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Darwin Correspondence Project

From F. E. Nipher   11 December 1874

St Louis

Dec. 11 1874—

Mr. Darwin—

Dear Sir:

Yours of Nov 25 reached me yesterday.1 I will tell you more at length of a few cases, for the accuracy of which I can vouch.

1o A wealthy banker Mr. C— ran for a county office some years since. The customary amount of mud was thrown at him, and for months he and his wife were kept in a fever of excitement & indignation. They are intelligent and exceedingly even-tempered. The child of Mrs C which was born several months afterward is a real fury. Her temper is extraordinary. Age about 10. They have had 2 children since, both very affectionate in temper. Mrs. C. thinks the child’s temper was caused by the state of her mind during those months.

2o— A lady of my acquaintance in New York, had her sympathies strongly excited by a cripple, whose arm was withered. The arm was drawn into the position taken when the deltoid & flexors of the forearm are strongly contracted—

Her child born some months after was crippled exactly in this way. Against the wishes of her husband she attended to the wants of this crippled daughter during her next period of pregnancy, and her second child a girl was crippled in like manner. Thereafter her husband took entire charge of the children. His wife afterwards had two other children, both boys, and as well framed as one could wish. One was killed while acting as major on Sherman’s staff in the war of the rebellion.2

3o A clergyman living in Iowa urged his young wife to go to the relief of a family which had just lost two children by sudden & fatal disease. Some friends advised her not to go and explained to her the effect which it might have on her child. She went, however, and her child looked from the first, like a corpse. Its eyes were wholly expressionless, and in 3 years it died without having spoken a word.

The lady has had one child since, which like her parents is very lively & vivacious. Age now about 7 years. The lady is now a medical graduate, with a good practice, and is at present visiting England.3 She fully believes that she was the cause of the ruin of her first child.

These cases have come under my own observation. I have seen the persons often. The following were related to me by my mother,4 who is I think competent to make an intelligent observation—

4. A young woman who had been recently married, was in a habit of playing with a pet monkey during the first few months of her married life. Her first child born about a year after marriage was foolish. He lived to be about 50 years old, but he had the general features of a monkey. His actions were also exactly like a monkey. He would do the most laughable things with the most imperturbable gravity. When he chopped wood, he would always look up at the axe while above his head. Actions very quick. He died before I can remember, but I knew 5 or 6 of his brothers and sisters, (there were 9 or 10 in all,) and they were as sensible people as one need wish to meet.

5o. One of the sisters of the idiot spoken of in 4o was a very high tempered woman, and during the early part of her pregnancy, she quarrelled with her husband about the disposition of a hog’s head which had just been butchered. She got hold of the head, and while in a white heat of passion she dug out its eyes with a knife. Her child was born without eyeballs.5 I remember distinctly of hearing her case described by a physician who knew of the case. My mother also knew the facts. The woman had two other children, who were sound in mind & body.

I have confined myself to the statement of facts of the truth of which I can vouch. I would not say that these deformities were not inherited (using the word with its ordinary meaning), but there seems to be no evidence of it so far as I can find.

I send you a “School Laboratory” containing a preliminary series of exp. in a research of mine. I have set to myself the task of determining the work (in Kilogram-meters) of a muscle of a given strength in sustaining a weight until exhausted. A continuation of my research will appear in the American Journal of Sciences & Arts—for Feb.6

Haughton has republished and repeated some of my earlier experiments in his “Animal Mechanics7

With best wishes | I am faithfully yours | Francis E. Nipher.

Haughton’s working up of my experim is very inaccurate. His experiments (which are repetitions of mine) pp. 462–479 of An. Mech. are wholly unsatisfactory, as were my earlier ones.8


CD’s letter to Nipher of 25 November 1874 has not been found; it was a reply to Nipher’s letter of 10 November 1874, which discussed the effect of maternal imagination on the unborn child.
William Tecumseh Sherman was a Union general in the American Civil War (ANB).
The State University of Iowa, where Nipher himself studied until 1873, opened a medical school for both men and women in 1870 (see Lawrence 2003, pp. 171–7).
Roxalana Powell Tilden Nipher.
The School Laboratory of Physical Science was a monthly magazine published in Iowa from 1871 (see Nature, 28 September 1871, pp. 421–2). No copy has been found in the Darwin Archive–CUL. Nipher’s February paper was Nipher 1875.
Nipher refers to Samuel Haughton and Haughton 1873.
For the disagreement between Haughton and Nipher, see Nature, 28 January 1875, pp. 256–7, 4 February 1875, pp. 276–7, 15 April 1875, pp. 464–6, and 22 April 1875, pp. 488–9.


ANB: American national biography. Edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. 24 vols. and supplement. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1999–2002.

Haughton, Samuel. 1873. Principles of animal mechanics. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.

Lawrence, Susan C. 2003. Iowa physicians: legitimacy, institutions, and the practice of medicine, part one: establishing a professional identity, 1833–1886. Annals of Iowa 62: 151–200. Online at (accessed 29 April 2013).

Nipher, Francis Eugene. 1875. On the mechanical work done by a muscle before exhaustion. American Journal of Science and Arts 3d ser. 9 (1875): 130–7.


Cites more examples of inheritance of maternal impressions.

Letter details

Letter no.
Francis Eugene Nipher
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
St Louis
Source of text
DAR 172: 70
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9754,” accessed on 26 September 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 22