RECORD: Riley, Charles Valentine. 1882. [Recollection and letters of Darwin]. In Riley. 1882. Darwin's Work in Entomology. Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington DC 1: 77-80.

REVISION HISTORY: Text prepared by John van Wyhe and Kees Rookmaaker 11.2010. RN1

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

[page] 77

In his private life Darwin has given us a lesson of patience, courtesy, and consideration, that will be best appreciated by those who have the misfortune to be endowed with more irritable and aggressive natures.

As the above account of Darwin's entomological work is doubtless rather uninteresting to most of those gathered here, I will close, by request, with a few personal impressions.

I have had the pleasure on two occasions of visiting Darwin at his invitation. On the first occasion, in the summer of 1871, I was accompanied by Mr. J. Jenner Weir, one of his life-long friends and admirers. From Mr. Weir I first learned that Darwin was, in one sense, virtually a confirmed invalid, and that his work had been done under physical difficulties which would have rendered most men of independent means vapid, self-indulgent, and useless members of society.

It is eloquent of the indomitable will and perseverance of the man that, during the long voyage on the Beagle, he suffered so from sea-sickness that he never fully recovered from the shock to his system, and could not again venture on the ocean. He had, in fact, on his return from the voyage, to go through a long course of hydropathic treatment. We also now know that though he had suffered much for some months past from weakness and recurring fits of faintness, and had been confined to the house, yet as late as

[page] 78

Tuesday evening before the day of his death, at 4 P. M., Wednesday, he was in his study examining a plant which he had had brought to him, and that he read that night before retiring, while as late as the 16th of March, he read two papers on special botanical subjects before the Linnean Society.

The village of Down is fifteen miles southeast of London, four miles from Orpington station on the Southeastern Railway. The country is among the most beautiful agricultural suburbs of London, and I shall never forget the impression of peaceful, quiet seclusion experienced, as we drove from the station and finally through one of those characteristic English lanes, just wide enough for one vehicle, and worn down several feet below the general level the sense of confinement being enhanced by the luxuriant hedge on either side. This lane skirts the orchard wall for 100 yards and then goes in front of the house, from which it is separated by a grass plot and flint wall overgrown with ivy.

The Darwin residence is a plain, but spacious, old-fashioned house of the style so common in England, and which, with the surrounding well-kept grounds and conservatory, convey that impression of ease and comfort that belong to the average home of the English country gentleman. A noticeable feature is a bow window extending through three stories and covered with trellis and creepers. In Darwinian phrase, the environment was favorable for just such calm study and concentration as he found necessary to his health and his researches.

Upon introduction I was at once struck with his stature (which was much above the average, and I should say fully six feet,) his ponderous brow and long white beard—the moustache being cut on a line with the lips and slightly brown from the habit of snuff-taking. His deep-set eyes were light blue-gray. He made the impression of a powerful man reduced somewhat by sickness. The massive brow and forehead show in his later photographs, but not so conspicuously as in a life-sized head of him when younger, which hung in the parlor.

[page] 79

In the brief hours I then spent at Down the proverbial modesty and singular simplicity and sweetness of his character were apparent, while the delight he manifested in stating facts of interest was excelled only by the eagerness with which he sought them from others, whether while strolling through the greenhouse or sitting round the generously spread table.

Going to him as a young entomologist with no claim on his favor, he seemed to take delight in manifesting appreciation. I had occasion in my third report on the insects of Missouri, published in the spring of that year, to discuss the question of Natural Selection in its bearings on Mimicry, as exemplified in two of our North American butterflies, (Danais archippus and Limenitis disippus.) This report I found in his study with many leaves turned down, and he appeared to take especial pleasure in conveying a sense of his appreciation of particular parts.

The few letters which I received from Darwin were in his own hand-writing, which was rapid and better calculated to save time than to facilitate the reading. I take the liberty of reproducing here the first and last as indicating his attitude toward all workers in the field of natural science, however humble or however undeserving of his praise they may have been; and this generous trait in his character will explain, in some measure, the stimulus and encouragement which he gave to investigators:


MY DEAR SIR: I received some little time ago your Report on Noxious Insects, and have now read the whole with the greatest interest. There is a vast number of facts and generalizations of value to me, and I am struck with admiration at your power of observation. The discussion on mimetic insects seems to me particularly good and original. Pray accept my cordial thanks for the instruction and interest which I have received.

What a loss to natural science our poor mutual friend, Walsh, has been: it is a loss ever to be deplored.

Pray believe me, with much respect,

Yours, very faithfully,


[page] 80


MY DEAR MR. RILEY: I must write half-a-dozen lines to say how much interested I have been by your "Further Notes" on Pronuba, which you were so kind as to send me. I had read the various criticisms, and though I did not know what answer would be made, yet I felt full confidence in the result, and now I see I was right. * * * *

If you make any further observation on Pronuba it would, I think, be well worth while for you to observe whether the moth can or does occasionally bring pollen from one plant to the stigma of a distinct one; for I have shown that the cross-fertilization of the flowers on the same plant does very little good and, if I am not mistaken, you believe that the Pronuba gathers pollen from the same flower which she fertilizes.*

What interesting and beautiful observations you have made on the metamorphoses of the grass-hopper destroying insects!
Believe me,

My dear sir,

Yours sincerely,


My own experience in this regard is the common experience, for an interest in natural science was an open sesame to his generous soul. His consideration, without aggression, was the secret of the gratitude and respect which all felt who had the honor to know him, either personally or through correspondence.

His approval of the work of others was coupled with a depreciation of his own, which was very marked on the occasion of my second visit to Europe, in 1875, when I crossed the ocean with his son Leonard on his way from the Transit of Venus expedition. "Insectivorous Plants" was just finished and Darwin was worn and in feeble health, staying, in fact, at Abinger Hall for rest. He was quite disgusted with the book, to use his son's expression, and doubted whether it could prove of sufficient interest, with its long and dry records of experiments, to be read by any one.

* This is a misapprehension. Pronuba is an effectual cross-fertilizer, running from flower to flower, and often flying from raceme to raceme with one and the same load of pollen. The omitted passages in this letter refer to the work of a gentleman still living.

Charles Valentine Riley (1843-1895), American entomologist.

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