The Correspondence of Charles Darwin

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Dear Robert McFetridge


You wrote to ask whether Charles Darwin might have had a copy of Mendel's 'Versuche über Pflanzenhybriden' in his own papers. We can only advise on what survives in his collection of books and offprints, both here and at CD's former home, Down House. You have already had a full reply from Nino Strachey at Down, and this letter has been compiled to give you further information. I am copying it to Adam Perkins of Cambridge University Library, the archivist in charge of the Darwin collections here, and to Professor Duncan Porter of Virginia Tech, who is our project director.

The first point is that having knowledge of Mendel's work in the second half of the nineteenth century was not tantamount to understanding the Mendelian basis of modern genetics. As you probably know, the scientific community was extremely slow in realising the significance of Mendel's work, probably because he himself was not capable of fully explaining the difference between his clear-cut findings with peas and his less easily interpreted results from crosses in other genera.

As Nino has pointed out, there is no evidence that CD ever subscribed to the proceedings of the Brunn Natural History Society. That publication was relatively 'low profile'. In fact, it is believed that there were only eleven published references to Mendel's name before 1900. One of these was in the Royal Society's Catalogue of Scientific papers (1864-1873), published in 1879, i.e. a mere three years before CD's death. Of course, the original paper had been published in 1866 - it took the British a long time to take note of it.

For more detail on the uptake of Mendel's work before 1900, see R. Olby and P. Gautrey. 1968. 'Eleven references to Mendel before 1900' Annals of Science 24, 7-20. Those authors concluded that no one really understood the significance of Mendel until he was 'discovered' in 1900 (by Bateson and others).

Nevertheless, a minimum of two of the eleven sources of reference to Mendel pre-1900 were easily accessible to CD. The first was W.O. Focke's Die Pflanzen-Mischlinge (1881). On the one hand, Focke's commentary makes mention of Mendel's claim to have found 'constant numerical relationships' among the different phenotypes in what we now call the F2 generation. On the other, Mendel takes his place in the book alongside a host of other plant hybridisers. Overall, no special note was taken by Focke of the 'theoretical potential' of Mendel's work. Furthermore, Focke paid more heed to Mendel's work with Phaseolus and Hieracium than to Pisum, i.e. the genus that underpinned what subsequently emerged as Mendel's Laws.

The second relevant book was Untersuchungen zur Bestimmung des Werthes von Species und Varietät (1869), by H. Hoffmann. CD referred to the work in his The effects of cross and self fertilisation (1876). However, this also was not a work capable of introducing the reader to the significance of Mendel.

While CD did not refer directly to Mendel's work in any of his writings, both Focke's and Hoffmann's books are to be found in CD's library, which is preserved at Cambridge University Library. The former was acquired by CD in November 1880, less than 18 months before his death. Shortly afterwards, he lent the book to George Romanes, in response to a request for help from the latter, who had undertaken to write an entry on hybridism for the ninth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica. CD did not list the most influential works on hybridism as requested, but simply sent his copy of Focke's book to Romanes to "aid you much better than I can". Thus, Mendel was not afforded privileged status in this exchange. Even more significant is the fact that pages 108-110, in which reference is briefly made to Mendel's pea experiments, remain uncut in CD's copy of Focke. It seems that CD (like so many others) was unaware of the significance of the segregation ratios that Mendel recorded from his pea experiments.

This is borne out by inspection of CD's copy of Hoffmann's work. CD commonly made marginal notes against points that were of interest to him. These are absent from the section on peas and Geum in Hoffmann, but are to be found against a survey of hybridisation studies of Phaseolus, a genus that did not show clear segregation ratios. Furthermore, Hoffmann's account of Mendel's work with Phaseolus was very brief and rather inaccurate. Hence, the likelihood of CD appreciating anything of the consequence of Mendel's work from this source is, once more, very remote.

We are aware that Philip Kitcher's Abusing Science (p. 9) and, more recently, Michael Rose's Darwin's Spectre (p. 33) contain statements that unread copies of Mendel's paper were found among CD's effects, but neither author has substantiated their statement with evidence. In view of the lack of that evidence, and the circumstances described above, we do not believe that CD had a copy of Mendel's original paper.

Some authors continue to purvey enigmatic half-truths on the subject. Gabriel Dover, on page 12 of Dear Mr Darwin (2000), refers to the 'mystery' of CD supplying Mendel's name for inclusion in the hybridism entry for Encyclopaedia Britannica. From the foregoing, it is apparent that CD did so merely by lending a book to Romanes. He did not make a personal recommendation of any individual, and certainly not of Mendel.

Finally, you will find a useful discussion of the question of CD's knowledge, or ignorance, of Mendel's work in J. Gayon's Darwinism's struggle for survival (1998) on page 288, and in footnote 113 to Chapter 8.

Yours sincerely

Dr Andrew Sclater
Associate Editor

cc Nino Strachey, Down House
Adam Perkins, Cambridge University Libray
Professor Duncan Porter, Virginia Tech

Wed, 15 Nov 2000 16:45:22 +0000

Dear Mr McFetridge,

Thank you for your e-mail regarding the copy of "Mendel's papers"
supposedly found "among Darwin's papers at Down House".

I have had several letters on this subject, and can only respond as

After Charles Darwin's death in 1882 his scientific library (including
periodicals and journals) passed to his son Francis. Down House was
cleared in 1896 following the death of Emma Darwin, and the house was
leased to a school. Francis later bequeathed the library to the
Professor of Botany at Cambridge University. A catalogue of the library
by H.W. Rutherford was published by Cambridge University Press in 1908.

Down House was purchased in 1927 by George Buckston Brown and opened to
the public as a memorial to Darwin in 1929. At this date Buckston Brown
pursuaded the Professor of Botany at Cambridge to lend Darwin's
Scientific Library back to Down House for display in Darwin's study. The
majority of the library remains on display at Down House, although the
volumes with important scientific inscriptions have now been returned to
Cambridge University Library to enable academic reference.

The paper which is generally rumoured to have been found uncut among
Darwin's library is "Versuche uber Pflanzenhybriden" published in Verh.
naturf. Ver. Brunn 1865. Although Darwin did receive the proceedings of
some German and Austrian natural history societies, no copy of the Brunn
society proceedings is recorded either in the 1908 catalogue of Darwin's
library or the current catalogue of the Darwin library at Down House.

I have therefore been unable to trace how the rumour started, or on what
evidence it was based. The Keeper of Manuscripts at Cambridge University
library may be able to assist, as there is a chance that a previously
uncatalogued copy of the Brunn Proceedings was discovered amongst the
annotated books and periodicals/journals transferred back to Cambridge
University Library.

Yours sincerely,


Nino Strachey
Curator, Down House

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