While women played a key part in assisting the work of men like Darwin, so too did men. Darwin’s correspondence shows that men and women alike offered – and were asked – to assist others in their work.
In the correspondence “assistance” is less the stuff of sexual hierarchy and more part-and-parcel of the collaborative scientific process. As a result, scientific assistants come in many guises; they are junior and senior, working and middle class and – crucially – female and male.
Associated selected readings.
1. What sorts of assistance do i) men and ii) women offer, and in what context?
2. What do requests for assistance tell us about the perceived expertise of i) men and ii) women?
3. Are there any patterns in the way that Darwin asks for the assistance of i) men and ii) women?
4. How does Darwin respond to the assistance of i) men and ii) women?
Letter 347 – Darwin to Whewell, W., [10 March 1837]
In this letter, Darwin seeks to decline the Secretaryship of the Geological Society. Once his writing skills and knowledge of geology are improved he will be happy to be of assistance to Whewell in any way he might suggest.
Letter 717 – Hooker, J. D. to Darwin, [28 November 1843]
In this letter, Hooker thanks Darwin for his offer of assistance with the examination of a large collection of plants. Hooker will gladly accept Darwin’s offer of help.
Letter 1113 – Darwin to Whitby, M. A. T., [2 September 1847]
In this letter, Darwin asks Mrs. Whitby to assist him with his work on the heritability of dark “eyebrows” in caterpillars. She is, he says, the “best authority” on the subject.
Letter 1836 – Berkeley, M. J. to Darwin, [7 March 1856]
In this letter, clergyman and botanist Miles Berkeley details the breeding experiments he has conducted on various seeds. The experiments were carried out “at the suggestion of Dr Hooker” and what little he has ascertained is entirely at Darwin’s service.
Letter 3298 – Darwin to Clarke, W. B., [25 October 1861]
In this letter, Darwin asks William Clarke to pass on information on granite boulders found on Norfolk Island near Australia. He makes a series of other requests for help but knows Clarke will be able to respond to them all thanks to his “indomitable energy”.
Letter 3316 – Darwin to Nevill, D. F., [12 November 1861]
In this letter, Darwin requests the assistance of Lady Dorothy Nevill. He asks if she would be so generous as to send him some plant samples from her hot-house to aid his work on orchids. Nevill is referenced for her “kindness” in Darwin’s Fertilisation of Orchids.
Letter 4373 – Darwin to Wedgwood, K. E. S, M. S. & L. C., [4 August 1862]
In this letter, Darwin thanks his “angel” nieces for their help with the enumeration of Lythrum. He asks whether they will be “more angelic than angels” and do further work on his behalf.
Letter 5410 – Darwin to Muller, J. F. T., [22 February 1867]
In this letter, Darwin thanks Muller for passing on observations of orchid self-fertility which will be a “most useful addition” to his discussion of self-impotent plants in Variation. Darwin asks Muller for further assistance with his work on Descent and Expression.
Letter 6046 – Weir, J. J. to Darwin, [24 March 1868]
In this letter, John Weir describes experiments he is undertaking in his home to test Wallace’s theory that birds reject highly-coloured caterpillars. Weir was a well-known ‘hobby naturalist’ who conducted numerous experiments for Darwin and Wallace from the comfort of his “pretty garden”.
Letter 6066 – Weir, H. W. to Darwin, [28 March 1868]
In this letter, Harrison Weir passes on information on the recognition of colour by animals. As a painter of animals and judge at two of the country’s largest animal shows, Weir spends lots of time with animals, “Fanciers & Naturalists” and would be happy to prosecute any inquiries Darwin may have on related subjects.
Letter 6081 – Darwin to Bowman, W., [2 April 1868]
In this letter, Darwin requests surgeon and physiologist Bowman’s “kind assistance” with his work on the contraction of the orbicularis during screaming. Since he believes the contraction is the keystone of a whole class of expressions, he is “unwilling to trust a single observer” on the subject.
Letter 6903 – Darwin to Gunther, A. C. L. G., [21 September 1869]
In this letter, Darwin asks Gunther for “a great deal of assistance”. He encloses a list of queries on the basis that “four-fifths of the facts that I give, are quoted from you and your works”.
Letter 8676 – Treat, M. to Darwin, [13 December 1872]
In this letter, Mary Treat details her observations of, and experiments on, Drosera filiformis. She also references her observational work on butterflies and offers to observe birds, insects or plants on Darwin’s behalf.
Letter 8719 – Darwin to Treat, M., [1 January 1873]
In this letter, Darwin gives Mary Treat close instructions on how best to make observations and conduct experiments on his behalf. Darwin is grateful for her work, which is a “great treat”.
Letter 9157 – Darwin to Darwin, G. H., [20 November 1873]
In this letter, Darwin offers the work of editing the second edition of Descent to his son, George. Darwin warns George that it will be tedious work. He has consulted Mr. Bates who has suggested a wage of around 30 guineas for such “labours”.
Letter 10517 – Darwin to Francis, F., [29 May 1876]
In this letter Darwin gives his son, Francis, close instructions on how best to conduct experiments on the Teazle. Francis was helping Darwin with work which eventually culminated in the publication of The Movement of Plants in 1880 and his “assistance” is proudly referenced in the book’s opening pages.