Darwin’s handwritten pages from On the Origin of Species go online for the first time

Two original pages from the handwritten draft of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, along with rare letters, and never-before-seen reading notes are to be added to Darwin Online

An extraordinary collection of priceless manuscripts of naturalist Charles Darwin goes online today, including two rare pages from the original draft of On the Origin of Species.

These documents will be added to Darwin Online, a website which contains not only the complete works of Darwin, but is possibly the most comprehensive scholarly portal on any historical individual in the world. The website is helmed by Dr John van Wyhe, an eminent historian of science. He is a Senior Lecturer at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Department of Biological Sciences, and Tembusu College.

“Darwin wrote the first draft of On the Origin of Species by hand. But the historical significance of this work was not yet known and almost all the manuscript was lost – with his children even using the pages as drawing paper! As such, these two pages are extremely rare survivors, and give unprecedented insight into the making of the book that changed the world,” explained Dr van Wyhe.

Access to these rare artefacts comes exactly 161 years after the initial publication of On the Origin of Species on 24 November 1859, and coincides with Evolution Day, which commemorates the anniversary of this revolutionary book.

An unbelievably rare collection

Despite being one of the most important scientific works of all time, only a few portions of the original handwritten On the Origin of Species manuscript survive. Those which are being added to the Darwin Online project are two of only nine pages in private hands.

Other important manuscripts going online today include a draft page from Darwin’s other most revolutionary work The Descent of Man, and even the receipt for the book from Darwin’s publisher, “for the Sum of Six Hundred and thirty pounds for the first edition, consisting of 2,500 copies, of my work on the ‘Descent of Man’.”

There are also two draft pages from Darwin’s seminal The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

  • A draft leaf of The Descent of Man (1870). There are a few small differences between this text and the printed edition, for Darwin made additional changes to the work when it was in proofs.
  • A draft leaf of On the Origin of Species (1858).
  • A draft leaf of On the Origin of Species (1858-1859).
  • Dated 1871, this very rare document is the receipt for Darwin's earnings for the first edition of Descent of man. It is in the hand of a clerk of his publisher John Murray and signed by Darwin in the unusual form of "Ch. R. Darwin" over an inland revenue one-penny stamp.
  • Written in 1858, Darwin’s reading notes on Pierre Huber's Recherches sur les Moeurs des Fourmis Indigènes (Researches on the Habits of Indigenous Ants). These notes, taken during research for the On the Origin of Species, informed the famous passage on slave-making ants
  • Dated 24 December 1859, a letter to biologist T. H. Huxley regarding a manuscript on the evolution of pigeons. This letter was sent in preparation for Huxley's Royal Institution lecture and is one of a series of lectures between the two men.
  • Dated 9 February 1868, a letter to botanist Asa Gray regarding Darwin’s book, The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. This letter was not previously recorded, before it appeared for sale.
  • Dated 11 November 1859, a letter to geologist Adam Sedgwick accompanying a copy of On the Origin of Species.
  • A draft of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1871)
  • A draft leaf of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1871)

Unprecedented insights into Darwin’s work

A page that has never been made public before is some reading notes on ants that Darwin made during his research for On the Origin of Species. The notes informed his examination of slave-making ants which became one of the most widely talked about parts of his famous book.

In addition, there are three very important letters by Darwin. One 1859 letter was written to his former geology professor at Cambridge, Adam Sedgwick, as Darwin nervously sends his radical new On the Origin of Species. Two other important letters are to his colleagues, the biologist T. H. Huxley and the botanist Asa Gray.

Darwin’s handwriting is notoriously difficult to read. As such, the documents have been transcribed, and can be viewed side-by-side with the original manuscript. The newly released documents can be viewed here at Darwin Online.

“Instead of being locked away out of public view, by adding these documents to Darwin Online they became freely available to anyone in the world”, shared Dr van Wyhe.

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