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an outstanding series of Darwin scientific letters

DARWIN, CHARLES. Collection of four letters to William Chester Tait.

Down, Beckenham, Kent, February 2, February 24, April 18, and June 1, 1869

Four letters totaling 13 pages, one entirely written and signed by Charles Darwin, the others signed by Darwin with the body written by his daughter Emma, and one with a long postscript in Darwin’s hand.

Original folds. Very good condition.


This fascinating series of letters reflects Charles Darwin’s wide-ranging scientific research, his boundless curiosity, and his encouragement of a young naturalist.

In January 1869 Darwin received a letter from Charles Chester Tait, a British amateur botanist living in Portugal. Tait wrote glowingly to Darwin about his books, especially On the Origin of Species (1859) and his recently published Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868). The young Tait then shared his observations on tailless dogs in Portugal. He observed that the tails of pointers are often docked and wonders if this might account for the occasional birth of tailless dogs, relating to the theory of pangenesis advanced in Darwin’s latest book.

This inquiry launched a yearlong correspondence. This collection of four letters makes up one-half of Darwin’s side of the correspondence. In Darwin’s initial letter of February 2, he replies to Tait’s inquiry writing, “With respect to the tailless dogs, there would be I fear much difficulty in determining how far the unknown causes, which occasionally lead in other countries dogs to be born without tails, have acted more energetically in Lisbon; & how far the result has followed from the cutting off of the tail; but if you could render your case highly probable it would be very interesting.”

Darwin then turns to a remarkable carnivorous plant native to Portugal, Drosophyllum lusitanicum, also known as the dewy pine. The plant attracts insects and becomes encrusted with and absorbs their corpses. Darwin had asked J. D. Hooker and others to obtain the plant for him but to no avail. He asks Tait “to send me a living young plant of the rare Drosophyllum Lusitanicum, which grown is sandy places in Portugal, I have long wished to try a series of experiments on this plant.”

Darwin concludes his letter with the poignant observation, “With your taste for natural history, you must feel very isolated, and I can fully sympathize with you.” After the voyage of the Beagle, Darwin spent most of his scientific life at home, gathering data from personal observation there and through his vast network of correspondents.