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    Charles Darwin requests a biological examination of an otterhound for his next book

    Charles Darwin Letter Signed with a postscript in Darwin's hand. Three pages, 5" x 8", "Down. Bromley. Kent. S.E.," March 21 [1865]. Six years after publishing his controversial work On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection, Charles Darwin writes this letter to Dr. Francis Buckland of London, requesting a biological examination of an otterhound. Darwin published the findings in his next book, The Variations of Animals and Plants under Domestication. The body of the letter reads in full:

    "I have heard from Mr. [Henry] Pennell who enclosed your note, & have written to him to say that the state of my health rendered it impossible for me to meet him in London, but that I w'd attend to any written communication. Whenever you can spare time, I hope you will have the great kindness to let me hear about the skin between the toes of otter hounds in comparison with other hounds. I can only repeat what I said before that I sh'd be delighted to see you here, but at the same time I am bound to state that on some days I can see no one & can never talk with anyone more than for a quarter or half an hour."

    Following his signature, Darwin himself writes as a postscript, "Shall you think me very uncouth if I ask you to give me your Photograph in a Carte de V[isite].?"

    As an adult, Darwin was frequently ill, something he often mentioned in his letters. By the early 1860s, his frequent illnesses prevented him from travelling, so his work was increasingly done at his estate, Down House, in Kent. From there, he relied on his acquaintances for particular observations on specimens he could not obtain at Down House. This letter is an example of that reliance.

    When Darwin wrote this letter, he was working on his next book, The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, which he hoped to publish in the fall of 1865. Much of the two-volume book carefully examines animal and plant domestication. Earlier on December 11, 1864, while working on the chapter "Domestic Dogs and Cats," Darwin had asked Francis Buckland to compare the differences in the feet of otterhounds to regular hounds. (Otterhounds are known for their unique characteristics of webbed feet and oily coats, which allow them to be especially effective in water. In the mid-nineteenth century, the hounds were used for hunting otters.) Two days later, Dr. Buckland replied that a friend had promised him a dead otterhound to examine. Apparently not satisfied, Darwin also asked fellow natural historian Thomas Campbell Eyton for the same information in a letter dated December 29. In the letter offered here, Darwin tried once more for Buckland's assistance. By October 2, 1866, Darwin still hadn't received the information, so he wrote yet another letter to Buckland, again reminding him about his request for information on otterhounds. "Perhaps you may remember my asking you about the feet of otter hounds. You obtained some information but never sent it me. . . . I now enclose a query on the same subject, if you will be so kind as to insert it." That same day, Darwin wrote to the magazine Land and Water asking for any owner of otterhounds "to examine the feet of two or three dogs, and compare them with respect to the membrane between the toes with some other dog of a named breed. It would be best to compare the feet with those of some other sort of hound. With some otter hounds the skin between the toes is certainly more largely developed than in the case of common dogs, and I am anxious to know whether this is the general rule." That request of Land and Water finally brought Darwin the answers he sought, and he published them in 1868 in The Variations of Animals and Plants. "In Canada there is a dog which is peculiar to the country and common there, and this has 'half-webbed feet and is fond of the water.' English otter-hounds are said to have webbed feet: a friend examined for me the feet of two, in comparison with the feet of some harriers and bloodhounds; he found the skin variable in extent in all, but more developed in the otter-hounds than in the others. . . . Man [by his selection of web-footed dogs such as the otterhound] thus closely imitates Natural Selection" (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1892, 41). In footnote 80 on page 41, Darwin credits an article in Land and Water by Charles Ottley Groom-Napier, a writer of nature topics who was opposed to the theory of evolution, for the otterhound information. Groom-Napier's article was written on October 13, 1866, eleven days after Darwin's request of the magazine. Months later on March 9, 1867, Buckland notified Darwin that he was still searching for an otterhound. A reply from Darwin, who was possibly frustrated with Buckland, does not exist. (All above quotations, except the one attributed to The Variations of Animals and Plants, come from The Correspondence of Charles Darwin: Volume 14; 1866 [Cambridge University Press, 2004].)

    Francis Buckland (1826-1880) was a medical doctor who practiced in London until 1853. From 1856 through 1865, he was a staff writer for the Field magazine. He began publication of the weekly journal Land and Water in 1866. He was an inspector at the Salmon Fisheries Office beginning in 1867.

    Henry Pennell, mentioned in the first sentence of the letter, was a naval department clerk who had contributed articles to natural history journals. In 1863, he wrote The Angler-Naturalist, a history and explanation of the study of fish. Buckland wrote a letter of introduction to Darwin for Pennell three days before this letter was written. Pennell contacted Darwin and asked for a meeting in London, but Darwin was too ill to travel, preferring to correspond instead.

    Included with this letter are additional items, such as a newspaper article and images from a magazine and a book, all concerning Darwin. Pages one and four of the letter bear mounting remnants, though no text has been affected. Darwin's signature is large, clear, and bold. The letter bears smoothed folds.




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