of the theory of evolution by natural selection, was a voluminous letter writer, it is less often realised just how vast the archive is. His correspondence provides a marvellous opportunity to map the development of his theories and the controversies that surrounded his book On the Origin of Species (1859). It is through his letters that we know all about the excitement of going round the world on the Beagle voyage, the beginnings of his ideas about evolution, his changing religious beliefs, his constant ill health, his affection for his friends and his love for his family. In fact we can almost imagine what it might have been like to be him, with all the pleasures and upsets that enter into a famous scientific life. In a society where the technology of communication was difficult and costly, letters were often the only way of keeping in touch.
But there is much more than this in Darwin's letters too. The correspondence provides an extraordinary insight into nineteenth century natural history. Nearly 14,000 letters either to or from Darwin are known to exist, mostly located in Cambridge University Library, with other sizeable collections in the American Philosophical Society, Wellcome Institute, Kew Gardens, Imperial College, and many smaller but significant collections elsewhere, some of which are still in private hands. There is a notable collection here in the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution between Darwin and Leonard Jenyns, the clergyman and naturalist, founder of the Bath Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club and generous patron of this Institution.
These letters shaped Darwin's life right from the start. As a young boy in Shrewsbury, in the 1820s, he wrote letters to an imaginary friend, grumbling about being made to wash his feet more often than he wished when at school. Later, at Cambridge University, he and Jenyns and other young men were drawn together by their love for natural history. They became friendly with John Stevens Henslow, the botany professor (soon to become Jenyns's brother-in-law), and went out on collecting expeditions together. Darwin was fiercely competitive about collecting beetles and tried to find bigger and better specimens than anyone else. From time to time Jenyns and Darwin were rivals as to who had the better collection. We owe it to Jenyns for one of the best early descriptions of
Darwin's enthusiasm for natural history, where he described Darwin pacing through the fields around Bottisham sweeping a giant net before him, catching whatever insect was around. Jenyns was also involved with Darwin's invitation to join Captain FitzRoy on the Beagle. The invitation came first to Henslow, who almost thought he might accept it himself. But he passed it on to Jenyns who was also so near to accepting that he packed his clothes. However, the two men consulted together and passed the invitation on to Darwin. The voyage had a marked effect on Darwin's aspirations, helping him to become a committed naturalist and expert, as well as sowing seeds of doubt about the origin of species. When he returned he put together the theory of evolution by natural selection. His manuscripts and letters from this time are packed with interesting details, including his search for a wife. "As for a wife, that most interesting specimen in the whole series of vertebrate animals, providence only knows whether I shall ever capture one or be able to feed her if caught." He married his cousin Emma Wedgwood (of the china company) shortly after.
In 1842 Darwin moved out of London to a large country house in Kent and lived in happy solitude for the rest of his life. His every need was filled by the postal service. He even attached a mirror to the inside of his study window in order to catch the first glimpse of the postman. All this suggests that he tried to recreate at Down House the same kind of methodical working environment that had served him so well on the Beagle. Yet the solitude was not as quiet as all that. He and Emma had ten children and ran a large household, as well as taking an active role in village life.
Here he also put together a network of natural history contacts, almost unparalleled in his own time, that included some 2145 correspondents spread over the globe. Emma grew very accustomed to receiving oddly-shaped parcels or wicker baskets, sometimes with live animals inside. Many of these contacts became close personal friends, like Thomas Henry Huxley or Joseph Hooker at Kew Gardens. Others were people whom he knew by repute, or had heard that they might be able to help his researches—gardeners, beekeepers, diplomats, army officers, country gentlemen, Canadian fur-trappers, horse-breeders, farmers and so on. From them he gathered up facts from all over the world, using the British colonial system and his own network of scientific contacts to build the detailed evidence he needed to explain evolution. These letters allow us into look into the lives and work of men and women who would otherwise be unknown. The theory of evolution, it turns out, was not simply the isolated creation of a single brilliant mind, but also a magnificent construction supported by many different hands.
In answer to questions, Dr Browne said that the letters from Alfred Russell Wallace and those from Lyle had been destroyed after having been in storage for some time.
Charles's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, had had an evolutionary theory in his time and Charles had written a biography of him and corresponded with him when he was at Edinburgh University.
There is no doubt that Darwin was not well, but he may have been a hypochondriac too. His illness was not, as sometimes alleged, caught from the beetles he collected. There is a proposal to attempt a DNA test to discover what his illness was.