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Darwin, women and science

In Charles Darwin’s 19th century, things were changing for women, as campaigns for equality and feminist ideals emerged.

During this time of social transition, Darwin encouraged many aspiring female scientists of the day to push on with, and even publish, their own work. Now, a new project run by the Darwin Correspondence Project (DCP) at the University of Cambridge will transcribe letters to and from Darwin’s 148 female correspondents to reveal more about how he helped change the scientific playing field for women.

“[This is] a side of Darwin that you wouldn’t necessarily know about,” says project director Jim Secord. It’s true that Darwin still believed that women were best adapted for carrying out domestic tasks, acknowledges Secord, but unlike others at the time, he was “quite open minded to women having an intellectual role” and took the work of female scientists seriously.

Among others, American botanist and entomologist Mary Treat received the support of the famous scholar. She turned to Darwin after her mentor Charles Riley berated her work on sex determination in larval butterflies. Treat had found that larvae that ate more tended to become females, while those deprived of nutrition more often became males. After presenting her findings to Darwin in a letter, he encouraged her, writing: “Your observations and experiments on the sexes of butterflies are by far the best… which have ever been made.” Darwin said she should repeat and record the work and consider sending it to a “well-known scientific journal”. Treat later published the work in The American Naturalist.

The project will also explore Darwin’s interaction with women in his family. His youngest daughter, Henrietta, was a particularly strong influence: “She was quite an active editor,” says Secord, especially on Darwin’s book The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex , as revealed by letters to Darwin’s publisher, John Murray, and marked copies of the book.

The DCP has been awarded £480,000 over three years from The Bonita Trust for the project. Along with producing academic papers on research into the letters, the team will make the letters available to the general public on its website.