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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Peter Martin Duncan?   18 July [1861]1

2. Hesketh Crescent | Torquay

July 18th.

Dear Sir

It would be a real pleasure to me to give you any information in aid of your most difficult & laborious undertaking.2 But I am sorry to say that I am quite unable to answer any of your questions. It is now nearly 30 years since I began examining living corals,3 but other pursuits interfered & I have utterly forgotten what little I knew. I remember attending a little to the effects of tranquil & disturbed water on their growth; but I cannot remember to what conclusion I came; but as a general rule, I think nearly all the species were distinct. I remember being impressed with the conviction that the classification of the stony corals would be very difficult.4

From all that I know of Dana, I shd. feel much inclined to place much trust in him. What a misfortune it is that his health has so much failed!5

I am very sorry that I am so entirely incompetent to render any assistance, & remain, Dear Sir, with my best wishes | Yours very faithfully | Charles Darwin


The year is provided by CD’s stay in Torquay (see ‘Journal’; Appendix II).
Duncan was preparing to undertake a study of the British fossil corals. His monograph was eventually published by the Palaeontographical Society of London (Duncan 1866–72).
CD had collected and made notes on a number of different corals and coralline algae during the Beagle voyage. His descriptions of corals are included in his Zoological diary (DAR 30 and 31), and several of his drawings of these specimens are in DAR 29.3. A few of his observations on corals were published in Coral reefs. See Porter 1985. For a discussion of CD’s interest in studying coral structure and generation processes, see Sloan 1985, pp. 104–9.
The stony corals or madrepores (Scleractinia) are common forms in coral reefs. CD had been urged by his friend Charles Stokes to study shallow-water corals such as Fungia during his voyage. See Correspondence vol. 2, letter to Charles Stokes, [1839–September 1842]; and vol. 7, Supplement, letter to Charles Stokes, [January – March 1842]. See also Sloan 1985, p. 104.
The American zoologist and geologist James Dwight Dana had published a description of the corals and actinia collected during the voyage of the North American Exploring Expedition (Dana 1848). Of the 483 corals described, 229 were new, and Dana’s classification of this difficult group has remained of value to the present day (DSB). CD had corresponded with Dana during the preparation of his monograph on the Cirripedia (see Correspondence vols. 4 and 5). In 1859, Dana’s health had forced him to give up his scientific pursuits for an extended period, and he had not yet fully recuperated from his illness.


Coral reefs: The structure and distribution of coral reefs. Being the first part of the geology of the voyage of the Beagle, under the command of Capt. FitzRoy RN, during the years 1832 to 1836. By Charles Darwin. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1842.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Dana, James Dwight. 1848. Zoophytes. Vol. 8 of United States Exploring Expedition. During the years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842. Under the command of Charles Wilkes, U.S.N. Philadelphia.

DSB: Dictionary of scientific biography. Edited by Charles Coulston Gillispie and Frederic L. Holmes. 18 vols. including index and supplements. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1970–90.

Duncan, Peter Martin. 1866–72. A monograph of the British fossil corals. Second series. Being a supplement to the ‘Monograph of the British fossil corals,’ by MM. Milne-Edwards and Jules Haime. London: Palaeontographical Society.

Porter, Duncan M. 1985. The Beagle collector and his collections. In The Darwinian heritage, edited by David Kohn. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press in association with Nova Pacifica (Wellington, NZ).

Sloan, Phillip R. 1985. Darwin’s invertebrate program, 1826-1836: preconditions for transformism.The Darwinian heritage, edited by David Kohn. Princeton: Princeton University Press in association with Nova Pacifica (Wellington, NZ). [Vols. 4,7,9]


He is no longer able to answer any of the correspondent’s questions concerning corals.

Places "much trust" in J. D. Dana.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Peter Martin Duncan
Sent from
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (Mss.B.D25.257)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3212,” accessed on 20 September 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 9