RECORD: Cohn, Ferdinand. [1876]. [Recollection of a visit to Darwin]. New translation by Allison Palm, after Cohn's German original in the Breslauer Zeitung, first published in Glick, T. 2010. What about Darwin? Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

The images of the original German paper are found here:
Cohn, F. 1882. Ein Besuch bei Charles Darwin [1876]. Breslauer Zeitung (23 April). Image CUL-DAR 216.68c-69a.

REVISION HISTORY: Text prepared by Kees Rookmaaker 11.2010. RN1

NOTE: This recollection is reprinted in Thomas Glick, What about Darwin? Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 2010.


Our sojourn in England was nearing its end when we received an invitation from the great naturalist Charles Darwin; since we had heard that he had barely survived an illness and there were deaths in the family, we had hardly dared to introduce ourselves in person; now he himself sent an in­vitation to us in a most gracious twist, saying that we were not allowed to leave England until we had visited him in his home; with English precision the train station and the time of departure that we were supposed to use for our journey were stipulated for us. So we left London from Charing Cross Station, in the west of the city and, once we had crossed the Thames, we delighted in the splendid panoramic view from the Houses of Parliament up to the lofty cupola of St. Paul's Cathedral, enthroned on its hill; then we went through Southwark, where Shakespeare's Globe Theatre once stood. Finally the endless rows of houses with their yellow and green tiled roofs, over which rows of high quaint smokestacks arose, were left behind, making way for the open countryside.

The train, turning to the southeast, took us through Kent, the charming garden of England. The terrain became hilly; on the hills were newly laid out colonies of red cottages lined up one after the other with their dainty balconies and little blooming gardens in front, where the populace, always fleeing farther out of the metropolis, sought the fresh air. On one of these hills, peering forth out of old trees, stood Camden Place and Chislehurst, once the refuge and death place of the overthrown Napoleon [III].The scenery became ever more charming as the train climbed up the height of the tableland and soon arrived at Orpington. Here we left the train; there was already an open buggy awaiting us, which Charles Darwin had sent. With precautionary hospitality, plaid rugs, coats and umbrellas were supplied for us. The countryside was truly English.The fields were meticulously groomed, bordered by hawthorn hedges; in the distance were countless villages, hidden behind tall trees, over which only the church spires jutted out. The splendid road was bordered on both sides with an avenue of proud elm trees, such as one cannot find on the Continent; heaps of flint, with which the whole area was strewn, point to the fact that we were in the English chalk region, which slopes steeply to the Sea in the white cliffs of the South coast. Innumerable flights of pigeons flew around us; they reminded us already of that great friend of the pigeons, who was able to draw such farreaching conclusions from the observations he made of their variety; therefore they seemed to us no less venerable than those from St. Mark's in Venice. Thus the delightful drive lasted one hour in the fresh fall air, past many estates with stately manors. Then we arrived at the top of the dune, which had given the village of Down its name. Here Charles Darwin had taken up residence for forty years in a modest country estate, in order to, like those wise men of antiquity, in solitary sequestration, devote his work filled life solely and alone to the investigation of the truth, far from the noise of the city. A gateway in a garden wall opened off the village street. The carriage drove into a courtyard bedecked with equipment and stopped to the left at the doorway to the residence. Here a tall man met us; he wore the comfortable jacket of a country gentleman; it was Charles Darwin himself, who greeted us graciously. His head was reminiscent of that of Socrates, yet it was noticeably lengthened; truly Socratic was the unusually broad and high forehead, which continued up to the high arch of his bald skull, surrounded on both sides on the temples by gray hair. Especially distinctive were the broad protruding, flush arches of the eyebrows, which shaded his honest looking eyes like a protective roof. His mouth and nose exhibited strong features; a full gray beard covered the entire lower part of his face, which, thinner on the cheeks, was rather long on the strong prognathous chin. If the less features of his face were not pretty enough to remark, they animatedthemselves during speaking in a marvelous fashion; when listening those same features exposed a soft, almost sad expression, the like of which I had once seen on Alexander von Humboldt.

The house in which Darwin lived resembled the numerous country manors, such as had been scattered across all of England for hundreds of years. Up a few stairs from the front door opened up a hall, in which hats and coats were left and, in the background, steps led to the upper floor. On the ground floor lay a large room—half parlor, half library—into which we were first led; here we were greeted by Mrs. Darwin, a friendly old gentlewoman in mourning, who took a seat alongside her daughter and niece, across from the fireplace, on a causeuse [love seat] surrounded by wingbacks and chairs.

The most beautiful room decorations were the library of sumptuously- bound books that ran all around the walls. This room opened on the veranda, upon which rocking chairs and armchairs were set up. Climbing plants twined around the pillars and roof of the veranda; they were the very vines on which Darwin had made his wonderful observations about twining and climbing plants. The window opened up on a pleasant view of the garden which, like that of all English country manors, was dominated by a single large lawn, where colorful borders of flowers and here and there a clump of trees interrupted the splendid, fragrant velvet green; the path, which was shaded on either side by tall trees, ran around the lawn. Seemingly without borders, the garden petered out into the park-like open countryside, which was inhabited by grazing cattle.

Next to the parlor was Darwin's study. In its center stood the desk from which came all his epoch-making works, which have influenced our overall worldview more strongly in the last quarter century than those of his contemporaries. One corner led to a round bay, which was segmented by windows on all sides, in order to let in light from all parts of the sky; this was taken up to a great extent by a work table, on which a Hartnack microscope (Paris and Potsdam) stood. Around it lay needles and scalpels, bells, glasses and vials of strange shapes, the whole ménage of an experimenter and naturalist. On the opposite side of the hall—the corridor, as one would say in our parts—was the dining room. Family portraits decorated its walls, painted in oil, held in stately frames. They pictured in part members of Darwin's family, including the extraordinary predecessor of our sage, Erasmus Darwin. Some portrayed the Wedgwood family, famous for their ceramics, to which his wife belongs. The entire installation bore witness to genuine prosperity. The meal too was perhaps the finest that we enjoyed in England, especially the table wine, a fine red Bordeaux, unlike the customary Claret spoiled by the addition of spirits. Darwin didn't fail to call to our attention that he had served us roast venison, a great rarity in England.

But if the meal, like those classical symphonies, has stayed in never to be forgotten memory, it was the conversations with the great scientist that bestowed a blessing without compare.

Darwin was a man of compelling kindness. His entire character was imbued with a sincere sense of verity, with meticulous scrupulousness. He was reluctant to pass off rash conjectures as proven facts, but that, which after thorough scrutiny emerges as true, he declared without reservations or trimming. Ungrudging and unselfish was the recognition that he proffered with respect to the research of others, even that of novices, even when they came out in direct contradiction to his pet ideas; also stirring was the humility with which he judged his own accomplishments, as if he had no idea of their phenomenal significance. He showed the warmest admiration for German science; for even though he had only very imperfect control of our language, he nevertheless studied with dogged persistence each new piece of German scientific literature, and his writings demonstrated a thorough and comfortable knowledge of that body of work, a feat of which likely only a very few of our colleagues could boast.

In the beautiful language of the Greeks, philosophy means the love of wisdom. By wisdom, however, they meant not merely the knowledge of the truth, but also the pursuit of the good, and the cultivation of a noble character, in all circumstances equally tried and tested. Charles Darwin has been the first philosopher of our time in the realm of science. For this the evidence lies exposed to all the world in his writings, of which almost every year for more than two decades a sturdy octavo in a green canvas cover has always surprised and delighted the friends of science anew. But he was also the one of the most perfect personages, who, like Socrates, Spinoza and Goethe, shine before mankind as ideal role models, and this until now only those could know who had the luck to be able to encounter Darwin in conversation in person or even in correspondence.

Ferdinand Cohn (1828-1898), German biologist.

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