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Darwin Correspondence Project

Darwin in letters, 1878: Movement and sleep


Bernard Darwin
Bernard Darwin, May 1878. Papers of Nora Barlow, CUL MS Add 8904.4: 1158
By permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library
There are summaries of all Darwin's letters from the year 1878 on this website.  The full texts of the letters are not yet available online but are in volume 26 of the print edition of The correspondence of Charles Darwin, published by Cambridge University Press.

I think we have proved that the sleep of plants is to lessen injury to leaves from radiation

In 1878, Darwin devoted most of his attention to the movements of plants. He investigated the growth pattern of roots and shoots, studying the function of specific organs in this process. Working closely with his son Francis, Darwin devised a series of experiments to trace these subtle movements over long periods of time, often using household materials. Francis spent an extended period in Würzburg at Julius Sachs’s botanical institute, one of most advanced plant laboratories in Europe.

While Francis was away, Darwin delighted in his role as grandfather to Francis’s son Bernard, occasionally comparing the mental faculties of the two-year-old with those of a monkey. Another diversion from botanical research was provided by potatoes, as Darwin took up the cause of an Irish businessman who hoped to produce a disease-resistant variety that would rid Ireland of famine. Several correspondents pressed Darwin for his views on religion, selective breeding for human improvement, and the role of natural selection as an agent of progress. The year closed with remarkable news of a large legacy bequeathed to Darwin by a stranger as a reward for his lifetime of dedication to science. ‘This is the oddest thing that ever happened to me’, he remarked to Joseph Dalton Hooker, ‘or as far as I know any scientific man’ (letter to J. D. Hooker, 14 December [1878]).

Writing to Ernst Haeckel on his sixty-ninth birthday (letter to Ernst Haeckel, 12 February [1878]), Darwin reflected that it was ‘more prudent’, given his age, ‘not to attempt to write on large & difficult subjects’, but to focus instead on ‘small special points.’ ‘To you & others’, he added, ‘must be left the extending & fortifying the principles of Evolution’. After completing his two big books on human evolution (Descent and Expression), and the final revision of Origin (1872), Darwin had turned almost exclusively to botanical observation and experiment. He had begun a systematic study of plant movement in 1877, concentrating on the motion of leaves in response to changes in light, moisture, and other conditions. He continued to study the phenomena of ‘sleep’, concluding that the vertical position assumed by leaves at night (nyctitropism) was a protection against heat loss. ‘I think we have proved that the sleep of plants is to lessen injury to leaves from radiation’, he wrote to Hooker on 25 March; ‘this has interested me much & has cost us great labour, as it has been a problem since the time of Linnaus. But we have killed or badly injured a multitude of plants.’

Movement in plants

In the spring of 1878, Darwin started to focus on the first shoots and leaves of young plants. ‘I shall die a miserable, disgraced man if I do not observe a seedling Cactus’, he wrote to William Turner Thiselton-Dyer on 9 May. He later noted that in many Cacteae the cotyledons (the embryonic leaves in seedlings) were rudimentary, but probably served to protect the plumule (young shoot) when it broke through the soil in the shape of an arch (Movement in plants, pp. 96–7). As usual, staff at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, were enrolled as researchers, as were family members.

Darwin asked his niece Sophy to observe the arching shoots of Neottia (bird’s nest orchid) near her home in Surrey: ‘If you could find some just springing up, you wd be able to see whether the young flower-stems break through the ground straight or arched.… Almost all seedlings come up arched’ (letter to Sophy Wedgwood, 24 March [1878–80]). While Darwin was studying the function of cotyledons, he began to examine another structure at the base of the leaf-stalk: the pulvinus, a cellular mass present in some plants that expands first on one side, then another, to produce movement in the stalk. Darwin compared adult and young leaves to determine how much movement could be attributed to this specialised bending organ rather than to circumnutation (see Movement in plants, pp. 112–13). He explained to Francis on 2 July: ‘I go on maundering about the pulvinus, cushion or gland whichever you call it, & from what I have seen roughly in the petioles of the Cotyledons of oxalis, I conclude that a pulvinus must be developed from ordinary cells, which secrete water into the inter-cellular spaces on the concave side of a bending organ; & that a pulvinus is developed only when the bending has to be continued for a period after growth has ceased or nearly ceased.’

Finally, Darwin turned to plant motion below the ground, beginning with the protrusion of the embryonic root or radicle from the seed. He found that it tended downwards (geotropism) in a spiral unless it met with strong resistance. Experiments with card showed that the tip or apex was sensitive, and bent away from obstacles. ‘I cannot resist telling you a little about the radicles’, he wrote to Thiselton-Dyer on 9 May. ‘The apex is sensitive, & instead of turning to touching object like a tendril, it turns from it. The apex is so sensitive that if little squares (about 4th of inch) of card & thin paper of exactly same size are fixed to opposite sides of apex, the radicle, (growing freely downward in damp air) bends always from the card side.— The apex of a radicle growing in earth tries to circumnutate, & thus prefers the earth on all sides; if one side is harder than the other the radicle will bend from this side, & thus it will discover with unerring precision the lines of least resistance in the ground.’ Darwin would devote a whole chapter to the sensitivity of the apex in Movement in plants. This was a point on which he disagreed with Sachs, who, in a paper on the growth of roots, had dismissed earlier findings about the apex made by Theophil Ciesielski as due to methodological error. ‘Will you send to Down, as soon as you can spare it, the Part on Radicles by Sachs which you have, for I have read the other two Parts.— It is a magnificent piece of work. He will swear & curse when he finds out that he missed sensitiveness of apex’ (letter to Francis Darwin, [11 May 1878]).

Having found plants responsive to touch, light, heat, moisture, and various chemical and nutritive substances, Darwin next considered sound. He explained to John Tyndall on 4 December: ‘The day before yesterday & today I observed (but perhaps the observation will prove erroneous) that certain sensitive plants were excited into movement, by a prolonged note on the bassoon & apparently more by a high than a low note.’ Francis apparently played the musical instrument to various plants. To confirm the results, Darwin borrowed a siren from Tyndall, who had investigated the physics of sound, but the piercing blast had no effect. ‘The plants, ill-luck to them, are not sensitive to aerial vibrations’, Darwin complained. ‘I am ashamed at my blunder’ (letter to John Tyndall, 22 December [1878]).

Son abroad

Darwin’s experiments on plant movement were intensely collaborative, with Francis playing a more active role than ever. The closeness of father and son is evident from the detail and frequency of letters exchanged when they were apart. At the start of June, Francis left to work at Sach’s laboratory in Germany, not returning until 8 August. ‘Alas Frank is off tomorrow to Wurzburg,’ Darwin wrote to Thiselton-Dyer on 2 June, ‘& work by myself will be dull work.’ Several weeks later he reported: ‘Frank seems getting on well … & is working away at physiology & at the accursed German language: Sachs is very kind to him’ (letter to W. T. Thiselton-Dyer, 18 June [1878]). While Francis was away, Darwin sent regular reports about their plants, and longed for conversation: ‘Porliera went beautifully to sleep in my study & awoke well early in the back … of my study … & has kept awake all day.… Good bye, as I have nobody to talk to, about my work, I scribble to you (letter to Francis Darwin, 7 [July 1878]). Two weeks later he wrote: ‘I have been speculating roughly & trying to get a heap of cases under one sort of rule, but it is horrid not having you to discuss it with’ (letter to Francis Darwin, 20 [July 1878]).

It is unclear why the decision was made for Francis to go abroad, but students and researchers from Britain and other countries often spent time in German laboratories as part of their training. Sachs had worked on plant movement, including heliotropism and geotropism, and had built an international reputation through his textbooks and extensive publications. His institute in Würzburg was one of the leading centres of botanical research in Europe. Sachs supervised the work of doctoral and post-doctoral students, often assigning highly specialised topics and dictating experimental method and design. Francis seems to have been allowed to work more independently, but Sachs offered frequent comments and suggestions. Asked by his father to measure the diameter of the pulvini cells of oats to determine whether they had chlorophyll, Francis reported (letter from Francis Darwin, [after 7 July 1878]): ‘The oats have only just begun to germinate.… Sachs madea calculation & said that at the most the little tip that appears at first could only manufacture … 6/1000 of a milligramm dry weight in a day.… Germinating seeds do not gain in weight he says.’ The laboratory was equipped with the latest precision instruments, allowing for levels of exactitude that could not easily be obtained at Down House, but Francis thought Horace’s abilities were a match for German instrument makers. ‘There is one machine we must have’, Francis wrote (letter from Francis Darwin, [before 17 July 1878]), ‘a strong horizontal axis about 2 feet long which goes round by clockwork slowly so that geotropism is quite excluded. We will get Jemmy to design one, the one here is far from well made.’ (Jemmy or Jim was Horace’s nickname.)

Francis was occasionally struck by Sachs’s presumptuousness: ‘He seems to me to jump to conclusions rather’ (letter from Francis Darwin, [before 3 August 1878]). One day Francis observed that the leaves of a potted Porliera were wide open, while those in a bedded specimen were shut. ‘Sachs on theoretical grounds says the one in the bed gets more water, but I asked the gardener privately & he on practical grounds says he waters the pot-plant every day & never the bedded out one’ (letter from Francis Darwin, [after 7 July 1878]). Sachs’s confidence was apparently matched by his tendency to dismiss work that contradicted his own. Darwin asked Francis to test the results of the Polish botanist Theophil Ciesielski, who had studied the response of radicles to moisture, reaching different conclusions from those of Sachs. ‘I have borrowed Cieselski & read him,’ he reported (letter from Francis Darwin, [22 June 1878]). ‘Sachs doesn’t consider that there is any puzzle as to how the difference between their results arose.… Sachs doesn’t think much of him’. On hearing that Sachs was also dismissive of work by Hugo de Vries and Julius Wiesner on the causes of plant movement, Darwin wrote on 25 July, ‘I am sorry Sachs is so severe on men, as that is a character which I dislike’. Despite this autocratic style, Sachs seems to have been a very supportive mentor to Francis and even extended a kind of paternal care when he was unwell. ‘I was rather seedy last night & didn’t appear at the laboratory & this morning Sachs came all the way to see how I was, & drove me to the Labor in his drosky, & was very kind wanting to send me books & red-wine which is here the cure for all evils’ (letter from Francis Darwin, [24 and 25 July 1878]).

Babies and animals

While Francis was away, his 2-year-old son Bernard was looked after at Down by a nurse, Mary Anne Westwood, and the proud grandparents. Many of Darwin’s letters conveyed news of the boy. ‘All the family are here & all adoring Bernard’, he wrote to Francis on 7 July. ‘Bernard is very sweet & pretty,’ he added a week later (letter to Francis Darwin, 14 July [1878]). Darwin had of course observed his own children from infancy as part of his interest in the evolution of mental and moral faculties. He seemed to take special note of the child’s use of language and power of judgment. ‘Bernard gets more & more charming: he rebuked me sternly yesterday, because I said he was going in a booboo, whereas I ought to have said a gee-gee’ (letter to Francis Darwin, 17 July [1878]). On 12 September, Darwin wrote: ‘Bernard is as sweet as sugar, but very contradictory. It grew wonderfully dark about half an hour ago; so I said “how dark it is”; so he shouted out “oh no”.— I then added I think it will soon rain, & he again shouted out “oh dear no” “oh dear no”’. Darwin shared some of his observations with George John Romanes, who was engaged in his own research on animal instinct and intelligence. ‘Frank’s son, nearly 2 years old (& we think much of his intellect!!) is very fond of looking through my pocket lens, & I have quite in vain endeavoured to teach him not to put the glass close down on the object, but he will always do so’ (letter to G. J. Romanes, 20 August [1878]). Darwin remarked that a monkey possessed the same fascination with the eyeglass,but was able to focus the device more expertly. ‘I conclude that a child—just under 2 years is inferior in intellect to a monkey.’ ‘Have you ever thought of keeping a young monkey, so as to observe its mind’? Darwin’s suggestion was seconded: ‘Frank says you ought to keep an idiot, a deaf-mute, a monkey & a baby in your house!’ (letter to G. J. Romanes, 2 September [1878]).

More remarkable cases of animal intelligence were observed by Darwin’s correspondents. The German stamp-collector Alfred Moschkau reported on 26 March that a starling in Saxony was able to impersonate a famous Austrian general: ‘Who are you?’ the bird was asked. ‘I am General Radezky’, it replied. ‘How old? I am seventy years old. Were you brave? Very, very brave!’ The creature could also whistle a folk song. ‘This bird was a real showpiece’, Moschkau concluded, but it was sold to a vicar and ‘after 3 months his cat ate it.’ Darwin also learned of a South American parakeet (Conurus guianensis) with extraordinary table manners. According to the banker and naturalist Robert Middleton, who wrote on 22 October, the bird ‘invariably restrained himself in [his evacuations] while being handled or when sitting on the head or dress of any person, & … when being fed on the dining-table, he would always back to the edge of the table, & sometimes almost overbalance himself, in his effort to save the table-cover or cloth from defilement.’ Darwin had lengthy noteson animal instinct that he had originally intended for his ‘big book’ on species (published in 1975 under the title Natural selection), but he gladly turned them over to Romanes, who was delighted, and eventually published them in his 1882 book Animal intelligence. ‘Like the bees, you ought to have some one to take the honey, when you make it to give to the world—not, however, that I want to play the part of a thieving wasp’ (letter from G. J. Romanes, 21 June 1878).

An inspiration

In August, Darwin learned that, after rejecting him five times in succession, the Académie des sciences in Paris had finally elected him a corresponding member, but in the botany section rather than zoology, where his work had been more controversial (letter from J.-B. Dumas and Joseph Bertrand, 5 August 1878). Despite his many botanical publications, Darwin always regarded himself as an outsider to the field because he had never done the taxonomic work that was regarded as fundamental to expertise. ‘It is funny’, he wrote to Huxley on 11 August, ‘the Academy having elected a man as Corr member in Botany, who does not know the characters of a single natural order!’ Darwin was rarely concerned about formal honours, and occasionally embarrassed by them. Congratulated by an old Shrewsbury friend for the doctorate he received from Cambridge the previous November, Darwin replied, ‘Pray do not call me Dr Darwin, the title seems to me quite ridiculous’ (letter to John Price, 2 April [1878]). When a wealthy businessman tried to commission a Royal Academy sculptor (Henry Pinker) to make a bust of Darwin for the Royal Institution, Darwin wanted to decline but worried about offending the patron. ‘I hate the fatigue & loss of time from sitting; & yet it seems so ungracious to refuse,’ he wrote to William Spottiswoode on 7 July. Pinker later made a statue of Darwin for the Oxford Museum of Natural History; he used a photograph, so Darwin was spared the trouble of sitting.

A younger generation of naturalists continued to find Darwin’s work inspiring. The geologist Sydney Skertchly confessed on 27 February: ‘by the time I was thirteen your ‘Origin of Species’ was almost known by heart … and your other works have been my models both for method, and for the true caution and boldness they evince.’ ‘How all-powerful has been your influence over me.’ Darwin was ‘deeply gratified’, remarking to Skertchly on 2 March: ‘It is the greatest possible satisfaction to a man nearly at the close of his career to believe that he has aided or stimulated an able and energetic fellow worker in the noble cause of Science.’ An Austrian geologist sent his recent work on coral reefs of the Triassic period: ‘I tried to show the way, which the paleontological-geological inquiry has to go, in the mind of your theory, and to elucidate the true nature of the “imperfection of the Geological Record”’ (letter from Edmund Mojsisovics von Mojsvár, 28 April 1878). ‘What a wonderful change in the future of geological chronology you indicate,’ Darwin replied on 1 June, ‘by assuming the descent-theory to be established’. The Swiss botanist Arnold Dodel-Port announced on 12 June 1878 the first issue of an atlas with large lithographs intended for teaching physiological botany: ‘Without you and your all-enriching science our atlas would not have come together’ (letter from Arnold Dodel-Port, 18 June 1878).

In countries where evolution was regarded with suspicion, Darwin became an example of freedom from political or religious prejudice. An engineer in Bohemia addressed his letter to ‘the inspired hermit of Down’: ‘Every thinking man who knows what stands or falls with the idea of the miracle, will praise Darwin as a most noble benefactor of mankind …’ ‘What I would be without you, I do not know— but it terrifies me, for I see what hundreds and thousands are without you’ (letters from Carl Kraus, [31?] January 1878 and 10 February 1878). Darwin learned that his recently published ‘Biographical sketch of an infant’ had been translated into Greek. Theodor von Heldreich wrote from Athens on 8 February that the translator, a young Cretan doctor, was one of Darwin’s ‘most zealous admirers & disciples’. ‘It is not without some danger & it still requires enough moral courage to espouse and to rally to your principles in this country, which is still under the rule of dogmatism.’ In Germany, descent theory was part of a struggle between church and secular institutions for cultural authority. Addressing the German Association of Naturalists in September 1877, Darwin’s outspoken supporter Ernst Haeckel championed the teaching of evolution in schools. Haeckel’s speech provoked opposition from the eminent physician Rudolf Virchow, whose address ‘The liberty of science in the modern state’ warned naturalists not to indulge in personal speculation, especially in relation to the theory of descent. ‘His address appeared to me very arrogant,’ Darwin commented, ‘& he lectured the best naturalists in Germany, as if they had been school-boys’ (letter to Karl von Scherzer, 1 April 1878).

More critics

Closer to home, the Anglican clergyman Edward Bouverie Pusey delivered a sermon at Oxford, later published as ‘Un-science, not science, adverse to faith’, claiming that Darwin had written Origin as an attack on religion, replacing a personal god with the ‘eternity of matter’ (letter from H. N. Ridley, [before 28 November 1878]). Darwin received a copy of the sermon from his old friend, the former vicar of Down, John Brodie Innes. Darwin and Innes had worked together on village charities for many years and had remained on good terms despite religious differences. Innes now recounted the words he had spoken in Darwin’s defence at a recent Church Congress in Dundee: ‘I have the pleasure of the intimate friendship of one of the very first Naturalists in Europe … his scrupulous regard for the strictest truth is above that of almost all men I know. … I never saw a word in his writings which was an attack on Religion. He follows his own course as a Naturalist and leaves Moses to take care of himself ’ (letter from J. B. Innes, 1 December 1878). Darwin did not think the Oxford sermon deserved a reply, but he remarked privately: ‘Dr Pusey was mistaken that I wrote the Origin with any relation whatever to Theology … when I was collecting facts for the Origin, my belief in what is called a personal God was as firm as that of Dr Pusey himself, & as to the eternity of matter I have never troubled myself about such insoluble questions’ (letter to H. N. Ridley, 28 November 1878).

Darwin was pressed further on religion by a fishing-tackle maker in Scotland: ‘I would … be much obliged … if you would … simply tell me if your doctrine of the descent of man destroys the evidence of the existence of a God looked at through nature’s phenomena’ (letter from James Grant, 6 March 1878). Darwin pleaded that to answer ‘would require an essay’, but he offered: ‘The strongest argument for the existence of God, as it seems to me, is the instinct or intuition which we all (as I suppose) feel that there must have been an intelligent beginner of the Universe; but then comes the doubt and difficulty whether such intuitions are trustworthy.’ He added by way of consolation: ‘No man who does his duty has anything to fear and may hope for whatever he earnestly desires’ (letter to James Grant, 11 March 1878). The question of evolutionary progress was raised by the portrait-painter George Arthur Gaskell, who suggested that natural selection would be superseded by higher evolutionary laws. ‘Sympathetic’ and ‘social selection’ would operate through the practice of birth control and selective mating among the healthy and morally fit: ‘To those who love children will be left the task of bringing them up … some day a medical certificate may be required, to define the rectitude of adding a new member to society’ (letter from G. A. Gaskell, 13 November 1878). Darwin hoped Gaskell was ‘in the right’ and referred him to recent work by Francis Galton on selective breeding. He still thought that artificial checks on population, such as birth control, were dangerous, however, and praised the spread of British people to other parts of the world: ‘Suppose that such checks had been in action during the last 2 or 3 centuries, or even for a shorter time in Britain, what a difference it would have made in the world, when we consider America, Australia New Zealand and S. Africa! No words can exaggerate the importance in my opinion of our colonization for the future history of the world’ (letter to G. A. Gaskell, 15 November 1878).

Rarely exercised by politics or religion, Darwin was bothered by criticism that touched on his accuracy as an investigator. He wrote to Asa Gray on 21 and 22 January of recent criticism by the botanist Thomas Meehan, implying that he had ignored the effect of geographical conditions on the fertility of different flower forms in a species of Linum: ‘Mr Meehan in a paper lately read before the Philadelphia Soc. says in a somewhat sneering tone that plants behave differently in one country from another … as he speaks of bringing the plant from Colorado, I imagine that it was there endemic … Now if Mr Meehan has mistaken the species it seems to me too bad to throw a slur or doubt on another man’s accuracy without taking the smallest pains to be accurate himself.’ Darwin considered writing to the Philadelphia Society, but instead took up the matter privately. ‘When I read your Article,’ he addressed Meehan on 13 May, ‘it certainly made me think that you wished indirectly to throw doubt about my observations & I did not like the indirect manner of your doing so. … Such a manner of treating the work of other observers did not appear to me the way to encourage truth.… I shall never think again on the subject, & I hope that you will not do so, except perhaps to make you pause for a few minutes’.

Knowing that Darwin often preferred to engage with critics through correspondence, George asked his father’s advice on publicly criticising a paper on geological time recently given at the Royal Society of London by Samuel Haughton. ‘If I do write’, George worried, ‘I’m pretty sure to get in Haughton’s ill favour because however civilly I may word it a man can’t like to have his work torn to shreds & I don’t think I cd. criticize without utterly demolishing it’ (letter from G. H. Darwin, 28 January 1878). The matter was complicated by the fact that Haughton, a professor of geology at Trinity College, Dublin, had been highly critical of Origin and Darwin regarded him as an ‘old and bitter opponent’ (Correspondence vol. 24, letter to T. C. Eyton, 22 April 1876). ‘When I first read your note’, Darwin replied on 3 February [1878], ‘I thought that you had better not answer & criticise Haughton, as not worth the time; leading to controversy & exciting his ill-will.… I have always acted on the principle of publishing what I believe to be the truth, without contradicting others, thus letting opposed statements fight for existence.— But the case is different, no doubt, with mathematics about which only a few can judge.’ Ironically, Darwin himself was later asked to referee a paper by Haughton on the same topic for the Royal Society, and recommended that it not be published because its estimate of geological time seemed ‘almost monstrous’ (letter to G. G. Stokes, 28 April 1878).

Potato blight

On 24 February, Darwin was contacted by the Irish businessman, James Torbitt, about an ambitious project to cultivate blight-resistant potatoes. Torbitt had invested a substantial sum from his wine and spirit business to raise different varieties on a large scale. In 1876, he had gone so far as to send packets of seeds to every member of Parliament. Darwin had a long-standing interest in the problem, and had experienced the 1845 potato blight that destroyed much of the European crop (see Correspondence vol. 3, letter to J. S. Henslow, 28 October [1845]). He was aware of Torbitt’s ambitions, having corresponded briefly with Torbitt in previous years. Torbitt now renewed his effort to gain public assistance with a letter to the chancellor of the Exchequer, including extracts from previous letters from Darwin, and sent a copy to Darwin on 24 February requesting permission to publish it. While he was in London, Darwin consulted Thomas Farrer at the Board of Trade, who suggested that the matter be presented to the duke of Richmond (letter to J. D. Hooker, 28 [February 1878]). Further meetings were held with Farrer and James Caird, a member of the Royal Agricultural Society. Torbitt’s credentials as a horticulturist had been questioned by the Agricultural Society’s botanist, William Carruthers, and an earlier effort to promote his scheme at the 1874 meeting of the British Association in Belfast had failed. ‘I daresay he made a fool of himself at Belfast,’ Darwin wrote to Hooker on 3 or 4 March. ‘I have often called him “that enthusiastic old fool”—not that I know whether he is old’. But Darwin was clearly impressed by Torbitt’s dedication and willingness to spend time and money for the public good. His method of breeding also drew explicitly on Darwin’s study of self- and cross-fertilisation, which demonstrated the superior vigour of crossed varieties. Darwin spent over a month corresponding with the various parties, repeatedly revising his own letter of support for Torbitt. ‘I send my letter of the sight of which you must be sick’, he wrote to Farrer on 13 March 1878. ‘Mr. Torbitt’s plan … seems to me by far the best that has ever been suggested … raising a vast number of seedlings from cross-fertilized parents, exposing them to infection, destroying all which suffer, saving those which resist best, & repeating the process in successive seminal generations’ (enclosure to letter to T. H. Farrer, 7 March 1878). In the end, the attempt to secure public aid was given up. Darwin sent Torbitt a cheque for L100, and advised him to concentrate on experiments instead of publicity: ‘If I were in your place … I would work quietly on, till some sure results were obtained. And these would be so valuable that your work in this case would soon be known’ (letter to James Torbitt, 4 March 1878).

The potato affair highlighted an issue that Darwin had often complained of: the disregard for science by British government. ‘Our governing men are so ignorant of science and so immersed in political squabbles that they will do nothing’, he complained to Torbitt on 26 February. Farrer concurred: ‘Getting money from the Govt for a new thing is an endless business: and the country will be ruined by spending hundreds of millions on a disastrous war long before we should get hundreds to feed people with potatoes’ (letter from Thomas Farrer, 29 March 1878). Farrer alluded to the likelihood of British involvement in the Russo-Turkish War, with the prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, promoting military intervention to stop Russian advances on Ottoman territory. Darwin usually avoided any engagement in politics, but he was sufficiently exercised to sign and help distribute a letter of protest to the foreign secretary, Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil (letter to R. A. T. Gascoyne-Cecil, 18 May 1878). The issue of war was raised again in November, as Britain threatened to send troops stationed in India across the border into Afghanistan. Again the action was urged by Disraeli on the grounds that the border was irregular and expensive to defend. Darwin signed a memorial stating: ‘Any advance of the present frontier has been condemned by a great majority of the highest civil and military authorities of Indian experience, and appears to be inconsistent with the ordinary principles of justice.… This expenditure, if borne by the United Kingdom, has been and is being made without the consent of Parliament’ (memorial to Benjamin Disraeli, [15–18 November 1878]).


Darwin’s health, though never good, had been relatively stable for some years. He did make one visit to London at the end of April to see his doctor on account of ‘giddiness’ (‘Journal’, Appendix II). His only extended break from scientific work came during visits with family. These now followed a regular pattern, with two or three stays in London at the home of his daughter Henrietta and her husband Richard Litchfield, several weeks in Southampton with William and his wife Sara, and visits to the Wedgwoods at Leith Hill Place, and the Farrers at Abinger Hall, both in Surrey. Darwin typically complained about these periods of enforced idleness. ‘My wife is going to take me for 17 days holidays’, he wrote to Thiselton-Dyer on 19 July, ‘oh Lord how I wish that they were over.’ ‘I think that I shd die outright’, he remarked to Alfred Russel Wallace on 16 September, ‘if I had nothing to do.’ A recipe for better health was offered by a homeopathic chemist and nephew of the archbishop of Dublin who received ‘direct & conscious inspiration from celestials’. The revelation included a prescription for daily doses of platinum, ‘osmium’, ‘indium’, guava jelly, and ‘a tincture of Rum tox’ and honey. In five weeks, Darwin was promised, all his bodily ailments ‘would vanish like the chaos before the wind’ (letter from T. H. Noyes, 19 November 1878).

A surprise inheritance

The year ended on a surprising note when Darwin was offered a large bequest from a person unknown to him. The benefactor wrote on 7 December: ‘I consider that you, more than any man now living, have extended the boundaries of human knowledge, by surpassing genius, long years of persistent labour, unendowed … the first to be remembered should be those whose abilities and exertions have been devoted bravely and boldly and persistently for the benefit of all mankind instead of their own immediate advantage’ (letter from Anthony Rich, 7 December 1878). Darwin was shocked by the offer, though he had to agree with the assessment: ‘I may say with truth that I have worked at science my whole life, as hard as my health wd permit, & that I have earnestly endeavoured to discover the truth. My work has been my greatest happiness, & I never even dreamt that I shd be rewarded in any other way.’ He thought immediately of the advantages the gift would bring to his children, and revealed his ongoing concerns about their health and his pessimism about their future livelihoods: ‘I am what may be called a rich man’, he replied on 9 December, ‘on the other hand I have 5 sons & 2 daughters, & two of my sons suffer from ill-health & will never earn any income, though one of the 2 will do excellent work in astronomy & mathematics; a third son is devoted to natural science & aids me in my work; a 4th son is in the R. Engineers & is getting on well; but it is almost nothing of a profession’ (letter to Anthony Rich, 9 December 1878).

Little is known about Anthony Rich other than that he was a graduate of Cambridge, a member of Lincoln’s Inn, and an author of a dictionary of Roman and Greek antiquities that went through a number of editions. He had no children or immediate family except an elderly sister. Several months before the offer, Rich had consulted Thomas Henry Huxley about the prospect of making Darwin his heir. ‘I gave him the information he wanted,’ Huxley wrote on 28 December, ‘and, if you will believe it, abstained from pointing out that there was another person to whose merits & deserts he appeared to be shamefully insensible!’ Huxley described Rich as ‘an alert, bright-eyed little man with a long beard & croaky voice’, adding that he had led ‘a loose-ended sort of life’, and was ‘as pronounced a heretic, theologically morally & politically as I have met with’. Rich was apparently an invalid and rarely left his home in the seaside town of Worthing. He even declined an invitation to Down, offering to play host instead: ‘If you ever screw up your courage to the effort of leaving your tellus et domus [land and home] … need I say what delight it would give me to see you here … installed in the one spare bed room, which my hermitage can boast of ’ (letter from Anthony Rich, 25 December 1878). The Rich legacy consisted of four freehold houses in central London. Darwin was uncertain of theirvalue, but William assured him of the soundness of London property (letter from W. E. Darwin, 13 December [1878]). ‘This is the oddest thing that ever happened to me’, Darwin wrote to Hooker on 14 December. Mindful of the lack of government support for science, Hooker hoped that it was a token of better things to come: ‘as knowledge increases, so must appreciation of the people & institutions to whom we owe it.—’ As a tribute to Rich and his sister, he penned a limerick: ‘There was an old couple at Worthing/ Who resolved to reward the deserving,/ And with wise resolution/ Pitched upon Evolution/ That pecunious old couple of Worthing’ (letter from J. D. Hooker, 14 December 1878).

About this article

Based on the introduction to The correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 26: 1878

Edited by Frederick Burkhardt, James A. Secord, Samantha Evans, Shelley Innes, Francis Neary, Alison M. Pearn, Anne Secord, Paul White. (Cambridge University Press 2018)

Order this volume online from Cambridge University Press