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A Second Look Uncovers a First Edition: a Manuscript Page from Darwin’s Origin of Species


Within the span of about a month, the Dibner Library received two separate inquiries about our lone manuscript page from the draft of the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. His popularity is unsurprising, especially during this anniversary year: 2009 is the year Darwin would have been 200, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his Origin of Species, events which are being actively commemorated here.

One inquiry was from a gentleman named Milton D. Forsyth, Jr., who has been tracking down all extant leaves of the first draft of the Origin within his reach; the other from David Kohn, Director and General Editor of the American Museum of Natural History’s Darwin Manuscripts Project (currently called the Darwin Digital Library of Evolution, a project linked to the Biodiversity Heritage Library). Both were seeking pages of the original draft, so I was disappointed to see the note on the back by Darwin’s daughter Henrietta Litchfield, describing the page as containing “the passage… from Chapter VII, p 264 of 5th edn, 1869…”

Mr. Forsyth’s inquiry came first, so I sent him copies of the draft and the disappointing note and asked him to be sure to alert me to any interesting discoveries, should he have any… and he did just that. Henrietta Litchfield’s note did allow some room for interpretation, and happily Mr. Forsyth did not take it as fact, and looked into the matter further. His knowledge of the existing draft pages and the editorial changes that occurred with later editions led him to determine that our leaf is indeed one of only 45 extant sheets from the original Origin manuscript, a fact happily confirmed by Dr. Kohn after reading Forsyth’s analysis. The true origin of our Origin page was apparently buried for a long time, since, as Mr. Forsyth notes, according to a published record of the sale, the manuscript page which sold at auction at Sotheby’s, London, in July 1958, was described as “p. 264 of the 5th ed. 1869.” It may be that Bern Dibner did not realize the gem he had.

Our single manuscript page will be a part of the Darwin Manuscripts Project’s planned edition of all locatable manuscript pages of the Origin of Species’ first edition. The Project was just given grant funding to digitize Darwin’s Library, including the extensive marginal notes in his own hand. Press releases detailing the scope of this project can be found here and here.—Kirsten van der Veen

One Comment

  1. Iris Helland

    Thanks for the article.Really looking forward to read more. Fantastic.

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