Treasure of the Month

Letter from Charles Darwin to Charles Daubeny

30th September 2013


Charles G. B. Daubeny FRS (1795-1867) was a Fellow of Magdalen from 1815-67. Something of a polymath, he was the Aldrichian Professor of Chemistry from 1822-54, the Sherardian Professor of Botany in 1834, and the Sibthorpian Professor of Rural Economy in 1840.

He is perhaps best known for his great efforts to raise the profile of science in Oxford, being responsible for the building of the Daubeny Lecture Room and Laboratory in 1848. He was one of a group that pressed for the establishment of an Honours School in Natural Science in 1849, with Daubeny himself defining the detailed framework of the statute in 1850.

Daubeny corresponded widely with the great and good of his day. The College archives holds 119 of his letters (MC:F26/C1), including items sent from Charles Babbage, Sir John Herschel, Justus von Liebig, Michael Faraday, Sir Robert Peel and William Gladstone. Unfortunately it appears that the rest of his correspondence was destroyed before being given to the College.

This letter (archive reference MC:F26/C1/118) was sent to Daubeny from Charles Darwin on 16 July 1860. In it, Darwin discusses the mystery of the development of sexual variation in nature. By that time, asexual reproduction was well documented, provoking the question of why there needed to be sexual reproduction at all. Daubeny had suggested that sexual variation was necessary to produce variation in subsequent generations, with asexual reproduction simply producing copies of the original organism. Darwin, however, was less certain, citing examples of variation produced by asexual reproduction in corals and plants.

An annotated transcript of the whole letter is available at the Darwin Project.

This letter appeared in our Michaelmas Term 2013 exhibition, ‘Magdalen Controversies’, along with the Magdalen Papyrus, a medieval life of Mary Magdalene claiming that she lived in France, and many other interesting items from our collections. Photos are available on our Facebook page here.

Charles Daubeny donated his collection of scientific books and pamphlets to Magdalen College, and they are now known as the Daubeny Library. Whilst it seems likely that Daubeny owned a copy of Darwin’s Origin of the species, it has sadly not survived. Thankfully several of Darwin’s earlier works have, and a list of them is available here.