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Darwin’s Children Represent Highs and Lows of Famous Scientist’s Personal Life

Book explains that despite death of 3 young children, story is ‘not all genetic doom and gloom’

Scientifically, Charles Darwin’s legacy is legendary, his theory of evolution through natural selection fueling a century and a half of research. But Ohio State University researcher Tim Berra would argue that Darwin has another legacy, marked by personal tragedy and highlighted by pride in accomplishment – the stories of the 10 children born to him and his wife, Emma Wedgwood, his first cousin.

Berra, professor emeritus of evolution, ecology and organismal biology at Ohio State’s Mansfield campus, is the author of the new book Darwin & His Children: His Other Legacy (2013, Oxford University Press).

A longtime Darwin enthusiast turned biographer, Berra grew curious about the Darwin children while researching Charles Darwin: The Concise Story of an Extraordinary Man, published in 2009.

Tim Berra Tim Berra

He and Emma lost three young children to illness. Darwin was devastated by the death of his first daughter Annie, who died of tuberculosis at age 10. The second daughter (Mary) lived for only 23 days. The Darwins’ last child (Charles Waring), born when Emma was 48 years old, was a Down syndrome baby who died of scarlet fever at the age of 18 months.   Of the surviving seven, six of the children had long marriages, but only three of them had children of their own.

These circumstances weren’t just bad luck. Darwin suspected that being married to his first cousin was similar to the inbreeding he studied in plants, which was shown to negatively affect the health and number of resulting offspring.

Surviving Darwin children excelled professionally. The first son (William) had a 40-year banking career. A daughter (Henrietta) became her father’s editor and mother’s biographer after enduring multiple illnesses as a child.

Three sons (George, Francis and Horace) had prominent scientific careers. George, a mathematician and astronomer, became the world’s expert on tides, and Francis was a foremost authority on plant physiology. Both were academics at Cambridge University. Horace was a world-class instrument maker and founder of the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company. All three were elected Fellows of the Royal Society and knighted.  

Another son (Leonard) served in the army and Parliament and promoted the study of human genetics. The fourth daughter (Elizabeth), about whom not much is known, never married and lived with her parents until they died.

Charles experienced fame and wealth, but he exerted no pressure on his children to be like him. He did capitalize on his intelligence and financial comfort, ensuring that his sons received a solid education. Emma home-schooled the daughters, which was customary in Victorian times.

“Charles was proud of his surviving children. … They were given the freedom to be whatever they could become,” Berra writes. “The Darwin upbringing infused these offspring with a sense of wonder and curiosity, as well as a scientific methodology that encouraged observation, experimentation and analysis. This, no doubt, influenced their career paths.”

Berra’s career has been devoted to Darwin and evolution, and the study of weird Australian fishes. He is a University Professorial Fellow at Charles Darwin University and a research associate at the Museums and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory in Darwin, Australia.

He will return to Australia in February to deliver lectures commemorating Charles’ birthday on Feb. 12 and to resume fieldwork on nurseryfish; the males of this species are characterized by carrying their eggs on a hook on their head.


Contact: Tim Berra: (419) 755-4310, Berra.1@osu.edu

Written by Emily Caldwell, (614) 292-8310; Caldwell.151@osu.edu