Digging for Darwin


The New York Times

May 17, 2009

Digging for Darwin

Illustration reproduced with permission from John van Wyhe ed

Dozens of people return overdue books to the Boston Public Library every day. Probably only one person, however, has ever walked in holding a book that had been missing for 80 years. Please salute Julie Geissler, the New Hampshire resident who stunned library staff members by showing up unannounced one day in 2001 to return a rare first-edition copy of Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species," one of the most famous books ever written.

What was Geissler doing with this copy of the treatise that so brilliantly laid out the principles of evolution? Well, in the early 1920s, someone removed the volume from the library. About five years later, Geissler says, a relative of hers, a scholar in Providence, R.I., bought it at a sale. Several years ago, Geissler's mother, sorting through old family belongings, gave the book to Geissler. "It was in a box in the attic," she recalled in a recent interview. "If my mother hadn't noticed, it would have been thrown in the trash." Geissler and her husband decided to return the book: "Now everyone can see it."

Through it all, this copy of the "Origin" has remained in good condition. "Whoever had it for most of the 80 years kept it nicely and clearly treasured it," said Susan Glover, who oversees the rare-books department at the Boston Public Library. And it is a treasure. A first edition of the "Origin" sold last year at Christie's for $194,500.

But as celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the book's publication continue, the episode raises a question. How many other first editions of "On the Origin of Species" are still tucked away in bookcases, boxes or attics? Could anyone else stumble across Darwin's master­piece by accident?

There are reasons to suspect it will happen again. Unlike any other epochal work of science, "On the Origin of Species" was written for a mass audience. Instead of being acquired only by elite intellectuals and libraries, it was bought by popular-science readers within the Victorian bourgeoisie. Among rare books, this makes the "Origin" a further rarity: the people's scientific blockbuster, if you will.

This manner of distribution increases the odds that "Origin" first editions are resting in obscure places. "It seems highly likely that some copies are lying about unrecognized," said John van Wyhe, a bye-fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge, and director of the Darwin Online project, which places Darwin documents on the Web. That cannot be said of some other famous works. For example, scholars believe they have an essentially complete list of 276 surviving first editions of Copernicus's "On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres," with further surprise findings highly unlikely.

By contrast, no one knows how many of the 1,250 first-edition copies of the "Origin" still exist. Thus, in this anniversary year, researchers for Darwin Online are conducting the first census of the first edition, contacting private collectors, studying library catalogs and hoping owners will contact them through the Darwin Online Web site. "Clearly quite a few are in private hands," said Angus Carroll, director of the census. (For those wondering about their own copy, he suggests a handy way of identifying a first edition: on the 11th line of Page 20, the word "species" is incorrectly rendered as "speceies.")

Why is Carroll so certain that more first editions are still in private hands? Scholars know that Darwin's publisher, John Murray, printed 1,250 copies of the "Origin" for its Nov. 24, 1859, publication. Darwin quickly made some revisions, and Murray declared his next printing of 3,000, in January 1860, to be the second edition. At the time, the rapid appearance of a new edition may have diminished the distinctiveness of the first edition, leaving it in the hands of regular readers. Carroll believes that the first formal census figure, to be announced in November, will be between 600 and 700 copies, but said that within a few years, "I fully expect to find 1,000." Even so, a couple of hundred would remain at large; Carroll estimates that only three to seven emerge for sale each year.

Certainly, some "Origin" first editions are easy to trace. Darwin was given a dozen and bought 80 more for notable colleagues and intellectuals, including the geologist Charles Lyell and the social philosopher Herbert Spencer. "There is a very good chance the ones sent to prominent individuals have survived," van Wyhe said.

Around 1,100 first-edition copies were sold publicly, according to Janet Browne, a Harvard historian of science and Darwin biographer. Of these, 500 were purchased by Mudie's Circulating Library, which mailed its subscribers books every month. Mudie's also ran a secondhand store in London, and Browne believes they "almost certainly" sold first editions there. But others from the circulating collection may have disappeared into home libraries. In any case, even the copies now owned by large institutions show us how first editions of the "Origin" bounced from homes to booksellers and back.

Consider the two copies I examined at the Boston Public Library (which owns three in all). How did the library acquire them in the first place? "We don't know," Susan Glover of the rare-books division said. There is no acquisition record for either book. Julie Geissler's copy has been rebound. The other copy, still in its original green and gold binding, has some older ownership labels inside it. One reads "R. G. Tatham," with an address around London's docklands area. Another label cites W. W. Lucy, a bookshop. Still another, in both English and Latin, says "Caroli ac Mariae Lacaitae Filiorumque Selham Sussex."

Glover suggested I take these clues to pursue my own sleuthing about this copy — so I did. These few labels, it turns out, evoke a lot of history. "R. G. Tatham" was almost certainly one Robert Gordon Tatham, a "much respected" London doctor who lived from 1829 to 1895, according to his obituary in The British Medical Journal. He sounds like just the kind of interested professional — not an academic specialist — Darwin was hoping to reach.

The joint English-Latin inscription indicates the book once belonged to a couple, Charles and Mary Lacaita, and their children. Charles Lacaita, a member of Parliament in the 1880s and a botanist, lived in the town of Selham, in West Sussex. His father, Sir James Lacaita, was one of many prominent Italian exiles who moved to England in the 19th century, and a noted bibliophile. His son, Francis, was killed in World War I. Book dealers have found similar Lacaita family labels, most likely from the early 20th century, in other science volumes.

I would guess this book belonged to Tatham, was sold to W. W. Lucy after his death, then to the Lacaita clan. It is not clear how either copy crossed the Atlantic, although prominent American families of the time often collected art and valuables in Europe, then donated heavily to public institutions. The Boston Public Library, housed in an 1895 Charles McKim building decorated with John Singer Sargent murals, attracted this kind of patronage.

So in these first editions of "On the Origin of Species," we glimpse an intellectually curious member of the Victorian bourgeoisie, the unusual family story of an Italian exile in England, the agony of the Great War, the rise of American wealth and collecting, a Rhode Island scholar's quiet bibliophilia, and a New Hampshire woman's matter-of-fact generosity. Not bad for a couple of books. And while they wound up in a library, many others that remain at large probably offer similarly rich and varied histories.

"There might be more of these amazing, serendipitous moments to come," van Wyhe said. With all due respect to the high-powered institutions and collectors who are preserving and cataloging the first edition of "On the Origin of Species," it would reflect the popular spirit of Darwin's work if it remained a source of such humble surprises.

Peter Dizikes is a science journalist based in Boston.



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