RECORD: Darwin, C. R. 1882. [Recollections and letters of Darwin]. Darwin and local scientific societies. The Manchester Guardian (2 May): 6.

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed and edited by John van Wyhe and Kees Rookmaaker. RN2

NOTE: See record in the Freeman Bibliographical Database, enter its Identifier here.

The 17 May 1878 letter from Darwin was previously unrecorded.

See also: Darwin, C. R. 1880. Encouragement of original research: The Darwin prize. The Midland Naturalist: The journal of the Associated Natural History, Philosophical, and Archæological Societies and Field Clubs of the Midland Counties 3 (32) (August): 181. Text and Darwin, C. R. 1880. [Letter of thanks to the Yorkshire Naturalists' Union]. The naturalist 6 (65) (December): 65-68. Text

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The Manchester Scientific Students' Association was the first of the local societies to enroll Darwin amongst its list of honorary members. This was in 1863, and it was not until five years later that the more conservative Literary and Philosophical Society followed the example of its junior in offering this tribute of respect to the great naturalist. Darwin, the most unassuming of men, although never covetous of distinction, prized such spontaneous expression of goodwill. He read the yearly reports with much interest, and, meeting one of its prominent members in London five or six years ago,  made many inquiries as to the work it was doing, and showed that he had its welfare at heart. Several of its members could testify as to two leading characteristics of Darwin. One was his readiness to received, and after due consideration to gratefully acknowledge, information from the youngest or the humblest students. The other was his warm sympathy with those who were engaged in the investigation of nature. The wealth of his own wide reading and profound researches was freely accessible, and it seemed to give him special pleasure to place the young inquirer upon a safe road. It was common with working naturalists in various party of the country to report anything of special interest to the great naturalist who had shown himself so wide in his collection of facts and so wise in their arrangement. Evidence of this was shown at the recent soiree of the Scientific Students' Association in three brief letters from Mr.  Darwin to Mr. Thomas Whitelegge, of Ashton-under-Lyne. Mr. Whitelegge is an active member of the United Field Naturalists' Society—an association composed chiefly of artisans, and including some notable self-taught men of science whom Mr. Whitelegge is certainly not the least remarkable. The first letter from Darwin relates to the Geum rivale (Lin.), a species of avens of which Mr. Whitelegge found examples with the pistil or female part of the flower aborted. When such is the case they are termed andro-monoecious or male flowers and hermaphrodite on the same plant:—

Down Beckenham, Kent, April 28, 1878.

Dear Sir,— I sincerely wish that I could give you any information about your specimens; but I have never studied the genus Geum or attended to monstrosities or sudden deviations of structure. I may, however, remark that the supression of one sex is not a rare abnormality. Wishing you success in your observations, I remain, &c.


The kindly wish contained in this letter, coming from a man like Darwin, was not a mere phrase, and it certainly helped to simulate the energy of his correspondent, who was soon able to send him some specimens of plants possessing flowers which are said to by gynodioecious, or compound of hermaphrodites and females. Two were buttercups, ranunculus acris and ranunculus repens,  whilst another was a woundwort. These all possessed the two kinds of flowers just named, but until Mr. Whitelegge's discovery had not been previously recorded to possess them. With reference to this discovery Mr. Darwin wrote:—

[To Thomas Whitelegge 17 May 1878]

Down, Beckenham, Kent, May 12, 1878.

Dear sir,—I am much obliged for your letter. I am certain that I have never met with any account of any species of ranunculus being gynodioecious, perhaps in consequence of such plants as you have been so good as to send me. Should I print a new edition of my last book I shall introduce on your authority this case.—

Dear sir, yours faithfully, CH. DARWIN.

To those working naturalists the "coming of age" of the theory of the "Origin of Species" was an event that was felt to demand some celebration. Nothing could have been more congenial to its author than the form in which this feeling expressed itself. The "Midland Union of Natural History Societies" decided at a meeting held in Birmingham on the 15th July, 1880, to found a yearly prize of the value of £10, to include a gold or bronze Darwin medal at the option of the successful candidate. The prize is to be awarded "for a paper indicating original research upon a subject within the scope of the Societies in the Union." The subjects were arrange to be—1881, geology; 1882, biology; 1883, archaeology. Mr. Darwin's sanction was asked, and given in these terms:—

[To E. W. Badger [19 July 1880]] I request that you will be so good as to inform the members of the Committee that their wish to name the Medal after me is a very great honour, which I gladly accept. It is particularly pleasing to me to have my name connected, in however indirect a manner, with a scheme for advancing Science—the study of which has been my chief source of happiness throughout life.

The Yorkshire naturalists on the same occasion sent an address expressive of their admiration. The memorial was presented to Mr. Darwin at his house at Down on the 3d November, 1880, by a deputation consisting of Dr. H.C. Sorby, F.R.S., of Sheffield, and Messrs. George Brook, son, F.L.S., of Huddersfield; W. Cash, F.G.S., of Halifax; J.W. Davis, F.L.S., of Halifax; and Thomas Hick, of Harrogate. Professor Williamson, of the Owens College, the president of the Union, was prevented by professional duties from accompanying the deputation. The party arrived at Mr Darwin's residence about one o'clock. They had a most hearty welcome from the great naturalist, who was in better health than usual. The fear entertained by some of the guests that visit might prove too fatiguing for him was happily not realised. They were introduced by Dr. Sorby. Mrs. Darwin, Mr. Francis Darwin, and other members of the family were also present. Dr. Sorby give some particulars of the Yorkshire Naturalists Union, which is a confederation of the natural history societies which are located in various towns of Yorkshire. It was originally formed in 1861, but was reorganised and renamed in 1877. There are 27 societies in the Union, with an aggregate of about 1,500 members. Among its objects and the investigation of the natural history of the county in all its branches, the combination and organisation of individual effort, and the cultivation and diffusion of a taste for natural history pursuits. The work of the Union is done by means of sections, each devoted to one department, after the plan of the British Association, and from time to time reports are published of what has been done.

In replying to the address, which was then presented, Mr. Darwin assured the deputation of the deep sense of the honour conferred upon him on that occasion, and only regret it that he had not done something more deserving of such an honour. He had no idea previously that there was so strong a body of working naturalists in Yorkshire, but he was pleased to learn that such was the fact, and to find from the transactions that had been forwarded to him, that they were doing useful work. Coming from such a body the address was all the more gratifying to him, though he still feared he hardly merited the good things that had been said of him. The Atlas which had been presented to him he and his family would forever treasure and preserve, and he desired to express his warmest thanks both to the deputation and those whom they represented for it, and for that kind and considerate manner in which everything connected with it had been arranged. Subsequently he wrote:—

[To W. D. Roebuck 3 November 1880] The address which was presented to me is certainly one of the greatest honours ever paid to a scientific man. It is admirably expressed, and the engrossing seems to me an exquisite work of art. I fear that I by no means deserve all that is said of me in the address, but it shows the great kindness and sympathy of the members. Please accept my best thanks for all the kind interest which you have shown in the affair, and believe me, dear sir, yours faithfully, CHARLES DARWIN.

Might not the Manchester Scientific Students Association usefully commemorate their "coming of age" by the foundation of a "Darwin Prize." Under wise regulations such medal might be a distinction for present and the stimulus to future exertions in the study of natural history and in the investigation of science.

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