Corresponding With Darwin

By Mary Alice Hartsock

Dr. Joseph Leidy (1823–1891), the pre-eminent scientist of his time, was an expert in fields as diverse as vertebrate paleontology and parasitology. As an Academy curator for decades and the Academy president from 1882 until his death, he corresponded with a diverse group of scientists whose nearly 3,000 handwritten letters remain in the Academy Archives. One of Leidy’s most legendary correspondents is the father of evolutionary theory, Charles Darwin. Darwin’s letter, in which he comments on Leidy’s support of his theory of natural selection, is an Archival gem; Academy staff display it with great reverence for visiting VIPs and researchers. Below we include an excerpt from this letter:


March 4, 1860

Dear Sir, Your note has pleased me more than you could readily believe; for I have during a long time heard all good judges speak of your palaeontological labours in terms of the highest respect. Most palaeontologists (with some few good exceptions) entirely despise my work; consequently approbation from you has gratified me much. Your sentence that you have some interesting facts “in support of the doctrine of selection, which I shall report at a favourable opportunity,” has delighted me even more than the rest of your note. Pray forgive this egotistical note and with cordial thanks for your letter … Believe me Dear Sir, With sincere respect, Yours obliged,

Charles Darwin

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