RECORD: Darwin, C. R. 1882. [Letter to H. W. Crosskey and the Birmingham Philosophical Society, 1880]. Death of Mr. Charles Darwin, F.R.S. Birmingham Daily Post, (21 April): 4.

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed by Christine Chua and edited by John van Wyhe 5.2022.

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

Henry William Crosskey (1826-1893) was a Unitarian clergyman, reformer, geologist and Secretary of the Birmingham Philosophical Society. The address offerring an honorary membership to Darwin is transcribed in Darwin Online as A2785. See the annotated letter from Darwin in Correspondence vol. 28, p. 116.


[page] 4

DEATH OF MR. CHARLES DARWIN, F. R. S.

Science has lost one of its greatest men in Mr. Charles Darwin, who died at his residence, Down House, near Orpington, Kent, on Wednesday last, in the 74th year of his age. Darwin came of a family distinguished for thought. His grandfather, Dr. Erasmus Darwin, who was known in his neighbourhood as a friend of Priestley's and a member of the Lunar Society, is best remembered by his "Botanic Garden," but he published numerous other works of a scientific character, in which there were the germs of important truths, though there is an admixture of extravagance. The son of Erasmus Darwin, Dr. Robert W. Darwin, settled in Shrewsbury as a physician, and there Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809. His mother was a daughter of Josiah Wedgewood, the celebrated manufacturer of art pottery, who founded Etruria, near Newcastle-under-Lyme, and invented the ware which goes by his name, and by his indomitable energy and perseverance may almost be said to have created a great modern industry. The young Charles Darwin thus looked back to a paternal and maternal grandfather, each remarkable in no common degree, and he was fortunate in that his inheritance of talent was cultivated by able instructors.

At this time Dr. Butler, afterwards Bishop of Lichfield, was master of Shrewsbury Grammar School, and under him Charles Darwin received his first school training. At the age of sixteen he went to the University of Edinburgh, which Carlyle had entered in the year that he was born. After studying there two years he removed to Cambridge, entering at Christ's College, where he took his B.A. in 1831, and his M.A. in 1837. Here his great aptitude for scientific research attracted the notice, among others, of Mr. Henslow, the professor of botany at the University.

About the time Mr. Darwin was taking his B.A. degree a surveying expedition for the southern seas, under Captain Fitzroy, R.N., was being organised, and a naturalist being required to accompany the expedition, Darwin was recommended by Professor Henslow to Captain Fitzroy and the Lords of the Admiralty. The Adventure and the Beagle had a previous expedition, which had just returned, explored the coast of Patagonia. The Beagle, in which Darwin now sailed, left England on December 27, 1831, and made a complete scientific circumnavigation of the globe, which lasted within two months of five years. The position which Darwin held was doubtless one of honour and of profit, so far as the acquisition of knowledge is concerned, but it brought no pecuniary emolument – only the reverse of it, for the young naturalist paid his own expenses on condition that he should retain his collections. The observations made in his voyage first appeared in an account of Captain Fitzroy's expedition but they were subsequently republished, in 1839, with the title of "Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the various Countries visited by H.M.S. Beagle. Before setting out on the voyage Mr. Darwin had given evidence of his courage by marrying his cousin, Miss Emma Wedgwood. In his case, at all events, Bacon's aphorism has not been verified, and his marriage proved no impediment to the arduous and unremitting devotion to his life's work. During the years 1840-1843, he edited "The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle," to which he contributed the Introduction and many of his notes; in 1842 was published his essay on "The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs;" this was followed in 1844 by "Geological Observations on Volcanic Islands," and two years later by his "Geological Observations of South America." Omitting some papers in the transactions of the Geological Society, Mr. Darwin's next work was a monograph, published by the Ray Society, of the Cirripédia, a difficult class of animals, sometimes assigned to the Articulata, and sometimes to the Crustacea, of which the Barnacles and Acorn Shells are the most familiar examples. All this time Mr. Darwin has been gleaning "the harvest of a quiet eye," and in his next work he was destined to revolutionise modern scientific thought, and to create such a storm, only louder, as had been awakened by the discoveries of geology. It was Professor Agassiz who said that all scientific truth had to pass through three stages: first, people said it was not true; then, that it was contrary to religion; and, lastly, that everybody knew it before. The theory of Mr. Darwin's "Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection," published in 1859, may be considered to have passed the first of three stages, though we have not yet reached the third.

Geology had shown with the clearness of demonstration of a proposition in Euclid that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of millions of years had gone to the formation of our planet. There remained to be explained how all the infinite variety of species of organic life on the planet had come into being. According to the theory of Darwin – which we simply state, and neither impugn nor support here, but which has now the adhesion of the leading scientific men of all countries –all species of plants and animals, including man, have been derived from "one or a few primordial forms" through a process of natural selection, the tendency of which to produce change has been restrained by the fact of inheritance. The individuals fitted to continue their kind have survived, and have transmitted the characteristics which gave them their superior strength, while the weak and ill-fitted for the struggle of existence perished. Thus an infinite variety of types was evolved; and through the ages the moneron became the mollusc, the mollusc in due course the brute, the brute the savage man, and savage man became civilised man. Favourable variations, accumulated and intensified, gave new species: which may, or may not, now be constant.

Nature has favoured the strong and successful, the weak have perished. Such, barely, and somewhat crudely stated, in the theory which, twenty-three years ago, excited a perfect howling of opposition, but which has now come to be widely—almost universally—accepted. "It is to Darwin," writes one, "that we owe the drawing made of the mysterious curtain behind which nature had carried on her secret operations in the elaboration of her species and varieties. He has explained it to us, and the marvel ceases." That surely is not what Darwin himself would have said. His labours have revealed something of the workings of nature, but there is still room enough for marvel. If we push back the first faint movings of sentient life upon our planet a thousand million of years, and trace the development of man from the first monad, is that dawning of life one whit less miraculous than if it had occurred yesterday?

Mr. Darwin, with whom Mr. A. R. Wallace's name will ever be associated, confined himself to the problem of accounting for the evolution of higher organic forms out of the lower—the evolution of the physical world. But the principle of his researches is capable of a much wider appreciation, and in the teaching of Mr. Herbert spencer it is applied to mental, moral, and social problems; and other thinkers — Professor Clifford, Mr. G. H. Lewes, Spalding, Chauncy Wright, and others—have given it an extension which seems to warrant a term that has been applied to it — "the universal process." Mr. Darwin's views have been called atheistic. Not only are they not atheistic, but it is contended by their author that they are not only compatible with the idea of an original creation of the world, but that they convey a higher conception of the Divine attributes. This great work, which is probably destined to take its place with the "Novum Organum" of Bacon, and the "Principia" of Newton, was, as we have said, published in 1859. But having produced this masterpiece he did not rest from his labours. A series of works has followed, marvels of close observations of Nature, and reflections upon her work, furnishing additional support for the views advanced in the 'Origin of Species." In 1862 appeared his "Fertilisation of Orchids, and this was followed in 1867 by his "Domesticated Animals and Cultivated Plants; or the Principles of Variation, Inheritance, Reversion, Crossing, Inter-breeding, and Selection under Domestication." His next work was a godsend for the comic papers, as well as for men of science. Dickens says that Scrooge, when he reflected that people would laugh at him, consoled himself with the thought that they were sure to be blind any way, and that they might just so well wrinkle up their faces with grins as have the malady in less attractive forms. Darwin, no doubt was able to digest with complacency the ridicule thrown on his "Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex." In this work the author draws the inference that "man is descended from a hairy quadruped, furnished with a tail and pointed ears, and probably arboreal in its habits." This book was published in 1871. In the following year he published "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals," which was found to be not only a delightfully written volume, but of great use to artists over and above its value as a contribution to the evolution theory. Other works followed rapidly —"Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants," "Insectivorous Plants," "Cross and Self-fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdon,: and "Different Forms of Flowers in Plants of the Same Species." All of these works were produced between 1874 and 1877. More recently he has given us a work on the "Power of Movements in Plants," and another, only last year, on the "Formation of Vegetable Mould by Earthworms." He may be said to have died in harness, for as late as the 16th of March he read two papers before the Linnæan Society on special botanical subjects.

On February 12, 1880, Mr. Darwin's seventy-first birthday, the Birmingham Philosophical Society respectfully and unanimously offered to the distinguished philosopher the first honorary membership conferred by the society. We may recall the terms of that address. After expressing a hope that Mr. Darwin might "Long be spared to continue those researches which have so widely extended the boundaries of human knowledge and so profoundly influenced modern scientific thought," the members of the society say — "Few men are permitted to form by their works Epochs in the history of the world; but the appearance of the 'Origin of Species,' followed as it has been by numerous other publications illustrating its doctrines and extending their application, has constituted an Epoch as important as any that has yet marked the intellectual development of our race. Those who may refuse their assent to the philosophical principles enunciated in your works must admit, equally with those who accept them, that there are few realms of thought into which their influence has not travelled; while there is no branch of Natural History, and hardly a problem connected with the position of man himself upon the earth, which has not had new light cast upon it by the investigations called forth by your genius. The members of the society are conscious that, in offering you this honorary membership, they are asking you to confer a distinction upon them; but they feel that such a tribute of respect as they now desire to pay may not inappropriately come from the town which is in the centre of the district with your family have so long, and with such honour, been associated." [1] The following reply was received from Mr. Darwin:—

Down, Beckenham, Kent. Dear sir, I have this day received, through Mr. Lawson Tait, the address from the Birmingham Philosophical Society congratulating me on my birthday, and communicating to me the fact of my election as honorary member. The society has thus conferred on me an honour which I believe to be unprecedented. Both the address and my election have gratified me deeply, more especially as coming from Birmingham, the birthplace or residence of so many distinguished men, and where the famous Lunar Club, which included my grandfather as one of its members, used to meet. At my age I cannot expect to do much more scientific work, but the society may be assured that so great an honour as it has conferred on me will encourage me to further exertion.—I beg leave to remain, dear sir, yours faithfully and obliged, CHARLES DARWIN. [2]

The high position of Mr. Darwin in the world of science has been universally recognised, both by disciples and by those who still combat his theories. The Royal Society conferred on him the Copley and Royal Medals, the Geological Society the Wollaston Palladian Medal.. English and foreign scientific societies have been proud to enrol him as a member. The Prussian Government invested him with the order Pour le Merite, the University of Leyden conferred on him the honorary degree of M.D., the University of Cambridge that of LLD; the Academy of Vienna and the French Academy of Sciences elected him a corresponding member. Now he has gently laid aside all these honours and rests from his long labours. Those who enjoyed the honour of his friendship speak with one voice of his constant kindness, courtesy, consideration, and modesty. In his works, though he has been bitterly assailed, he never shows the bitterness of the polemic, but the serenity of the searcher after truth. His last illness was not of long duration. He had been for some time suffering from weakness of the heart, but was able to continue his experimental researches till Tuesday last, when he had an attack of pain in the chest, accompanied by faintness and nausea, which terminated in death on Wednesday afternoon. He was fully conscious till within a quarter of an hour of the end, his wife and several of his children being present with him. He leaves five sons and two daughters to mourn a loss of which it may be said — that if the main part pertains to them alone, "No mind that's honest but in it shares some woe."


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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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