Charles Darwin (1809-1882), biologist and naturalist universally known for his theory on the evolution of the species by natural selection, can be considered as one of the men who deeply revolutionised the world of science.
Less known was the role of his wife, Emma Wedgwood, in the development of the husband’s study as well as the decision to publish “On the origin of Species” in 1859 after many years of research and experiments.
Aware of the revolutionary and, from a religious viewpoint, blasphemous content, Darwin had never found the right time for publishing. It was the wife Emma who helped him in the work of revision of the many pages of notes gathered throughout the years. She did it despite going against her Christian beliefs and perhaps she convinced him to publish it, when the young scientist Alfred Wallace had come to articulate a very similar theory.
On the origin of Species – 1859
A happy marriage the one between Charles and Emma, as well as fruitful even from a working point of view. Yet incredibly in contrast with the very theories that the scientist himself had talked about as the two were in reality first cousins.
Charles Darwin – 1869
The choice of getting married was not in any way a quick decision: Darwin started thinking about this possibility with his usual pragmatism. On his way back from a research trip on board of the Beagle, Darwin settled in London. He said:
” One cannot live this solitary life, with groggy old age, friendless & cold, & childless staring one in ones face, already beginning to wrinkle(…)”.
Most likely the idea of living by himself would not conciliate very well with his hypochondriac character.
The Beagle route
In 1838 he made a list of pros and cons on a possible marriage. Ont the pros side there was the chance of having children (if God allowed it), to have a partner by one’s side until a late age, a person to have enjoy the time with, a comfortable house and there music, books and chats in front of the warmth of a lit up fireplace.
All those advantages would have taken the freedom away, along with the possibility of “conversing with intelligent men to the Club”, let alone the anxiety for possible economical crisis, the reduced availability of money to buy books, the time loss for familiar-type activities (which instead could have been used in more interested ways like learning French, to see the continent or visiting America).
In the end, Darwin decided that his life would have been happier as a married man and when looking for a partner he didn’t go too far: Emma Wedgwood was perfect, although daughter of his maternal uncle. The girl, not so young anymore for the standards of the time (30 years old when they married), had breathed in a very well-off family environment which was also intellectually open; the girl in fact had travelled abroad a few times and she even participated to the Grand Tour of Italy, which was not a very common thing amongst the girls from the 1800.
The two knew each other from a very long time and their blood relation at the time was not considered as an impairment, but actually the contrary. After all even the Queen Victoria had married her first cousin (and by doing this she spread haemophilia amongst the European royalties), and anyway, in the Darwin-Wedgwood families there had been previous unions between blood relative people. The possible negative consequences for the hypothetical offspring was well known by the scientific community and Darwin was perfectly aware of the theories of his own cousin Francis Galton (inventor of the term “eugenics”) who warned him about the possible risks for their own children.
Emma Darwin with her son Leonard
Emma and Charles got married on the 29th of January 1839 and their marriage was a long and, as much as possible, happy. Darwin, one week before the ceremony, wrote to the future bride:
“..I think you will humanize me, & soon teach me there is greater happiness, than building theories, & accumulating facts in silence & solitude”.
Between the 1839 and the 1856, the couple had 10 children which brought in much joy as well as sorrow: 3 of them died when they were still young while other 3 in adulthood appeared to be sterile. In any case none of them was in good health and for this reason Darwin once stated:
We are misery and we all should be exterminated
Anne Darwin, died at 10
However there was no disease directly linkable to the blood relation affecting them (apart from infertility, perhaps), but the unstable health condition of their children led Darwin to conduct several tests on plants, while analysing the genetic risks of crosses between blood relate people. The results of such studies worried him deeply and in 1870 he wrote to the parliamentarian John Lubbock to warn him: “the marriages between blood relate people lead to deafness, stupidity and blindness”, suggesting to insert some specific questions on the matter when they would proceed with the census.
Below: Emma Darwin in her old days
His proposal was not accepted.