Maybe Darwin Sat Here

By Carolyn Belardo

International Darwin Day is Thursday, Feb. 12, and the Academy is doing its part to honor the great naturalist who transformed the way people thought about the natural world.

From Feb. 12, Charles Darwin’s birthday, through Friday, Feb. 27, we will display a wooden chair that belonged to Darwin and was later given to the Academy by a descendant.

The chair, with woven seat and orange-yellow cushion, is normally housed in the archives of the Academy’s Stewart Library with the rarest of the rare books and artifacts dating to the 1500s. So it gives us quite a thrill to bring it out from behind the scenes, dust it a bit, and place it in the natural-light-filled library Reading Room.

Charles Darwin. ANS Coll. 457.
Charles Darwin. ANS Coll. 457.

Visitors can see the chair when the library is open to the public, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. The library is closed on weekends.

Darwin (1809-1882), author of On the Origin of Species and originator of the principle of natural selection, was born and died in England. The chair came from Down House, his home in Kent, England.

But did he actually sit in it?

“Given Darwin’s size and the diminutive scale of the “ladies side chair” from Down House, I think it is very unlikely that Darwin ever actually sat in it,” said Academy Senior Fellow Robert Peck, who co-wrote the Academy’s long history in A Glorious Enterprise: The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and the Making of American Science.

Did Darwin ever sit here? What do you think? ANS Coll. 2011.106.
Did Darwin ever sit here? What do you think? ANS Coll. 2011.106.

 

Darwin’s great-granddaughter, Cecily Darwin Littleton of Philadelphia, inherited the chair and presented it to the Academy in 1989.

The Academy’s past president, accomplished scientist Joseph Leidy, met Darwin only once, when English scientist Richard Owen introduced them during Leidy’s first visit to Europe in 1848. The two corresponded in 1860, when Darwin thanked Leidy for his personal support of the theory of natural selection. This letter is also preserved in the archives.

 

If you are interested in a behind-the-scenes tour of the library, please visit our website or call 215-299-1060.

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