The death of Annie Darwin

March 28, 2013 • 4:53 am

Apropos of yesterday’s post on Darwin’s private life and emotional side, reader DermotC sent me a picture of the tombstone of Darwin’s daughter Anne (“Annie”), who died in 1851 the age of 10.  She was the second of Charles and Emma’s ten children, and, as many of us know, her loss was a severe blow to her parents.  Two other offspring died young (typical of those days), but note that one of them, Leonard, lived until 1943!

Anne Elizabeth Darwin (1841-1851)
Anne Elizabeth Darwin (1841-1851)

The cause of her death isn’t known. It used to be thought that she died of scarlet fever, but she’d been ill for two years and, as a recent scientific article speculates, it was more likely tuberculosis. Darwin had taken her to the spa town of Great Malvern for the famous “Gully water cure,” a regimen of drinking, dousing, and perambulation that Darwin himself had tried in a vain attempt to cure his own chronic illness (still unknown, but possibly “cyclic vomiting syndrome“).

It was at Great Malvern that Annie died, and there she was buried. The photo was taken at the Great Malvern Priory churchyard, and here are DermotC’s notes on the photo:

As you’re running posts about Darwin’s private life, I thought I’d send you my photo of the gravestone of his daughter Anne who died aged 10.  There’s plenty on the net about it, but my brother and I found this on a pilgrimage to the lovely Great Malvern.
The inscription, I think, demonstrates a compromise between his growing atheism and the Christianity of his wife.  It reads:
Anne Elizabeth Darwin
Born March 2 1841
Died April 28 1851
A dear and good child
No mention of God or being called to the after-life, as one might expect in this era; and starkly sad.
It is in Malvern Priory in Worcestershire (pronounced Wusstersher) and a beautiful graveyard it is (btw. Kierkegaard means graveyard!).  She went there, with her father, for the waters as her condition deteriorated.  You probably know that her death affected him deeply.
It’s often said that the death of Annie pushed her father towards nonbelief in God (the older Darwin was at best a deist, but perhaps an agnostic), I suspect because he couldn’t comport the death of his lovely daughter with the existence of a loving God. That is supported by a famous letter he wrote to the American biologist Asa Gray in 1860, saying that he couldn’t understand how the sufferings produced by natural selection could be countenanced by “a beneficent & omnipotent God.”
Darwin wrote a touching memorial to Anne a week after her death; below are few excerpts from the Darwin Correspondence Project. They make me tear up, for Darwin was not an effusive man, and must have been in great agony to write what’s below.

From whatever point I look back at her, the main feature in her disposition which at once rises before me is her buoyant joyousness tempered by two other characteristics, namely her sensitiveness, which might easily have been overlooked by a stranger & her strong affection. Her joyousness and animal spirits radiated from her whole countenance & rendered every movement elastic & full of life & vigour. It was delightful & cheerful to behold her. Her dear face now rises before me, as she used sometimes to come running down stairs with a stolen pinch of snuff for me, her whole form radiant with the pleasure of giving pleasure. Even when playing with her cousins when her joyousness almost passed into boisterousness, a single glance of my eye, not of displeasure (for I thank God I hardly ever cast one on her,) but of want of sympathy would for some minutes alter her whole countenance. This sensitiveness to the least blame, made her most easy to manage & very good: she hardly ever required to be found fault with, & was never punished in any way whatever. Her sensitiveness appeared extremely early in life, & showed itself in crying bitterly over any story at all melancholy; or on parting with Emma even for the shortest interval. Once when she was very young she exclaimed “Oh Mamma, what should we do, if you were to die”.

. . .Her health failed in a slight degree for about nine months before her last illness; but it only occasionally gave her a day of discomfort: at such times, she was never in the least degree8 cross, peevish or impatient; & it was wonderful to see, as the discomfort passed, how quickly her elastic spirits brought back her joyousness & happiness. In the last short illness, her conduct in simple truth was angelic; she never once complained; never became fretful; was ever considerate of others; & was thankful in the most gentle, pathetic manner for everything done for her. When so exhausted that she could hardly speak, she praised everything that was given her, & said some tea “was beautifully good.” When I gave her some water, she said “I quite thank you”; & these, I believe were the last precious words ever addressed by her dear lips to me.But looking back, always the spirit of joyousness rises before me as her emblem and characteristic: she seemed formed to live a life of happiness: her spirits were always held in check by her sensitiveness lest she should displease those she loved, & her tender love was never weary of displaying itself by fondling & all the other little acts of affection.—We have lost the joy of the Household, and the solace of our old age:— she must have known how we loved her; oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly we do still & shall ever love her dear joyous face. Blessings on her.—

April 30. 1851.

35 thoughts on “The death of Annie Darwin

  1. I seem to remember something about the grave being lost for a while, or maybe the gravestone got moved and replaced? (I can’t remember… was it in Browne’s biography of Darwin?… searches failing brain cells…)

  2. Isn’t “IHS”, at least implicitly, a mention of the Christian god? It is often considered an abbreviation for “Iesus Hominum Salvator”.

    1. Hence the “compromise between his growing atheism and the Christianity of his wife” that DermotC notes.

  3. I was walking through an old cemetery (in the UK) taking photos a couple of months ago. I noticed that before around 1850 lots of the inscriptions talked of ‘praying for the soul of…’ or ‘soul taken up by God’. After 1850 there were more ‘taken by cruel illness’ or ‘accident’. Then from around 1900ish the inscriptions were mostly ‘in memoriam’ or ‘rest in peace’. Is it too sweeping to wonder if peoples’ idea of God changed from Running the Universe, to caretaker of the dead, to something less important?

    An anecdote is not necessarily evidence of some wider change, but it might suggest the basis of a more methodical investigation into social change.

    1. There’s probably a PhD dissertation out there somewhere that examines this subject. Here in the USA a standard bit of research (when I studied many decades ago) was by James Deetz. He examined changes in early American gravestone design and how these reflected greater cultural/belief shifts. A quick google turned up this if you are interested in more:

    2. I find graveyards incredibly interesting. (And sad, of course.) Just that feeling of touching the past: Some of the grave stones in the UK are really old, yet well preserved. Keep pulling away the brambles and they just get older and older and older.

      And you can see things like epidemics sweep thorugh a community taking the young. (Attention anti-vaxers.)

      1. There’s a (minor) geological dating system that depends on graveyards.
        Lichens grow at a relatively steady rate, but it varies with lichen species, rock type, orientation and climate. Graveyards provide useful calibration data, complete with the (approximate) date of erection of the calibration sample carved into it’s surface.

  4. That was moving, but very difficult to read. Being a father a bit older than average of two 9 year old children, one a girl, it is impossible not to imagine my daughter in place of Anne. And that is just about more than I can bear.

  5. Darwin says in his autobiography that Annie’s death sped him along toward atheism. I once had a chance to buy the 6th edition of the Origin, dedicated by Charles to his wife. He told her that his book had caused her much grief. He had loved her since first meeting her and loved her still.

    I had already bought a beautiful first edition of the Variation of Animal and Plants, for $200, from the dealer and could not spend more money on books getting $10,000 a year for teaching at Cornell in 1969, paying tuition for my wife at Cornell Law School. He wanted $100 for it.

        1. Lots of book dealers, if they are not specialists, misprice their books. The highest and lowest prices on older books are usually set by unknowledgeable sellers. That $100 Origin might be legit if you’re buying it from someone who usually does garage sales. (Plus, this was back in 1969. For what 6th editions are going for these days, see here.)

  6. I recommend that everyone see the film Creation starring Paul Bettany as Darwin, Jennifer Connelly as his wife, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Hooker. Marvellous and moving film detailing Darwin’s battles to deal with the death of Annie, his own illness, the end of his own religious belief and the difficulty it causes with his wife, all the while formulating On Origin of Species. The film stays loyal to reality brilliantly and doesn’t sensationalise like most films do with historical events. Guaranteed to bring a tear to your eye too!

    1. I enjoyed the film very much too, we own a copy. Bettany is an wonderful actor. Particularly (IMO) playing opposite Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Mind, Master and Commander).

      1. I also appreciate Russell Crowe’s acting, but I won’t get into any personal stuff about him because it will only poison your view of him.
        (The personal stuff I got from someone I see regularly who was in the same class as he in secondary school)

  7. Holy cow! I grew up about 5 miles from Malvern, across the river Severn. My mother taught at the Chase high school just south of the main town. Yet I never knew this grave was there. Yet another childhood opportunity squandered.


  8. I am ashamed to say that although I live less than 10 miles from Gt Malvern I have yet to visit the grave. I have been meaning to for years but somehow have never got round to it. I promise I will correct this asap …

  9. I had a daughter who died when she was 15. The pain is appalling so I can empathize with Darwin to a certain extent. If only Annie could have known how famous her father would be!

  10. I have two connections with Charles Darwin. My daughter shares his daughter Annie’s birthdate. And I know a young lad named Theodore Darwin who is a direct descendent of his.

  11. IHS

    Other interpretations:

    Iesuitae habent satis (Jesuits have enough)

    Iesuitae hominum seductores (Jesuits seductors of people)

  12. You can see Darwin’s memorial to Annie side-by-side with the manuscript here:

    Although it’s a traditional story that Annie’s death affected/destroyed/ended Darwin’s faith or belief in God- there is in fact not only no actual evidence for this story but plenty to show he lost he faith long before. See my recent article with Mark Pallen: The Annie Darwin hypothesis: Did the death of his daughter cause Darwin to “give up Christianity”? Centaurus 54: 1-19 (2012).

    Maybe also of interest to readers here: Was Darwin an atheist?

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