1909: The first Darwin centenary

The Darwin exhibition at Christ's College in 1909On 22-24 June 1909 over 400 scientists and dignitaries from 167 different countries gathered at Cambridge to celebrate the centenary of Darwin's birth and the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. The event was an unprecedented success - never before had such a celebration been held, not for an institution or a nation - but for an individual scientist. The celebrations began with a reception in the Fitzwilliam Museum. On 23 June presentations and speeches in the Senate House were followed by a garden party given by the Master and Fellows of Christ's College in the College grounds.

In the evening a banquet was held in the New Examination Hall of the University, the Museums Site. During the banquet Darwin's eldest son William (1839-1914) gave one of the speeches. He remarked: "I am sure my father would have said, though, perhaps, with a tone of apology in his voice, that if there was to be a [Darwin] celebration there could be no more fitting place than Cambridge. He always retained a love for Cambridge and a happy memory of his life here. It was the happiest and gayest period of his life". (Darwin and Darwin eds. 1909, p. 15) The banquet was followed with a reception by the Master and Fellows of nearby Pembroke College. On the 24th honorary degrees were conferred in the Senate House, and Sir Archibald Geikie, President of the Royal Society, gave his Reed lecture ''Darwin as geologist'. In the afternoon there was a garden party given by Darwin's children at Trinity College.

Darwin's rooms at Christ's were open to visitors during the afternoon of the 23rd and the morning and afternoon of the 24th. An historic exhibition of Darwiniana was held in the downstairs room of the Old Library at Christ's. It included portraits, busts, notebooks, manuscripts, letters and objects used on the Beagle voyage. Most were lent by Darwin's children. The printed exhibition catalogue listed 257 items. (Shipley and Simpson 1909) Many distinguished visitors from around the world came to see the exhibition and signed their names in a book now kept in the Old Library at Christ's.

An American delegation presented the College with a large bronze bust of Darwin made by the sculptor William Couper for the New York Academy of Sciences in the same year. The first bust was given to the American Museum of Natural History who commissioned a copy from Couper to send to Cambridge. The bust now stands in the newly refurbished portico in the College grounds.

Darwin's library, then kept at the Botany School, Downing Street in Cambridge, could also be viewed by visitors in 1909. The Sedgwick Museum displayed rock specimens collected by Darwin during the voyage of the Beagle, and the University Library offered an exhibition of manuscripts and books illustrating the progress of science. Shipley created a magnificent album containing many of the press cuttings, invitations, menus, speeches and other memorabilia of the 1909 celebrations. There were other events around the world. For more detail see Richmond, Marsha. 'The 1909 Darwin Celebration: Reexamining Evolution in the Light of Mendel, Mutation, and Meiosis' Isis, 2006, 97: 447-484.

An anonymous writer in the College magazine describing the garden party held at Christ's, with its guests from all around the world in their brightly-coloured gowns, wrote a fitting epitaph for the 1909 celebrations which could serve almost as well for the vast amount of activity in 2009:

It was indeed interesting at the time to reflect, while looking upon this richly arrayed throng, that the past energies of one great life had occasioned these general rejoicings, symbolising as they did the honour to the personality of the great naturalist himself and the expectation of greater things to come by the continuance of his labours.

John van Wyhe

This is adapted from:

Charles Darwin in Cambridge: The most joyful years. WSP, 2014. (Hardcover paperback Kindle)

Below are related 1909 documents available in Darwin Online.

See the important J.C. Simpson Collection at the Osler Library of the History of Medicine, McGill University, available via the Manuscripts page and its Introduction here.

1909. Darwin Centenary Number. Christ's College Magazine. XXIII, Easter Term. Image A36

1909. List of delegates and other guests invited by the University [to Darwin Commemoration] Centenary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the publication of Origin of Species To be celebrated at Cambridge, June 22, 23, 24, 1909. McGill-CA-OSLER0-P110[.155] PDF

1909. Order of the proceedings at the Darwin celebrations held at Cambridge June 22-June 24, 1909. With a sketch of Darwin's life. Text Image F1481

Anon. 1909. A visit to Darwin's village: reminiscences of some of his humble friends. Evening News (12 February): 4. Text Image A546

Bryce, J. 1909. Personal Reminiscences of Charles Darwin and of the Reception of the "Origin of Species". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 48, No. 193 (September): iii-xiv. Text Image A241

Darwin, F. ed. 1909. The foundations of The origin of species. Two essays written in 1842 and 1844. Text Image PDF F1556 Click to see illustrations

Darwin, G. & F. Darwin eds. 1909. Darwin celebration, Cambridge, June, 1909. Speeches delivered at the banquet held on June 23rd. Text A279

Geikie, A. 1909. Charles Darwin as geologist: The Rede Lecture given at the Darwin Centennial Commemoration on 24 June 1909. Image A211

Harmer, S. F. & W. G. Ridewood eds. 1910. Memorials of Charles Darwin: a collection of manuscripts portraits medals books and natural history specimens to commemorate the centenary of his birth and the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of "The origin of species" 2d edition. British Museum (Natural History). Special guide No. 4. Text Image PDF A313

Hovey, E. O. ed. 1909. Darwin memorial celebration. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 19, No. 1, Part 1 (31 July): 1-40. Text A288

Judd, J. W. 1910. The coming of evolution: The story of a great revolution in science. Image A34

Poulton, E. B. 1909. Charles Darwin and the Origin of species: addresses, etc., in America and England in the year of the two anniversaries. London: Longmans, Green, and Co. Text Image A331

Seward, A. C. ed. 1909. Darwin and modern science. Essays in commemoration of the centenary of the birth of Charles Darwin and of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The origin of species. Text Image A162 Click to see illustrations

Shipley, A. E. [1909]. Charles Darwin. Image A35

[Shipley, A. E. & J. C. Simpson eds.] 1909. Darwin centenary: the portraits, prints and writings of Charles Robert Darwin, exhibited at Christ's College, Cambridge 1909. Text Image A490

1909. The Bookman. Darwin centenary number. (February) McGill-CA-OSLER0-P110[.157] PDF

Weismann, A. 1909. Charles Darwin und sein Lebenswerk: Festrede gehalten zu Freiburg i. Br. am 12. Februar 1909. Jena: Gustav Fischer. Text Image PDF A318


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