Scientist of the Day - Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published on Nov. 24, 1859. Considering that his preliminary paper on evolution by natural selection of the year before had been generally ignored, Darwin was surprised, and delighted, to learn that all 1250 copies of the book had already been subscribed to by publication day. The book was plain and sturdy, without illustrations, and that suited Darwin just fine. He wrote the publisher, John Murray: “I am infinitely pleased & proud at the appearance of my child”. Darwin bought 80 copies himself, and had them sent out to colleagues and fellow scientists. These advance copies were sent out by Murray’s firm, so if your copy says “with the author’s compliments,” it is not in Darwin’s hand. Each recipient then received a hand-written letter from Darwin, tailored to suit each person’s makeup and probable reaction to Darwin’s ideas. The big surprise was that 500 copies were bought by Mudie’s Circulating Library, insuring that Darwin’s book would be read by several thousand more people than the initial printing would otherwise allow. However, to keep things in perspective, on the same day Mudie ordered 3000 copies of Leopold McClintock’s Narrative of the Discovery of the Fate of Sir John Franklin (also published by John Murray). We have one of the original 1250 copies of the Origin of Species in our History of Science Collection, and we displayed it in our 2009 exhibition, The Grandeur of Life, which commemorated the 150th anniversary of the book’s publication. The title page is also shown above (first image). Our copy has been rebound, so the original cloth version shown above (second image) is from another institution’s copy.
The responses to Darwin’s Origin were wide and varied, as you might imagine. A favorite reaction is that of Thomas Henry Huxley, who received one of Darwin’s gift copies. He read the book in one night (quite a feat in itself, since the book contains 502 pages), closed the cover, and said: “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that.” On the other hand, Darwin’s former Captain on the Beagle, Robert Fitzroy, wrote to say: “I, at least, cannot find anything ennobling in the thought of being a descendent of even the most ancient Ape.”
There is no portrait of Darwin that dates to 1859. The first German edition of the Origin (1863) has a printed portrait frontispiece (third image), but the portrait dates to 1854. Our copy of the first edition of 1859 has a photograph of Darwin pasted onto the flyleaf, which dates to 1868 (fourth image).
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.