Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Darwin Correspondance Project


Darwin, like all men of science at the time, wrote a lot of letters, formulating numerous ideas through correspondence with his scientific peers. The good news for Darwin fans is that all those letters are being made available on the web through an ambitious project.

Darwin Correspondence Project, run by the Cambridge University Library and part-funded by the Wellcome Trustaims to annotate and transcribe Darwin’s letters, making them freely available online. Its scope and aims are examined by Penny Bailey in a feature article for the Wellcome Trust website.

The Project features letters during his writing of 'On the Origin of Species', as well as correspondence from his time on the HMS Beagle. As well as Darwin's own writings, the Project team have also taken the time to locate, scan and annotate letters written to Darwin by other scientists and academics.

As Professor Jim Second, who leads the project from the Cambridge University Library, says, "Darwin depended on a much wider network of correspondence - including professional scientists, schoolteachers, colonial settlers, plant and animal breeders, missionaries and even clerics - to formulate his ideas. Science is a dialogue, and the letters show it in action."

The letters give insight into the history of evolutionary theory, and indeed science, at the time, as well as demonstrating just how good Darwin was at cajoling interest and support from others.

So far, the Project has located around 15,000 letters exchanged by Darwin and his correspondents. Visitors to the 
Project websitecan currently read the full texts of over 5000 letters and find information on the remainder using a searchable calendar and database. There are also extensive supporting materials for teachers and researchers, notably on ecological science and the relations between science and religious belief.

Image: Letter from Charles Darwin to Dr.George E.Shuttleworth, Medical Superintendent, Royal Albert Ayslum, Lancaster concerning the children of first cousins. Credit: Wellcome Library, London

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