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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Emma Darwin and the Invisible Heroism of the Scientific Caretaker.

The road leading to the creation and publication of The Origin of the Species was one of the most tortuous and personally costly in the history of science.  That cost was borne by two individuals, one of whom has a name that will be spoken with reverence and gratitude to the end of human civilization: Charles Darwin.  The other, Emma Wedgwood, who became Emma Darwin upon marrying the rising naturalist in 1839, in spite of recurrent migraines, serial pregnancy, the steady pressure of tending the health of her chronic and severely ill husband and regularly unwell children, and her own religious reservations about the implications of evolutionary theory, not only created the seamless world that made Charles's body of work possible, but used her felicity with languages to translate and report evolutionary developments in Europe for him.  

In this column, we have told many tales of wives of great scientists.  Some, like Gerty Cori , were scientists themselves, and given the same recognition for their talents and work as their husbands.  Others, like Mileva Maric-Einstein, were equally gifted but had the misfortune of being married to men all too willing to snuff out their careers in order to advance their own.  Then we enter the grey area of women who did not begin as scientists but who, upon marrying one, learned enough of the craft to support and play a role in their spouse's work, of which Madame Lavoisier is the reigning archetype.  Emma doesn't quite fit any of these molds, but rather represents a scientific role that we have up to now not spoken about, but that has played a massive if historically invisible part in humanity's scientific history, that of the caretaker.

If, as a world civilization, we are finally learning to recognize and take into account the monetary value of domestic unpaid labor, it is equally high time that we tell the stories of those individuals in history whose work was unpaid and publicly unacknowledged but of critical importance.  Emma Darwin faced nearly unrelenting strain and stress from the moment she married Charles in 1839 to that of his death in 1882, and by virtue of her strength of will and depth of character, managed not only to hold herself together, but kept Charles from imploding under the weight of his fantastically poor health and the mental anguish of watching their children suffer, one after the other with leaden regularity, from hereditary ailments and a cavalcade of Victorian era communicable diseases.  Without Emma, the publication of The Origin of Species would have been inconceivable, and evolutionary theory, instead of marching under the cool and precise ordering of Charles Darwin, would have had as its primary guiding force the intellectually eccentric Alfred Russel Wallace, with a consequently very different path to acceptance. 

For somebody whose main role in the annals of scientific history was persevering in the midst of omnipresent sickness and strain, Emma Wedgwood's early years were about as untroubled as a childhood could possibly be.  She was a grand-daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, the 18th century pottery genius whose creations defined tableware elegance and style for a generation and beyond.  The Wedgwoods were habitually Unitarians, who took education for both girls and boys seriously and so Emma was brought up with the benefit of high quality tutors who instructed her in music and modern languages and encouraged her to read extensively from the Wedgwood book collections.  

Charles Darwin was also a grandchild of Josiah Wedgwood, his mother being the sister of Emma's father.  The Darwins, Wedgwoods, and Allens (from whose family Emma's mother hailed) were genealogically intertwined in the grand Regency tradition, and marriages between near relations would be the rule for a solid half century.  The families all shared a commitment to duty, with the Wedgwoods devoted to social work, the Darwins to the medical profession, and the Allens to political engagement and international issues, and Emma was the inheritor of all these legacies.  Accustomed to the company of The Great from an early age (her uncle was a friend of Coleridge and Wordsworth, and the historian James Mackintosh was a regular family friend), she learned a fearlessness that kept her true to her own opinions and judgment in the face of authority that well prepared her for life married to one of the world's most controversial minds.

For the first 24 years of her life, as the youngest of a tribe of eight siblings raised on the principle that children should be taught by being given opportunities that followed their natural inclinations rather than force-fed reams of musty facts, there was hardly a cloud in Emma's life.  She followed her musical and linguistic inclinations, went on grand tours of Europe where she flatly recorded her dislike of Michaelangelo's works and her love of the waltz, and was generally shaping up to be an intelligent, talented, fearless, but somewhat superficial soul until the day that her closest friend and confidant, her older sister Fanny (the two were born two years apart) suddenly died.  

Fanny was the socially serious, organized, and religiously committed member of the pair, while Emma, nicknamed Slip-Slop by her family, was the more effervescent, and pleasure seeking sibling.  With Fanny's death, Emma vowed to do something of more substance with her life, to take religion more seriously (her mother was famously indifferent to religion, and the Darwins were avowedly agnostic, so earnest religiosity, that archetypal Victorian trait, was something of a rarity among the clans) and pay more attention to the world around her.  She threw herself into the task of caring for her ailing mother and increasingly feeble father, all the while rejecting numerous suitors who failed to sufficiently interest her to merit leaving her elder sister alone to care for their parents.

Then, in 1836, Charles Darwin returned from his thrilling voyage aboard the Beagle to a hero's welcome among the three families.  Before his trip, he had a reputation as a somewhat unpromising and diffuse lad who barely scratched by in university and was interested in hunting and effectively nothing else.  The Beagle expedition focused the young naturalist, gave his mind purpose and his skills of observation and organization, hitherto wasted on cataloguing his hunting results, a space for application.  To the Wedgwoods, Darwins, and Allens, he was suddenly a mythic figure who had striven among romantic landscapes and strange people and came back with astounding ideas about the course of the Earth and the life upon it.  

Emma fell in love, as Charles did with her, but both were so uncertain of their value that they doubted their feelings could possibly be reciprocated by the other until Charles plucked up the courage (after writing an exhaustive list as to the relative merits and drawbacks of marriage) to declare himself.  The two cousins were married in 1839 and moved into their London lodgings shortly thereafter to be closer to Darwin's work.  On the level of personalities, the match could not have been a better one.  Emma's slip-sloppiness and casual approach to children's education, which infuriated Charles's sisters, was a perfect counter-balance to Charles's own tendencies to fastidiousness.  Charles was effusively expressive of his love and his thankfulness for any kindness done him, and Emma, as she would come to sadly realize after her husband's death, throve upon that regular and explicit recognition of her merits and lovability.  

She knew she was loved, valued, and her opinion respected, and it was that knowledge, married to her Wedgwood sense of duty and her Allen resilience, which pushed her through the hardships of the coming years. For Charles Darwin was not a well man.  Plagued by digestion problems that racked his body for days at a time, leaving him in what his doctors described as a state of crushing anguish, he needed all of the support that Emma could spare, and particularly at night when he could not cope without her immediate and constant presence.  He hated the fact that he was such a burden to those around him, and was endlessly profuse in his gratitude for the comfort of her presence and her willingness to forego the rigorous social schedule that was expected of their class but which Charles could not physically withstand.  

The borders of her once continent-spanning existence were heavily curtailed upon marriage, as Emma had to cope not only with Charles's ailments, but her own serial pregnancy which resulted in ten births over seventeen years, of which seven children would reach adulthood.  Though an enthusiastic and early adopter of chloroform to mitigate the pain of childbirth, each new pregnancy was another physical ordeal to bear, and as the children inherited much of their father's weakened constitution, the work of ministering to them, and to Charles, and to her own constantly pregnant state, was taxing even with the help of their few loyal family servants.  

Referred to in family circles as a saint for her uncomplaining assumption of so many duties and hardships, she had yet another hurdle to clear in her famous marriage, one that stemmed from the religious difference between her and her husband.  Emma believed firmly in the utility of prayer, the existence of an afterlife, and many of the other dominant superstitions of the Victorian Era, and the idea that gave her the most pain was that Charles did not and that, as a result, they might be separated forever after death.  Charles knew his growing agnosticism gave Emma pain, and did what he could to avoid a topic that could only hurt her, but his scientific discoveries were all pointing in one unavoidable direction - towards the evolutionary development of living things, including humans, and away from the fanciful but comforting stories of creation contained in the world's religious mythologies.  

Caught between her devotion to the god whose existence seemed to ensure that, some day, she would see her sister and lost children again, and her belief in the good and honest intentions of her curious, truth-seeking husband, she constructed a personal compromise position that allowed her to recognize the validity of both, and put herself at the disposal of each, continuing her prayers and involvement in local church matters, while at the same time aiding the cause of evolution by translating for Charles letters from France and Germany describing the reaction to his ideas abroad, and the extensions to his work being carried out on the continent.  

Charles and Emma lived a life of mutual love, dependence, and enjoyment for four decades until Charles's death in 1882, which occasioned yet one more sacrifice from the woman whose marriage had been an unrelenting stream of them.  The world traveler who stayed at home to tend her ailing flock, the music enthusiast who had to settle for such local concerts as happened to be in the vicinity, the religious believer who was brought into contact with knowledge that kept her from ever believing as she once did, accepted one final loss when the scientific community managed to gain acceptance for Charles's internment in Westminster Abbey next to England's greatest minds.  Charles's internment, not Emma's.  It meant that the plot where the two were supposed to be buried together forever would ultimately only be occupied by Emma, while her husband rested in state far away, and for a woman so concerned with their separation in the hereafter, that could hardly have been an easy sacrifice to make.

Emma lived 14 more years after the death of Charles, and had to come to terms with the fact that nobody would ever need her the way that her husband and children had.  No more could she walk into a room and tangibly feel as well as hear the absolute love and admiration flowing from a person beloved to her.  She kept herself well and busy with grandchildren, gardening, and the music that always fed her being (her grand-nephew was Ralph Vaughan Williams, who would grow up to be one of England's greatest composers but who in youth was supported virtually only by Emma within the family).  On October 1, 1896, she was preparing to go to bed, performing her usual pre-slumber routine of winding her watch, when suddenly she fell back on her pillow, and was dead within a day.  

How do we honor Emma Darwin?  How do we teach ourselves to value the labor of one who worked so selflessly for others without at the same time getting frustrated with the fact that selflessness was so expected of her that she perhaps never had a chance to realize the larger goals she might have once had for herself?  How do we recognize the heroism and worth of the scientific helpmate without changing that recognition into an implicit demand that other women in similar positions should and must do likewise, and do so cheerfully?  When does the creation of a saint's crown become a manacle for those who follow?  I clearly have few answers, which is why it has taken me seven years to write a column on this topic.  There is a denigration in the phrase "merely a housekeeper" that we must outgrow if we are to properly value all forms of labor, but there is an equal danger to the Angel In The House trope which the Victorians knew all too well as a laudation that offered restrictions and subservience while pretending to honor and respect.  There is a middle ground to be found, somewhere, and my instinct is that it lies in telling as diverse an array of histories as we can, showing that there are Milevas as well as Emmas, Coris as well as Lavoisiers, and that by following one in accord with your own nature and honest sense of self-development, you are not thereby automatically shaming yourself in the eyes of the others.  

There are many Women You Should Know on your way to becoming the person you are, each showing a path to fulfillment or telling a tale of stifled self, and by listening to each, and combining their wisdom and way with our own, we can construct a being we are proud to call Ourselves.  


Emma Darwin: The Inspirational Wife of a Genius (2001) by Edna Healey tells the full story of Emma Darwin, and more than that.  The Wedgwoods, Allens, and Darwins are shown in their interconnection for two full generations before Emma even arrives on the scene, and even the most dedicated of Jane Austen-style enthusiasts will eventually break down into open-jawed dismay over the tumbling relationships between people who all have basically the same five names.  BUT there are some sparkling portraits of Charles's and Emma's forebears in and amongst the swirl of Regency siblings, and when it comes to the domestic world of the Darwins, and the truly appalling role call of ill health that they had to bear up under, it is a deep and important look into a hidden part of the story of evolution.  


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