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Darwin's letters go online

From stinky feet to natural selection

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More than 5,000 letters written by Charles Darwin have been put online at the Darwin Correspondence Project, a sister project to the Darwin Online database collated and maintained by researchers at the Cambridge University Library.

The letters are fully searchable, and reveal much about the personal as well as scientific endeavours of the so-called father of evolution.

For instance, we can all now read for ourselves that Darwin was looking forward to the trip on The Beagle, which he described as a "magnificent scheme" for "larking around the world". This was the journey that would allow him time on the Galapagos Islands, which inspired much of his thinking on natural selection.

There are also letters he exchanged with scientific colleagues and rivals. For instance, he corresponded with fellow naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace published a paper detailing his own thoughts on evolution through natural selections, a theory he had developed independently of Darwin's work.

Darwin wrote: "I can plainly see that we have thought much alike and to a certain extent have come to similar conclusions. I agree to the truth of almost every word of your paper; and I daresay that you will agree with me that it is very rare to find oneself agreeing pretty closely with any theoretical paper; for it is lamentable how each man draws his own different conclusions from the very same fact."

The letters give a great insight into the process by which Darwin arrived at his famous theory. He described to a friend his feelings about going public with his controversial ideas. He said it was like "confessing to a murder".

But the letters also give us a glimpse of the man behind the science. For instance, in one letter Darwin extends his sympathies to a friend whose child had become ill with scarlet fever. Darwin lost a child to scarlet fever.

He wrote: "I grieve to hear about the Scarlet-Fever: my poor dear old friend you are most unfortunate. The tide must turn soon ... Much love much trial, but what an utter desert is life without love."

In another, he confesses to his sister that while at university he only washed his feet once a month. He conceded that this was "nasty".

The database also includes summaries of a further 9,000 pieces of correspondance. These will be expanded over time, so that the searchable database will include all 14,000 letters to and from the great naturalist.

The Darwin Online project, run from Cambridge University, has involved collecting and digitising some 50,000 pages of text and 40,000 images of original publications and handwritten manuscripts. It also includes audio files.

The collection also boasts the journals kept by Darwin's wife of 60 years, Emma Darwin. ®

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