University Archives

Description: Charles Darwin ALS Referring to his Mentor, Scottish Geologist Sir Charles Lyell, as "the old master, to whom I am so deeply indebted under a scientific point of view"

An incredible 4pp autograph letter signed by British naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882), signed by him as "Charles Darwin" on the last page. Dated November 20, 1881. On bifold mourning stationery with "Down, / Beckenham, Kent / Railway Station / Orpington. S.E.R." letterhead. Light expected paper folds, else near fine. 4.5" x 7.125." This exact letter is referenced in the Darwin Correspondence Project compiled by the University of Cambridge. At the time that the letter was glossed for the Project, it was listed as residing in the collection of "Kinnordy MS." This no doubt refers to Kinnordy House, near Kirriemuir, Angus Scotland, the childhood home of Sir Charles Lyell (to be further explained below.)

Darwin thanks his correspondent Katherine Murray Lyell (1817-1915) for sending him a copy of her newly published memoirs of influential Scottish geologist Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875), Darwin's close friend and mentor. Mrs. Lyell was Sir Charles's double sister-in-law, her older sister Mary having married Sir Charles, and she herself having married Sir Charles's younger brother Henry. In addition to her familial connections, Mrs. Lyell was a talented botanist in her own right, and was thus uniquely qualified to produce a biography of a fellow scientist. The memoirs were published as Katherine Murray Lyell, "The Life, Letters and Journals of Sir Charles Lyell" (London: John Murray, 1881.)

Darwin wrote in full, with original spelling and punctuation:

"Nov. 20 - 1881

My dear Mrs Lyell

Your most kind present arrived last night + I am greatly obliged for it. But as it never occurred to me that you would give me so large + valuable a work, I have ordered a copy, as I was very anxious to begin reading the memoirs of the old master, to whom I am so deeply indebted under a scientific point of view. The ordered copy has not yet arrived, but no doubt soon will, probably to morrow, + it will be a sin to keep two copies in the house.

You must know many persons to whom you would like to send a copy; + should I not send you the one ordered, for you to transmit to whom you may think fit? Or if you like to send a slip of paper to paste in, + give me any address, I will dispatch the parcel by rail, as this may save you a little trouble. -

The work appears very handsome, + again thanking you I remain

Dear Mrs Lyell

yours sincerely

Charles Darwin."

Darwin refers to Sir Charles as "the old master, to whom I am so deeply indebted under a scientific point of view." As a young scientist, Darwin was deeply influenced by Sir Charles's important treatise "Principles of Geology" (1830-1833), which argued that geological change was precipitated by natural causes still in operation today, and over an extended period of time. Darwin frequently consulted Sir Charles's magnum opus during his 5-year-long data-collecting mission aboard the "H.M.S. Beagle," and the naturalist's observations corroborated Sir Charles's theory that geologic change occurred gradually. Darwin and Sir Charles met upon the former's return to England, in the fall of 1836. Their friendship--as well as their devoted support of each other's scientific works--would continue until Sir Charles's death in 1875.

In "The Origin of Species" (1859), Darwin explicitly declares that Lyell’s work “produced a revolution in natural science” and affirms that a similar mode of reasoning guided his own science. Elsewhere, Darwin himself candidly confessed that his own books and writings “came half out of Lyell's brains.”

This item comes with a Certificate from John Reznikoff, a premier authenticator for both major 3rd party authentication services, PSA and JSA (James Spence Authentications), as well as numerous auction houses.


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