The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Day 87 of 188

Chapter 1.VII. London and Cambridge.


[The period illustrated by the following letters includes the years between my father’s return from the voyage of the Beagle and his settling at Down. It is marked by the gradual appearance of that weakness of health which ultimately forced him to leave London and take up his abode for the rest of his life in a quiet country house. In June, 1841, he writes to Lyell: “My father scarcely seems to expect that I shall become strong for some years; it has been a bitter mortification for me to digest the conclusion that the ‘race is for the strong,’ and that I shall probably do little more but be content to admire the strides others make in science.”

There is no evidence of any intention of entering a profession after his return from the voyage, and early in 1840 he wrote to Fitz-Roy: “I have nothing to wish for, excepting stronger health to go on with the subjects to which I have joyfully determined to devote my life.”

These two conditions–permanent ill-health and a passionate love of scientific work for its own sake–determined thus early in his career, the character of his whole future life. They impelled him to lead a retired life of constant labour, carried on to the utmost limits of his physical power, a life which signally falsified his melancholy prophecy.

The end of the last chapter saw my father safely arrived at Shrewsbury on October 4, 1836, “after an absence of five years and two days.” He wrote to Fox: “You cannot imagine how gloriously delightful my first visit was at home; it was worth the banishment.” But it was a pleasure that he could not long enjoy, for in the last days of October he was at Greenwich unpacking specimens from the Beagle. As to the destination of the collections he writes, somewhat despondingly, to Henslow:–

“I have not made much progress with the great men. I find, as you told me, that they are all overwhelmed with their own business. Mr. Lyell has entered, in the most good-natured manner, and almost without being asked, into all my plans. He tells me, however, the same story, that I must do all myself. Mr. Owen seems anxious to dissect some of the animals in spirits, and, besides these two, I have scarcely met any one who seems to wish to possess any of my specimens. I must except Dr. Grant, who is willing to examine some of the corallines. I see it is quite unreasonable to hope for a minute that any man will undertake the examination of a whole order. It is clear the collectors so much outnumber the real naturalists that the latter have no time to spare.

“I do not even find that the Collections care for receiving the unnamed specimens. The Zoological Museum (The Museum of the Zoological Society, then at 33 Bruton Street. The collection was some years later broken up and dispersed.) is nearly full, and upwards of a thousand specimens remain unmounted. I dare say the British Museum would receive them, but I cannot feel, from all I hear, any great respect even for the present state of that establishment. Your plan will be not only the best, but the only one, namely, to come down to Cambridge, arrange and group together the different families, and then wait till people, who are already working in different branches, may want specimens. But it appears to me [that] to do this it will be almost necessary to reside in London. As far as I can yet see my best plan will be to spend several months in Cambridge, and then when, by your assistance, I know on what ground I stand, to emigrate to London, where I can complete my Geology and try to push on the Zoology. I assure you I grieve to find how many things make me see the necessity of living for some time in this dirty, odious London. For even in Geology I suspect much assistance and communication will be necessary in this quarter, for instance, in fossil bones, of which none excepting the fragments of Megatherium have been looked at, and I clearly see that without my presence they never would be…

“I only wish I had known the Botanists cared so much for specimens (A passage in a subsequent letter shows that his plants also gave him some anxiety. “I met Mr. Brown a few days after you had called on him; he asked me in rather an ominous manner what I meant to do with my plants. In the course of conversation Mr. Broderip, who was present, remarked to him, ‘You forget how long it is since Captain King’s expedition.’ He answered, ‘Indeed, I have something in the shape of Captain King’s undescribed plants to make me recollect it.’ Could a better reason be given, if I had been asked, by me, for not giving the plants to the British Museum?”) and the Zoologists so little; the proportional number of specimens in the two branches should have had a very different appearance. I am out of patience with the Zoologists, not because they are overworked, but for their mean, quarrelsome spirit. I went the other evening to the Zoological Society, where the speakers were snarling at each other in a manner anything but like that of gentlemen. Thank Heavens! as long as I remain in Cambridge there will not be any danger of falling into any such contemptible quarrels, whilst in London I do not see how it is to be avoided. Of the Naturalists, F. Hope is out of London; Westwood I have not seen, so about my insects I know nothing. I have seen Mr. Yarrell twice, but he is so evidently oppressed with business that it is too selfish to plague him with my concerns. He has asked me to dine with the Linnean on Tuesday, and on Wednesday I dine with the Geological, so that I shall see all the great men. Mr. Bell, I hear, is so much occupied that there is no chance of his wishing for specimens of reptiles. I have forgotten to mention Mr. Lonsdale (William Lonsdale, 1794-1871, was originally in the army, and served at the battles of Salamanca and Waterloo. After the war he left the service and gave himself up to science. He acted as assistant secretary to the Geological Society from 1829-42, when he resigned, owing to ill health.), who gave me a most cordial reception, and with whom I had much most interesting conversation. If I was not much more inclined for geology than the other branches of Natural History, I am sure Mr. Lyell’s and Lonsdale’s kindness ought to fix me. You cannot conceive anything more thoroughly good-natured than the heart-and-soul manner in which he put himself in my place and thought what would be best to do. At first he was all for London versus Cambridge, but at last I made him confess that, for some time at least, the latter would be for me much the best. There is not another soul whom I could ask, excepting yourself, to wade through and criticise some of those papers which I have left with you. Mr. Lyell owned that, second to London, there was no place in England so good for a Naturalist as Cambridge. Upon my word I am ashamed of writing so many foolish details, no young lady ever described her first ball with more particularity.”

A few days later he writes more cheerfully: “I became acquainted with Mr. Bell (T. Bell, F.R.S., formerly Prof. of Zoology in King’s College, London, and some time secretary to the Royal Society. He afterwards described the reptiles for the zoology of the voyage of the Beagle.) who to my surprise expressed a good deal of interest about my crustacea and reptiles, and seems willing to work at them. I also heard that Mr. Broderip would be glad to look over the South American shells, so that things flourish well with me.”

About his plants he writes with characteristic openness as to his own ignorance: “You have made me known amongst the botanists, but I felt very foolish when Mr. Don remarked on the beautiful appearance of some plant with an astounding long name, and asked me about its habitation. Some one else seemed quite surprised that I knew nothing about a Carex from I do not know where. I was at last forced to plead most entire innocence, and that I knew no more about the plants which I had collected than the man in the moon.”

As to part of his Geological Collection he was soon able to write: “I [have] disposed of the most important part [of] my collections, by giving all the fossil bones to the College of Surgeons, casts of them will be distributed, and descriptions published. They are very curious and valuable; one head belonged to some gnawing animal, but of the size of a Hippopotamus! Another to an ant-eater of the size of a horse!”

It is worth noting that at this time the only extinct mammalia from South America, which had been described, were Mastodon (three species) and Megatherium. The remains of the other extinct Edentata from Sir Woodbine Parish’s collection had not been described. My father’s specimens included (besides the above-mentioned Toxodon and Scelidotherium) the remains of Mylodon, Glossotherium, another gigantic animal allied to the ant-eater, and Macrauchenia. His discovery of these remains is a matter of interest in itself, but it has a special importance as a point in his own life, since it was the vivid impression produced by excavating them with his own hands (I have often heard him speak of the despair with which he had to break off the projecting extremity of a huge, partly excavated bone, when the boat waiting for him would wait no longer.) that formed one of the chief starting-points of his speculation on the origin of species. This is shown in the following extract from his Pocket Book for this year (1837): “In July opened first note-book on Transmutation of Species. Had been greatly struck from about the month of previous March on character of South American fossils, and species on Galapagos Archipelago. These facts (especially latter), origin of all my views.”]

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. (To tell the truth I don't even really care if you give me your email or not.)