skip to content

Charles Darwin (1809-1882), the most celebrated naturalist of the nineteenth century, graduated from the University of Cambridge in 1831.  A grandson of Erasmus Darwin of Lichfield, and of Josiah Wedgwood, he had entered the University of Edinburgh in 1825 to study medicine, his father Robert intending that Charles should follow his own career as a doctor.  However, Charles found himself unenthusiastic about and to some degree revolted by his studies and left Edinburgh without graduating in 1827.

Robert next formed the intention that his apparently wayward son should take holy orders and Charles thus came up to Christ’s College in the University of Cambridge in early 1828.  Though finding the formal studies little more to his taste than those at Edinburgh he formed a friendship with the Professor of Botany, John Stevens Henslow, and enthusiastically began to study natural history. 

Having graduated, Darwin was recommended by Henslow to Robert Fitzroy, commander of HM Sloop Beagle, as a naturalist to sail on a hydrographical voyage Fitzroy was to make in South American waters.  Eventually returning from the Beagle circumnavigation in 1836, Darwin enjoyed a publishing success with his volume Journal of Researches... during the Voyage of HMS Beagle, soon married his cousin Emma Wedgwood and in 1842 moved to the Kent village of Down, where he spent the rest of his life.  Darwin was living at Down House when he published On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection..., 1859, as well as a series of monographs in botany, entomology and anthropology of the greatest importance.

The collection of Charles Darwin's papers at the University Library originates in the work of his son Francis, who published two editions of his father's letters, in 1887 and 1903.  For these editions he collected as many of Charles's letters and papers as possible, which remained in the family after Francis died.  In 1942 the Pilgrim Trust and the Darwin family gave most of these papers to the University Library, another portion being given to the museum recently established at Down House.

Due to difficulties resulting from wartime conditions, it was only in 1948 that the papers actually arrived in the Library.  In 1960 a Handlist of Darwin Papers at the University Library, Cambridge was published, listing the papers in the 1942 gift.

In 1975 the Library acquired an important supplementary collection of Darwin papers hitherto retained by Sir Robin Darwin and in 1991 George Pember Darwin made a gift of considerably more material.  Over the years, further papers have been acquired by gift from the Darwin family, by other deposits, and by purchase; the collection is accruing continually.  The acquisitions since the 1960 Handlist were given in the Supplementary Handlist of the Papers of Charles Darwin and now complete modern catalogues to the Darwin papers and some related family collections are available in the Manuscripts Reading Room.

A most important resource in the field of Darwin studies derives from Frederick Burkhardt and Sydney Smith (editors), A calendar of the correspondence of Charles Darwin, 1821-1882, with supplement, Cambridge, 1994.  The online version of this calendar is available via the Darwin Correspondence Project website at and is more up-to-date than the printed Calendar (including details of recently discovered letters) and further information.  The Darwin Correspondence Project is working in the Library to publish in hard copy the complete Correspondence of Charles Darwin and has at the date of writing (2010 January) completed volumes 1 to 17 (1985-2009) thus editing and publishing all presently known letters written between 1822 and 1867.  Further volumes are in preparation.

Readers interested in the letters sent and received by Darwin but unfamiliar with the Darwin collections are advised to consult this work before applying to the Library for permission to see the original papers. 

In broad terms, classmarks MSS.DAR.1-DAR.28 are assigned to papers relating to his publications, MSS.DAR.29-DAR.42 to papers concerned with the zoology and geology of the Beagle voyage.  Letters and notes are in MSS.DAR.43-DAR.52.  MSS.DAR.53-DAR.90 include further manuscripts concerning publications, together with much associated correspondence.  MSS.DAR.91-DAR.118 contain correspondence, MSS.DAR.119-DAR.130 represent various notebooks, while MSS.DAR.131-DAR.141 have records relating to Darwin’s published papers and his work.  MS.DAR.142 is a collection of specimen seeds.  MSS.DAR.143-DAR.156 has further letters and MS.DAR.157 a few folios of the On the Origin of Species manuscript, this completing the collection as listed in 1960.  Of the supplementary papers, MS.DAR.158 is Darwin's Journal, MSS.DAR.159-DAR.184 contain further correspondence, MS.DAR.185 and MS.DAR.186 miscellaneous accessions, MSS.DAR.187-DAR.197 notes and papers relating to publications, MSS.DAR.198-DAR.205 further letters, MSS.DAR.206-DAR.209 experiments and notes, MS.DAR.210 and MS.DAR.211 more letters, while MS.DAR.212 and MS.DAR.213 have manuscripts and proofs of publications.  The remaining classes, MSS.DAR.214-DAR.272, are assigned to the papers of family members and other miscellaneous deposits, including photographs; MS.DAR.251 has a large collection of correspondence of George Howard Darwin, it should be noted.

There are collections of important associated manuscripts in the University Library, notably, at MSS.Add.7983-Add.7984, the sketch books of Conrad Martens, who sailed with Darwin during part of the Beagle voyage, and, at MS.Add.8853, the papers of Robert Fitzroy.  Prospective readers may wish to be aware that there are substantial Darwin family papers for Emma Nora Barlow (née Emma Nora Darwin), MS.Add.8904, Gwen and Jacques Raverat (Gwen, née Gwendoline Mary Darwin), MS.Add.9209 and Ida and Horace Darwin (Ida, née Emma Cecilia Farrer), MS.Add.9368.

The Department of Manuscripts also holds Charles Darwin's library collection, which contains many important contemporary works bearing Darwin's annotations.  Work is well advanced in creating a complete on-line catalogue to the Darwin Papers, due for publication during 2010, and initial work with the online Darwin library catalogue also began in 2009.

Contact: Katrina Dean, Curator of Scientific Collections (01223 333056;