Darwin's Handwritten Manuscripts and Notes Digitized


Most of us have read the works of Charles Darwin, but it's a powerful, more personal experience to see them in his own handwriting. Be sure to check out the Darwin Manuscripts Project site, mentioned in the following American Museum of Natural History press release. The site goes live on November 24, so please keep the provided link in mind.

When Charles Darwin labored over word choice while writing On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,

he could not have known that one day any student of the humanities and

sciences could peer over his shoulder to see him pen the words,

“difficulty of highly perfect organs.” On November 24, 2009—to

celebrate the 150th anniversary of Origin’s publication—Darwin is going digital. The Darwin Manuscripts Project

will place online about 10,000 high-quality images of Darwin’s

scientific manuscripts and notes. These pages include 34 of the 36

known and located draft leaves of Origin, gathered together for the first time since Darwin wrote his seminal book.

(Image AMNH)

“These rare manuscript leaves from Origin

are the crown jewels of our project and show Darwin in the process of

writing,” says David Kohn, Director and General Editor of the Darwin

Manuscripts Project at the American Museum of Natural History. Kohn has

been editing Darwin for decades, beginning with Darwin’s correspondence

and now continuing with the other half of his archive, his scientific

papers. This project began in 2005. “I’ve sat in the Cambridge

University Library since 1974, touching these documents, but this is

the first time that anyone can do this—online in this quantity and with

this quality.”  His co-editor for the Origin leaves is Randal Keynes, great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin.

The Darwin Manuscripts Project (darwin.amnh.org)

is a digital scholarly edition of Darwin’s scientific manuscripts based

at the Museum and is carried out in collaboration with Cambridge

University Library and the Biodiversity Heritage Library, represented

by the Natural History Museum in London. The rare draft sheets from Origin

are owned by a number of institutions, including the Smithsonian

Institution, the American Philosophical Society, and Cambridge

University Library. The Museum also owns one sheet from Chapter 6 of Origin that Kohn finds particularly interesting because this is “where Darwin deals with the difficulties of the theory.”

In addition to the rare Origin

drafts, the Darwin Manuscripts Project will also put online about

10,000 additional images of Darwin’s material. Notebooks and scientific

writing from the Beagle period through the Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex,

published in 1871, will be available with transcriptions and curatorial

notations. Examples include the notebooks that chronicle Darwin’s

discovery of natural selection, the only extant fair copy sheet of Origin, and drafts from his botanical books, among other items.


Darwin Manuscripts Project also includes a key to all things Darwin.

This is DARBASE (Darwin Union Manuscripts Catalogue), a new, massive,

searchable database that tracks the network of knowledge about Darwin’s

scientific papers. Developed together with Cambridge University

Library, whose collection is the backbone of the database, this new

tool will also include the Darwin holdings from all other libraries in

the world. Over 60,000 Darwin items and closely-related Darwin material

are described in the database in accurate detail.


is an extraordinary resource,” says Michael Novacek, Provost of Science

at the Museum. “The Darwin Manuscripts Project takes advantage of new

technology to bring the fruits of Darwin’s extraordinary mind to a much

broader audience, much like the Museum’s 2005 exhibition on Darwin thatbrought his theory, life, and science to the general public.”


projects for the Darwin Manuscripts Project include compiling and

digitizing additional Darwin manuscripts as well as reconstructing his

library. Darwin was famous for reading widely on a variety of subjects

ranging from insect-eating plants to pigeon breeding to the immorality

of slavery. He would fill margins and inside covers of his books with

copious annotations and passionate marks. For example, he wrote on the

margin of one of Charles Lyell’s books, in which Lyell proposes that

species don’t change beyond a definite limit, “if this be true, adios

theory.” Over 700 of his most heavily annotated books are held at

Cambridge University Library and will now be reproduced as

high-resolution images, and his transcribed marginalia will be

digitally available.


extensive marginalia preserved in his library reveals Darwin as not

simply a curious reader, but an active interrogator, questioning and

commenting on the works of Humboldt, Lyell, Spencer, and Agassiz,” says

Kohn. “Now with this digitalization project, readers can follow the

conversational thread that changed our thinking on the origins of

species and gave birth to modern evolutionary science.”


Darwin Manuscripts Project is funded by two grants from the National

Science Foundation, and a new grant from JISC/NEH Transatlantic

Digitization Collaboration program will fund the work to digitally

reconstruct Darwin’s working library as it stood at the time of his

death in 1882.

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