Darwin treasure safely retrieved from rubble

23:52, Jul 20 2012
Amanda Wagener
SCIENTIFIC TREASURE: Amanda Wagener holds the letter by Charles Darwin that was found in a Redcliffs home destroyed by the quake. Wagener is a descendant of Richard Lloyd, who wrote to Darwin in 1881.

An elderly Christchurch woman has recovered a scientific treasure from the ruins of her earthquake-hit house.

She found in a bureau in her Redcliffs home a letter by Charles Darwin in 1881 apologising for an error in one of his books on evolution.

During the February 2011 quake, stone walls collapsed around the bureau, where the letter had been hidden for 59 years.

The 93-year-old woman, who did not want to be named, escaped with only minor injuries after clambering over rubble. The bureau was retrieved from the red-stickered house three months later and the letter was found in good condition.

It has attracted interest from Darwin scholars in Britain and Singapore, as well as from Canterbury University academics.

Christie's auction house in London has valued the letter at up to $10,000. Darwin was famous for his theory that all life evolved from common ancestors. He expanded his views in his 1872 book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, which traced the animal origins of human expressions such as fear, love and joy.

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After reading the book, Richard Lloyd, of Birmingham, the grandfather of the Christchurch woman, wrote to Darwin with a minor correction.

Although Darwin had maintained that tame foxes were not known to lick the hands of their masters, Lloyd said he was aware of a case where that had happened.

A short time later, he received the letter: "Dear Sir, I am much obliged to you for pointing out the error into which I have fallen and which I will correct if there ever is a new edition of my little book on Expressions. I remain, Dear Sir, with many thanks, yours faithfully, Charles Darwin."

The next edition of the book carried a footnote referring to Lloyd's correction.

The woman said the letter had remained in the family's possession but was seldom talked about or taken out of its envelope. It was brought by ship to New Zealand by the woman's father in 1953.

John van Wyhe, founder of the Darwin Online project and a senior research fellow at the University of Singapore, said "the letter is of course of interest to historians" and urged it be recorded with the Darwin Correspondence Project in Cambridge, England.

Project director Jim Secord appreciated being told of the letter, a scan of which would be added to the project's comprehensive records of Darwin correspondence.

Research by project staff led to the discovery of Lloyd's letter to Darwin in the Cambridge University archives.

Head of biological sciences at Canterbury University Professor Paula Jameson said that the school would be keen to look after the letter.

The Press