The kids who drew on the manuscript of On The Origin of Species

by Matthew Cobb

PhD student Benjamin Breen at the University of Texas at Austin has posted this treasure trove at The Appendix. Maybe you all know about it, but I didn’t, and neither did Professor Ceiling Cat. (It was originally published by The Daily Telegraph in 2009, to coincide with an exhibition at Cambridge University Library. PCC and his drudge were obviously napping at the time…)

The surviving 28 pages of the original manuscript of On the Origin of Species are now available online. They includes various scribbles that can be found on the back of the pages, such as this ‘battle of the fruit and vegetable soldiers’, apparently drawn by Darwin’s third son, Francis:


Cambridge University Library

Benjamin writes:

As near as I can make out, it shows a turbaned soldier mounted on a blueberry squaring off with an English dragoon on a carrot-steed. Perhaps inspired by the 1839-1842 Anglo-Afghan War, and filtered through the Darwin household’s fascination with plants and gardening?


Cambridge University Library

And here we have some brightly-coloured birds, one catching a spider, another an indeterminate insect, and a brightly-coloured butterfly, while some other insects hang around a flower. The parrot looks like a serious attempt at drawing.


Cambridge University Library

There’s also this painting of Down House, which Benjamin says is his favourite. I think Professor Ceiling Cat might like this, too, because of the cat in the attic. The perspective here is rather weird, as it’s clearly drawn from the inside…

Benjamin writes:

Fascinatingly, this image might be detailed enough that it actually depicts Darwin’s famous sandwalk, his “thinking path” that led to the family greenhouse (which is, perhaps, the structure visible at the end of the path). The area was later made into a playground for the Darwin children.

The kids also scribbled all over the diary of Emma, Darwin’s wife

[JAC: note “much flatulence” on April 15. I suspect that refers not to Emma but to Charles, who was afflicted with gas his entire post-Beagle life. Darwin and his wife were much obsessed with his digestion as well as his diet, which was prescribed to relieve the symptoms of his chronic but unknown malady, and I’m hoping that someday a historian of science will write a book about it. I already have a title: On the Origin of Feces.]


Darwin Heirlooms Trust

One of my prize possessions is a printed sheet from an early 17th century natural history book – a lovely woodblock showing various insects. I bought it for €15 in Amsterdam – the reason it was so cheap is that at some point in the last 300 years, a small child got some salmon-coloured chalk and scribbled all over the drawings. This childish vandalism (which the chalk suggests took place before the 20th century) must have been greeted with a howl of parental fury, but only made the sheet more precious to me.

When I was little, my Dad wrote a 6th form (high school) textbook about East Asia; the manuscript was covered with pictures of steam trains, as I would get his attention by asking him to draw me a train (my favourite objects at the time). Sadly, the advent of computers has meant that such distractions don’t get preserved. For each of my books, the most that has happened when my kids have tried to distract me is that they’ve got me to watch some funny YouTube video. There’ll be no traces of such interactions for our Darwins to leave for future historians to pore over…

h/t Katerina Carbin on the University of Manchester Zoology FB page.


  1. bric
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    Blueberries weren’t around in Europe until well into the 20th century, so I think the warrior’s steed is a sloe (prunus spinosa)

    • Simon Hayward
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

      I had the same thought re blueberries – I wondered about a blackcurrant, but I think a sloe is perfectly reasonable – we don’t want to over think this!

      • bric
        Posted February 14, 2014 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

        The reason I thought of sloes is that blackthorn (the sloe bush) is widely grown in Kent as a hedgerow, so the Darwin children would have been familiar with them.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted February 15, 2014 at 12:27 am | Permalink

      “Blueberries weren’t around in Europe until well into the 20th century”.

      Well, what you call bilberry is apparently what we call blueberries (“blåbär”), and it is native in Europe. I assume the BI have some too. [ ]

      But sloe (“slån”) is likely.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted February 15, 2014 at 12:29 am | Permalink

        Or see other suggestions below.

  2. bonetired
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Probably not a blueberry since I doubt that they would have been available in the England of the 1850’s. Much more likely to be a plum or damson.

  3. gbjames
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 9:33 am | Permalink


  4. Posted February 14, 2014 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    If Darwin asked, I’d pull his finger!

  5. Diana MacPherson
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Wow those pictures are actually pretty good.

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

      Just what I’d been thinking.

  6. Posted February 14, 2014 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    One illness that seems a good match for what afflicted Darwin i cyclic vomiting syndrome , but the age of onset is in young children and that is not consistent with his illness as far as I know. Another is Crohn’s disease .
    Not sure if that is a better match.

  7. Posted February 14, 2014 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    These draw – rings ( think “Simon” and snl ), yes, are quite darling !

    I cannot imagine that there, for kiddos’ handiworks, was, even within the Darwins’ household, … … much … … for paper, let alone, art composition / drawing / sketching booklets.

    Soooo, yeah, … … why not use ( ?maybe mostly? the backsides of ) Daddy’s lovely Origin manuscript ? !


    ps re entitling manuscripts, this one is exactamundo – ly hilarious: ” On the Origin of Feces ”

    Of course. Of course, that’s ITS title !

  8. Posted February 14, 2014 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    So the great man would have been a pleasure and a delight to meet … not so much to stay around for any length of time.


  9. Posted February 14, 2014 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    You know, these do all that much more to make Darwin that much more of a real human….


    • Posted February 14, 2014 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

      I’d have said Darwin, with his great love of his children and his wife, and his fear of public and ecclesiastical odium, his generosity of spirit in being willing to share credit with Wallace, and perhaps most admirable of all, being able to spend 18 months cooped up on a small ship at sea with only Sir Robert Fitzroy for company, was already very human and rather lovable. I wish some of this spare humanity could be shared with someone like Sir Isaac Newton, who needs it much more.

      • Diane G.
        Posted February 14, 2014 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

        A most enjoyable comment.

  10. Ken Pidcock
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    I’d known about this because I was a student at Lehigh, which has quite a collection, including a flawed proof where the title is On On The Origin of Species.

  11. Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    Lovely drawings! I have to nitpick Benjamin about the Sandwalk, though. He said
    “Fascinatingly, this image might be detailed enough that it actually depicts Darwin’s famous sandwalk, his “thinking path” that led to the family greenhouse (which is, perhaps, the structure visible at the end of the path).”

    Darwin’s Sandwalk starts far beyond the greenhouse (which is quite close to the main house), and most of it is not visible from the house.

    • gbjames
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

      But then again, this isn’t a photograph.

      • Posted February 14, 2014 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

        I’m not criticizing the drawing but rather Benjamin’s description of the Sandwalk as the “path that led to the family greenhouse”. It doesn’t lead to the greenhouse. It is a loop that starts way past the greenhouse.

  12. merilee
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    Very cool!!!

  13. Posted February 14, 2014 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    I hope the new book would use Darwin’s own spelling – much more classical: On the Origin of Faeces

  14. Jonathan Dore
    Posted February 15, 2014 at 3:42 am | Permalink

    Something not remarked on at the source page from The Appendix is that the image they reproduce of Emma’s diary from April 1840 seems to record a visit by (or to) “Babbage”, presumably Charles Babbage, inventor of the difference engine and Lucasian professor at Cambridge.

  15. darwinsbulldog
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

    A book by Ralph Colp, Jr.: Darwin’s Illness

  16. John Scanlon, FCD
    Posted February 17, 2014 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    I’ve seen authoritative* claims that the word ‘flatulence’ in the Darwin’s usage referred to production of gases upwards from the stomach (belching), not downwards. It seems superficially plausible that Victorians of the Darwins’ class would not be caught dead referring to such matters; but I automatically distrust authority, and doubt that the medically trained Darwin males adopted the level of squeamishness that found undraped table-legs disturbing. I also find it incredibly funny to imagine my hero whizzing around his lab/study on his caster-wheeled work-chair, propelled by loud and eye-watering farts.
    Maybe it started young; CD readily admitted in his autobiography that schoolmates gave him the nickname ‘Gas’.

    • darwinsbulldog
      Posted February 17, 2014 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      Darwin received the nickname Gas in his childhood because he and his brother did chemistry experiments in a shed.

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