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In 1877 Charles Darwin was sent some unusual birthday presents: two lavishly produced albums of portrait photographs from continental admirers. To mark Darwin’s 209th birthday, Cambridge University Library have made these albums available online for the first time, free and publically accessible via the Cambridge Digital Library.

The gifts were intended for Darwin’s 69th birthday to mark the beginning of his 70th year, but both groups got their sums wrong and sent them instead on his 68th birthday. The gifts, one from Germany the other from the Netherlands, were so striking that they were reported in the English press. Both were covered in velvet, with specially commissioned silver fittings. 

I hope that you will endeavour to find some means to express to the two hundred & seventeen distinguished observers & lovers of natural science, who have sent me their photographs, my gratitude for their extreme kindness

 (Charles Darwin to to A. A. van Bemmelen, 12 February 1877)

The albums are now in the English Heritage Trust collection at Darwin’s home, Down House, and with support from staff at English Heritage, they are also being made available to the public by two teams at Cambridge University Library. The history of the albums and of the people in the photographs has been researched by the editors of The Darwin Correspondence Project, and the albums have been conserved and digitised by the Library’s Conservation & Collection Care and Digital Content Unit teams.

Alison Pearn, Associate Director of the Darwin Correspondence Project said: “The two albums are very different. The German album was organised by one of Darwin’s most vocal supporters in Germany, the embryologist, Ernst Haeckel, and includes German and Austrian men – and they are all men – who were professional scientists in some way, and who were invited to contribute. The album from the Netherlands was a more democratic affair with a range of people, including several women, from many walks of life. The contributors were schoolteachers, apothecaries, clerks, merchants, manufacturers, and artists, as well as scientific and medical professionals.”

The research team is hoping that publication of the albums will lead to more information about Darwin’s contemporary well-wishers.