Peabody publicizes Darwin’s letters to Yale

Charles Darwin may never have made it across the ocean to visit Yale, but one of his most well-known letters did — and it stayed for more than just a visit.

In an effort to publicize Yale’s connection with the famed scientist, Derek Briggs, director of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, will read aloud from the original copy of a letter Darwin once sent a Yale faculty member, as museum visitors eat cake at the Peabody’s “Birthday Party for Charles Darwin” at 4:45 p.m. today.

“Having the Darwin letter is a source of great pride for the museum,” Jane Pickering, deputy director of the Peabody, said. “It’s pretty special to hold these letters in your hand — with gloves on, of course — and know who they came from.”

The letter, dated Aug. 31, 1880, praises O.C. Marsh, a renowned Yale paleontologist and the Peabody’s first unofficial director, for providing the “best support to the theory of evolution, which has appeared within the last 20 years.”

Darwin wrote the letter after Marsh sent him a letter and copy of his monograph, “Odontornithes: A Monograph of the Extinct Toothed Birds of North America,” in July of the same year.

In fact, the Peabody has two of Marsh’s specimens described in the letter as “these old birds” on display in the Great Hall of Dinosaurs. But Pickering said people are often too busy looking at the dinosaurs to notice the two skeletons of the Cretaceous toothed bird, Hesperornis.

Briggs said he doubts that many people are aware of Darwin’s connection with Yale, which also includes a lengthy correspondence with another Yale professor and renowned scientist, James Dana, currently on display in Sterling Memorial Library.

Dana and Marsh were two of the handful of American scientists whose work Darwin followed keenly during his lifetime, a fact that demonstrates the importance of the scientific work taking place at Yale in the late 19th century, as well as the worldwide renown of Yale scientists, Pickering said.

“I think there is often the sense that Yale has become an international university relatively recently,” she said. “But this connection with Darwin, along with many others, emphasizes that Yale faculty have always worked with colleagues across the world and been international leaders in their field pretty much from the very beginning.”

Marsh certainly did his part in advancing the Yale name.

In fact, the letter — and with it, proof of one of Yale’s most significant connections to Darwin — might not have survived had Marsh not convinced his uncle, George Peabody, to donate $150,000 to build a museum to house his numerous fossil collections.

In addition to his field work, Marsh described and named over 500 new species of fossil animals during his life, becoming the first Yale professor of paleontology in 1866 — the first position of its kind in America, and the second in the world.

Darwin’s birthday party will be followed by a talk at 5:30 p.m. entitled “The Discovery of the Gorilla and How It Shook the World” by Robert McCracken Peck, a senior fellow of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Both events are free and open to the public.

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