Robert Chambers, a Scottish publisher and writer, was born July 10, 1802. With his brother William, Chambers became quite a respectable publisher of encyclopedias in Victorian Scotland, but when it came to publishing his own book, he preferred not to be so well known. Chambers had written a treatise in which he presented the case for the evolution of life–and this was 15 years before Darwin would publish the Origin of Species. Knowing that his book was scandalous, Chambers arranged through an intermediary to have it published anonymously in London, and even the manuscript was copied over by his wife, so that there was no chance of anyone recognizing his handwriting. The book appeared in 1844 as Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, and scandalous it certainly was–so outrageous that the public could not get enough, and it went through edition after edition, even as the critics were raking it over the coals, charging the author with being an amateur and claiming that no one should write about the origin of species who is not an expert on species. Charles Darwin, who had just written a manuscript of his own on evolution, took the criticism to heart, and he spent the next 8 years becoming an expert on barnacles, so that when his book came out, no one could accuse him of being an amateur. And no one did, although they accused Darwin of lots of other misdemeanors and the occasional religious felony.
We displayed the Vestiges in our Grandeur of Life exhibition in 2009. The author wasn’t revealed until the edition of 1884, after Robert and William had died. For that edition, Chambers name was on the cover and title page, and his portrait occupied the place of the frontispiece (see images two, three, and four above).
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to firstname.lastname@example.org.