RECORD: Darwin, C. R. 1882. [Three letters to R. A. Blair, 1877-8]. In F. A. Sampson, Natural history. In Anon. The history of Pettis County, Missouri, including an authentic history of Sedalia, other towns and townships, together with biographical sketches. n.p.: n.p., pp. 236-7.

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed and edited by John van Wyhe 10.2022. RN1

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

"Blair, Rueben Almond, 1841-1902. Amateur naturalist of Sedalia, Missouri, USA. 1877 wrote CD to about damaged goose wing and inheritance of similar damage by offspring. CCD25. 1881 CD to B about Mastodon remains and B's daughter's love of natural history, "I hope that the study of natural history may give your daughter a large share of the satisfaction which the study has given me"." (Paul van Helvert & John van Wyhe, Darwin: A Companion, 2021) These letters, with important editorial notes, are published in Correspondence vols. 25 and 26.

The letters were republished in F. A. Sampson. 1909. Letters from Charles Darwin Science, n.s. vol. XXX, no 766: 303-4. F2755


[page] 236

A flock of geese, belonging to ex-Marshal Kelly, of Sedalia, presents an interesting feature of malformations. In 1873 a gander had one of its wings so injured that it hung horizontally at right angles to the body, in the same manner as is not unfrequently seen in other flocks, as a result of injuries received. In 1874, one of the young of the flock presented a wing similarly affected; the following year its offspring showed the same features, and this has been continued to the present time. As many as two-thirds of the flock have at one time presented this peculiarity, some in both wings. Believing that it was a case of "the inheritance of effects of injuries," Mr. R. A. Blair published an account of it, and sent a copy to Mr. Charles Darwin, and received from him the following letter:

[Darwin to R. A. Blair 27 December 1877]

Dear Sir:—I am much obliged to you for kindly informing me of the case of the goose. It seems to be a remarkable case of inheritance of effects of injury, and as such cases are very rare, it would be quite worth while to have the facts carefully examined. If you could obtain a wing, and would send it to me, I should be much obliged. The wing might be cut off at the joint with the body, and dried with feathers on, before a hot fire. To make the case of more value, it would be very advisable to ascertain whether the goose had any offspring before the injury, and if so, whether they were normal, and not malformed in any way.

Dear sir, yours faithfully,

CHARLES DARWIN.

Mr. Blair then sent a wing of one of the geese, and received the following answer:

[Darwin to R. A. Blair 14 April 1878]

Dear Sir:—You will think that I have been very neglectful in not having sooner thanked you for the wing of the goose, the photograph, and your last interesting letter; but I thought it best to wait until receiving Prof. Flower's report, and you will see by the enclosed the cause of his delay. If you are willing to take the trouble to get your interesting case thoroughly investigated, it will be necessary to procure from the owner the wings of half a dozen birds, some of them quite young; and, if possible, the old one which had his wing broken. They ought to be sent in spirits, and they had better be addressed to Prof. Flower, Royal College of Surgeons, Lincoln's Inn Fields, London, and I had better be informed when they are dispatched. Should you be inclined to take so much trouble, I hope you will allow me to say that I should be very glad to pay for the geese, and for the several other contingent expenses. Your first letter and Prof. Flower's had better be returned to me hereafter. There is one other point which ought, if possible, to be ascertained, viz: when the old gander had his wing broken, was it wounded so that blood was discharged? If wounded, did the wound suppurate? Did the wing, heal quickly or slowly? These are important points in relation to the inherit-

[page] 237

ance of mutilations. Pray accept my best thanks for your kindness, and I remain, Dear Sir,

Yours faithfully,

CHARLES DARWIN.

A number of wings were then sent to Dr. Flower, who made a report to Mr. Darwin, in which he says:

"The bones, muscles, and ligaments seem quite normal, except for this twisting on their axis, which exactly corresponds, as I mentioned before, to talipes or club foot in man. The wings of the very little goslings being dried and very small could not be examined with any good result, but the most curious and unsatisfactory part of the whole thing is that the wing of the old gander, the supposed fors et origo of all the the mischief, is perfectly normal, and presents no trace of ever having been injured in any way discoverable after the closest examination. It has certainly never been broken or dislocated, though, of course, we cannot be sure whether it may not have had a partial twist from which it has now recovered."

With this letter and with the full and detailed report of Dr. Flower's assistant, Mr. Darwin wrote as follows:

[Darwin to R. A. Blair 9 December 1878]

Dear Sir:—Professor Flower has suffered from a long illness, and this has caused much delay in the examination of the wings of the geese.

But I received yesterday his report and letter which I inclose, as you may like to see them. I fear that there is no connection between the deformity and the injury. The owner when he saw several goslings thus deformed, a not uncommon form of quasi inheritance, remembered the accident, and naturally attributed the deformity to this cause. It has been probably a case of "post hoc" and not "propter hoc". I grieve that have expended so much time, trouble and great kindness in vain. As for myself I am well accustomed in my experimental work to get definite results but once in three or four times, and thus alone can science prosper. With my renewed thanks, I remain Dear Sir, yours faithfully,

CHARLES DARWIN.

While the thorough investigation this case received, showed it was not what at first supposed, it is still an interesting one, especially in view of Mr. Darwin's connection with it. On the other hand it does not seem to carry out the theory of Darwin that "only those variations which are in some way profitable will be preserved or naturally selected," as this peculiarity is one which is a positive disadvantage, and while those thus affected are not the "fittest," they still "survive."


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Citation: John van Wyhe, ed. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (http://darwin-online.org.uk/)

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