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Correspondence of Charles Darwin

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Charles Darwin in 1854

The British naturalist Charles Darwin corresponded with numerous other luminaries of his age and members of his family. These have provided many insights about the nineteenth century, from scientific exploration and travel to religious debate and discussion. The letters also illuminate many aspects of Darwin's work: the development of his scientific ideas; his opinions on issues he did not publish about (his letters to Asa Gray, for example, show his changing opinions on the American Civil War); matters about his character and health; the ways in which he relied upon correspondence for much of his investigations into natural history; and the ways in which he marshalled scientific support for his ideas amongst friends and colleagues. The historian of science Janet Browne has argued in her biography of Darwin that his ability to correspond daily played a crucial role in the development of his theory and his ability to garner support for it from colleagues.

Analysis and publication of Darwin's correspondence has been a main focus of the so-called Darwin Industry of historical scholarship.


Correspondence was central to Darwin's research. In his early years, most of the letters he filed away immediately were those relevant to one of his ongoing scientific projects. Other letters were stuck onto "spits", as he called them, and when his slender stock of these was exhausted, he would burn the letters of several years, in order that he might make use of the liberated "spits." This process, carried on for years, destroyed many of the letters received before 1862. Even so, the number of letters is remarkable, even in these early years. After publication of the Origin of Species, Darwin's children convinced him to save a far greater proportion of his correspondence, so that the sequence from the early 1860s onwards is remarkably full.

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Photocopied title page of the original edition of Charles Darwin's autobiography.

In 1887, five years after Darwin's death, Darwin's son Francis Darwin published The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin in three volumes, to accompany the publication of The Autobiography of Charles Darwin. This was later followed by two volumes of More Letters of Charles Darwin published in 1902.

In 1974 the Darwin Correspondence Project was founded at Cambridge University by Frederick Burkhardt, with the aid of Sydney Smith. Cambridge University owns 9,000 letters and has obtained copies of another 6,000 held in private collections. New letters are being discovered at around 60 per year and photocopies of new finds should be sent to the project, which will eventually publish them. Volumes of the correspondence appear at regular intervals from Cambridge University Press, with the content freely available online after four years. The Darwin Correspondence website also includes extensive additional materials, including resources for using the letters in school and university teaching.

List of notable persons with whom Darwin corresponded

Entries marked with asterisks denote persons for which 100 letters or more have been located. All of these letters can be found on the Darwin Correspondence Project website.


Darwin Correspondence Project website

Darwin Correspondence Project publications

Selections of letters published by the Correspondence Project include:

Early editions of Darwin's letters


  1. ^ "Darwin's letters archived on web" BBC