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04/01/2013

Charles Darwin's top 10 letters: now published online

Darwin
A trove of Charles Darwin's letters to his closest confidante have been published online, including deeply personal correspondence about their shared grief over losing children and other family members. (AP File Photo)

Over 5,000 images of Charles Darwin's letters have been published online for the first time, the largest single release of his correspondence.

The letters are part of a vast batch of correspondence between the father of evolutionary theory and Joseph Dalton Hooker, a botanist who was Darwin's closest friend and scientific confidante. The online publication is part of the Darwin Correspondence Project based at the Cambridge University Library, a project that aims to publish all of Darwin's 15,000 surviving letters.

The letters to Hooker span a fascinating variety of topics, both scientific and intensely personal. Three hundred of them have never been published before.

Happily, the Darwin Correspondence Project has compiled a top-ten list for the non-academic reader.

It includes one of the most scientifically important letters, dated to January 1844, in which Darwin tentatively broaches his new theory -- one he recognizes is so controversial he likens it to confessing a murder:

"At last gleams of light have come, & I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable."

(Read the letter in its entirety here to see Darwin follow up that sentence with a charming "Heaven forfend," an expression that has inexcusably fallen out of favour.)

In another dated September 28, 1863, Hooker writes to Darwin to share a terrible loss.

"Dear dear friend, My darling little 2nd  girl died here an hour ago, & I think of you more in my grief, than of any other friend."

Hooker would have known of Darwin's intense grief following the death of his eldest daughter, Annie, at age 10. And 13 years later, Darwin wrote to inform his friend of another tragedy:

"I am sure you will pity us, when you hear that Amy, Frank's wife, was safely confined & was going on apparently quite well (in childbirth), when she was seized with convulsion which lasted for several hours, she then sunk into a stupor & I saw her expire at 7 oclock this morning. She was a most sweet gentle creature, with plenty of mind beneath, & they were most happy together. No pair could have been happier. Thank God she had no suffering & never knew that she was leaving Frank & all of us for ever. I cannot think what will become of Frank. She helped & encouraged him in his scientific work & whether he will ever have heart to go on again or what he will do I cannot conceive."

Both men suffered deaths within their families, which perhaps helped draw them together. In fact, two other letters on the top ten list include ones in which Darwin responds to Hooker's request to send papers that will establish Darwin as an originator of his theories, though Darwin is still reeling from the loss of his baby son.

"You will, & so will Mrs. Hooker, be most sorry for us when you hear that poor Baby died yesterday evening. I hope to God he did not suffer so much as he appeared. He became quite suddenly worse. It was Scarlet-Fever," Darwin writes in one dated June 29, 1858.

He continues in another letter written later that night:

"I have just read your letter, & see you want papers at once. I am quite prostrated & can do nothing but I send Wallace & my abstract of abstract of letter to Asa Gray, which gives most imperfectly only the means of change & does not touch on reasons for believing species do change. I daresay all is too late. I hardly care about it."

The complete list of letters is found here


Kate Allen is the Star's science and technology reporter. Find her on Twitter at @katecallen.


 

 

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