“My dear Phillips…”

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Today, across the world, a birthday is celebrated. It’s that of Charles Darwin, perhaps the best-known naturalist to have ever lived, and he would have been 207 years old this year. This Darwin Day, Kate Diston, Head of Archives and Library shares a very special letter from the man himself.

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The Museum's statue of Darwin

The Museum’s statue of Darwin

In 1859 Darwin published his best-known book, On the Origin of Species, which presented his theory of evolution for the first time. While his book caused quite a stir, Darwin’s conclusions were the result of years of travel, observation and communication with other scientists in various fields.

One of those scientists was Oxford Professor of Geology, John Phillips. In 1859, Phillips was overseeing the final stages of the construction of this Museum, before taking up the position as its first Keeper.

A record of correspondence between Darwin and Phillips was recently rediscovered in the archive and highlights an interesting relationship between the two iconic men of science. Strikingly, the letter was sent less than two weeks before ‘On the Origin of Species’ was to be released.

I fear that you will be inclined to fulminate awful anathemas against it.

John Phillips

John Phillips, a few years after the book’s publication

Darwin knew that Phillips was not going to like his book. He had corresponded with him over many years about geology, recognizing that Phillips was one of the leading minds on the geological timescale. Phillps’ work had provided him with an understanding of the potential age of the Earth, and the implications this may have had on his theories. Phillips, however, would remain a man of faith.

Yours very sincerely

While Darwin knew that Phillips was not necessarily going to take his work at face value, it is clear from the letter that Darwin respected him immensely. This letter is almost a perfect snapshot of what was happening in science at that precise moment in history. Darwin’s book was about to call into question not just what was commonly understood about the natural world at the time, but also the very core of beliefs for most of society.

It is also a letter that reminds me how remarkable the collection I have the privilege to care for really is.

Kate Diston, Head of Archives and Library

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