Revealed: Darwin's secret anguish over daughter-in-law’s death

Naturalist pouring out grief is among thousands of personal letters soon to be released online

An unpublished, poignant account by Charles Darwin of watching his beloved daughter-in-law die an agonising death in childbirth is among thousands of letters Cambridge University will release to the public online for the first time.

The project will begin with a correspondence – some 1,400 letters – with his closest friend, the botanist Joseph Hooker. It was to him that a devastated Darwin wrote in 1876: “I am sure you will pity us, when you hear that Amy… was seized with convulsion which lasted for several hours, she then sunk into a stupor and I saw her expire at 7 o’clock this morning…”

Digitising the historic papers of the celebrated British naturalist best known for his theory of evolution, follows the university’s online success with the archive of another scientist, Sir Isaac Newton, which has attracted millions of hits worldwide.

The Independent has learned of the Darwin digital project ahead of its official launch later this month.

Cambridge University Library houses the world’s largest and most significant collection of Darwin’s personal papers. The archive – some 9,000 letters – includes correspondence with leading thinkers of the day. There are also notes from the famous Beagle voyage, and the earliest manuscripts outlining his theories, which scandalised Victorians by suggesting animals and humans had a common ancestry.

But no correspondence was more important to Darwin – or to scholars – than the Darwin-Hooker collection, according to Alison Pearn, Associate Director of the Darwin Correspondence Project. The letters span 40 years from 1843 until Darwin’s death in 1882, and offer insight into their friendship.

Dr Pearn said: “Hooker was admitted into the select group of those with whom Darwin felt able to discuss his emerging ideas.

“In perhaps his most famous letter of all, Darwin wrote to Hooker in 1844 of his growing conviction that species ‘are not ... immutable’ – an admission he likened, half-jokingly, to ‘confessing a murder’… It was also to Hooker that Darwin sent the manuscript of On the Origin of Species for comment.”

Of their letters, 300 have not been published before. Hooker became director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, providing Darwin with exotic species. Both men faced the trauma of losing their children. It was to Hooker that Darwin also turned after his six-year-old daughter died. Hooker knew the grief too well, having lost his ten-year-old daughter and baby son. 

Darwin’s daughter-in-law died at 26. She was the wife of his son, Francis. During her engagement, and on her honeymoon, she had collected plant specimens for Darwin. Her child, Bernard, survived and was brought up by Francis and his grandparents.

Darwin described her as “a most sweet gentle creature, with plenty of mind beneath”, adding: “Thank God she… never knew that she was leaving Frank and all of us for ever. I cannot think what will become of Frank. She helped and encouraged him in his scientific work and whether he will ever have heart to go on again …I cannot conceive. My dear old Friend I know that you will forgive me pouring out my grief.”

Hooker’s response reads: “I cannot tell you how I feel for Frank and Mrs Darwin and yourself. It seems to open up my own all too recent loss, and to depress me utterly— poor, poor Frank my heart bleeds for him: they were so happy, and she so loveable – how I envied them a few months ago!”

Dr Pearn said: “I don’t know of another letter [like it]. I don’t think there are many people to whom [Darwin] would have written in this way. This is unique insight into his attachment to his daughter-in-law.”