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h i s t o r i c a l  n o t e k a  t i m i r i a z e v

With Darwin at Down

Note: Last year, Leon Bell, the distinguished plant physiologist whose autobiographical writings appeared in our most recent issue, sent us two typescripts, published below, and a book about Darwin’s house by the English Heritage Society. Kliment Arkadievich Timiriazev (or Timiryazev) (1843-1920) was the renowned founder of Russian studies in plant physiology and genetics and an ardent Darwinist. Near the end of his life, he welcomed Lenin’s accession to power. We don’t pretend to have more than a passing acquaintance with the complex scientific and ideological battles within early Soviet biological sciences and would welcome informed comment; but we thought the freshness of Timiriazev’s memory of Darwin, written by a strong-minded researcher in pursuit of knowledge, yet candid about his belief in the affinity of science and Liberal politics based in reason and liberation, would interest our readers. N.B.: Down House is located in Downe, Kent, and is an English Heritage museum. -KM



Leon Bell's Letter


October 30, 1983



P. Titheradge
Custodian of Down House
Downe, Kent

Dear Mr. Titheradge:

You may recall that at the beginning of September there was a visitor from Moscow. That was me and I asked you if you had any material in the museum about the Russian plant physiologist K. A. Timiriazev visiting Darwin at Down. You said that there did not seem to be any and asked me if I could send some. This is what I can now report.

In 1939 the works of Timiriazev were published by the Selkhozgiz (which deciphered means Agricultural Publishing House) in ten volumes. The title of the VII volume is called “Charles Darwin and his Teaching”. Part 1 of the volume consists of four papers:

1.  “Darwin as a model of a scientist”. This was a public lecture at Moscow University in 1878 and contains 34 pages.

2.  “An outline of Darwin’s theory” (140 pp, 1865)

3.  “Charles Darwin and the semi-centennial of Darwinism” (1909, 27 pp).

4.  “The significance of the revolution made by Darwin in modern natural science” (1896, 15 pp).

Part 2 of the volume is called “A rebuke to the anti-Darwinists”. It consists of various polemical papers in defense of Darwinism, some of them written in very strong terms.

Finally the volume contains a number of articles written by Timiriazev which were not included in earlier editions of his work. They are:

1.  “A short outline of the life of Charles Darwin” (1910; 9 pp).

2.  “A visit to Darwin at Downe” (1909; 17 pp).

3.  “The first jubilee of Darwinism” (1908, 10 pp).

4.  “Cambridge and Darwin” (1909, 61 pp).

5.  “Darwin” (a short biography for a Russian encyclopedia, 1912, 12 pp).

The paper which I think would be of greatest interest to you is “A visit of Darwin at Downe”; I also found the “Cambridge and Darwin” paper to be very interesting, particularly since I had been in Cambridge 3 times during my visit to England.

I will try to get a translation of “A visit…”, but that may take time. In the meantime I can offer you this short summary.

Timiriazev, who was a young man of 34 was travelling in Europe in 1877. In England he wanted to visit Hooker at Kew Gardens but only got as far as Thiselton-Dyer (I’m not sure about the English spelling of this name). He asked the latter if he could help him meet Darwin. Dyer said the most he could do was to write to Francis Darwin. With this letter Timiriazev rode by train to Orpington, walked the three miles to Downe, describing in sympathetic words what he saw and experienced during the walk and also his impressions of Down House.

Tim. was met by Francis Darwin to whom Tim. presented his autographed book “Charles Darwin and His Teaching” for his father. The two were soon joined by Darwin’s wife and a few minutes later Darwin himself unexpectedly entered the room. After a few customary remarks Darwin and Tim. began discussing the status of plant physiology in England (which Darwin considered to be virtually nonexistent). Darwin then began questioning Tim. about his work and on learning that he was studying the role of chlorophyll in photosynthesis exclaimed that “chlorophyll is probably the most interesting of organic substances,” a phrase which Tim. and his followers liked to repeat.

The conversation then turned to science in general and Darwin invited his guest to the greenhouse in which he was carrying out experiments on insectivorous plants. On returning to the house they were offered coffee and after having presented an autographed photograph to Tim., Darwin excused himself and left the room. However, he soon returned to say a few words about his position regarding the Russo-Turkish war over Bulgaria.

After refusing an offer to be taken back to the station by horse, Tim. walked part of the way with Francis and soon returned to London.

I have recently visited Timiriazev’s flat in Moscow which is now a museum. There is a picture there depicting Darwin and Tim. in the greenhouse, a reminder of the visit to Down.

I also dropped into the Darwin museum which essentially is a biological museum devoted to the theory of evolution. There is very little there (as far as I could see) about Darwin himself.

If there is any additional information you would like to have please let me know and I will try to help as much as I can.


L. N. Bell
Institute of Plant Physiology
of USSR Academy of Sciences


With Darwin at Down


Preparing in July 1877 to go from Paris to English which I had earlier visited as a tourist I wanted this time to penetrate into its scientific circles. To this end I sought the advice of Professor Degueren, Academician with Jardin des Plantes (Botanical Gardens), who though known for this work in agrochemistry was always interested in the physiology of plants. He was one of the few Frenchmen in whom I encountered something more than the purely external and rather cold civility. There was something hearty and friendly about his manner in spite of the difference of age and status in scientific hierarchy that separated us. He usually addressed me as mon jeune ami (my young friend). Besides, unlike most Frenchmen at the time, he was well disposed towards the English and had visited England more than once. he told me that from his own experience he knew what importance the English attached to letters of recommendation and said he would try to get me one from the director of Jardin des Plantes, Academician Dequen, known for his extensive knowledge of horticulture, to some outstanding English botanist. A few days later I called at [on] Dequen and received a letter from him addressed to Sir Joseph Hooker, Director of the world-famous Botanical Gardens at Kew new London. Seeing on the envelope the name of Darwin’s closest friend I resolved there and then that I would overcome any obstacles to see Darwin. Now, looking back over 50 years I could justify my persistence in my own eyes by the fact that for 45 out of these 50 years I have loyally served Darwinism, propagating, defending and developing it, but at that time I would myself have been hard put to it to find an explanation why I wanted to meet him more than any of the legion of his ardent adherents scattered over the face of the earth. To have some tangible pretexts I dug up from my suitcase a coy of my book Charles Darwin and his Doctrine, whose first edition had been gathering dust for some 15 years at some book dealers’ in St. Petersburg, made it look as elegant as only Paris book-binders were capable of, provided it with the dedication pleading with all sincerity my “profound respect and unbounded admiration”, and set out on my way.

The following morning upon my arrive at London I was already at Kew, that paradise for any botanist and any lover of plants which has not hundreds but tens of thousands of visitors every day and with whose treasures I had been familiar from my previous trips to England. This time, however, I made straight not for the wonderful garden or the unique greenhouses but for the director’s house, or rather what I took to be one, i.e. a modest cottage of grey brick with ordinary windows overgrown with creeping and flowering plants. I rang the doorbell rather confidently but when the door opened I was stunned at the sight of the most magnificent old butler in embroidered livery I had ever seen. To my none-too-confident question, “Is the director at home?” he replied with unhurried dignity: “This is not the director’s home, it’s the home of the Duchess of Cumberland, Aunt of her Majesty the Queen”. Then, seeing that he was dealing not with some important Englishman impinging on Her Majesty’s privacy but simply an ignorant shabby foreigner of whom there were a good many in the botanical gardens next door, he graciously stepped into the middle of the road and with the gentle and elegant movement of his hand indicated the way to an exactly the same kind of cottage occupied by the director. Here a new disappointment was in store for me: I as told that the director himself was so old and so busy that he could not receive strangers and was directed to his assistant and, as I was later to learn, his son-in-law, Mr. Tisselton-Dayer, now Sir William, who has since succeeded his father-in-law as the director and has now retired due to old age. Meanwhile, Hooker himself is still going strong, working, making speeches, at the age of 92! It was not until some time later that I was able to meet him. In fact it was twenty years later. And a year ago he kindly sent me a photograph of himself working at his desk piled high with collections of herbs. Who knows what a cultural legacy a whole nation can draw from the ability, not uncommon among its best representatives, to live a conscious and productive intellectual life for some 70 years!

Mr. Dayer apologized on behalf of his father-in-law and said that he was willing to offer me any cooperation in letting me see and work in the garden, but when I said I wanted to visit Darwin he raised up his arms and began to protest that it was an impossible thing to do. He explained to me that Darwin was in constant ill health, that his family were carefully protecting him from intruders and that it was very difficult to get into Downe unless one had a coach sent out to pick one up at the station which, of course, not being acquainted you would not do. Last but not least, Mr. Dayer himself would not dare to trouble Darwin by asking him to receive me. But I persevered; I said that I did not need any coach because we Russians are used to pilgrimages and even if they did not receive me I would not consider that to be unnatural under the circumstances. Little by little he began to yield and we finally agreed that he would supply me with a letter but not to Darwin but his younger son Francis, or Frank, as they called him then — last year’s President of the British Association — a title with an English scientists preserves forever in his Academic record. “He will show you what he can; but I warn you once again that you may waste a whole day and never see Darwin.” As we parted he advised me to go later in the day so as to reach Downe after three o’clock when Darwin’s working day was usually over. With this letter in my pocket I was quite happy:  there was nothing insolent about my behavior because the time of Darwin’s son of course was not so precious as to make him unable to spare me half an hour of it.

The next day a train was taking me to the south of London past the once famous but now somewhat cloying and trivial Crystal Palace of Sidenham, past the historic Chiselhorst and soon came to a stop at a small station called Orpington. One couldn’t help thinking of the paradoxes of-world fame. The place which provided the last refuge for a villain who had started his career with a bloodbath on December 2 and drowned it in the blood of Sedan is familiar to anyone. [Napoleon III-KM] And if I asked any street urchin where ex-empress Eugenia lived he would have readily showed me the road; but here in Orpington it did not occur to me to ask anyone the way to Darwin’s place. I asked how to get to Downe because, as I had been told, there was no carriage available at the station or anywhere near.1  This was my first walk in an English country place so well known to me from English novels. In my youth I made a living by English translations and many yards of Bulwer, Dickens and Eliot had passed through my hands. Later I enjoyed the scenic beauty of England: the cliffs of Landsend eternally lapped by the oceans and which young Turner had once walked all over, or the charming banks of English lakes where Ruskin as a child first became aware of the beauty of nature, and where Darwin spent his last summer. But there was a kind of beauty too in this monotonous gently undulating Kent valley with winding roads bordered by hedgerows, scattered villages and, most important, wonderful, well-tended centuries-old oaks and elm-trees. In England of course there is nothing approaching the Russian forests but it would be safe to say that he who has not been to England has not seen a real tree.

First I had to walk along a broad highway. In order not to lose my way and take the wrong turn I had to ask the way from people at the village pub, from a passing cabman who had stopped to water his huge horse (I couldn’t help thinking of our puny peasant drudges) and to have a tin of bitter which a German with his poetic cast of mind would describe as combining des Weines Geist, des Brodes Kraft (the spirit of wine and the strength of bread), or from labourers in the field who were working hard because it was the heat of the harvest season. At last I reached a turn to the right and found myself on what we would describe as a country road except that it was just as well paved as the highway lined by the hedgerows much praised by poets. The road soon reached a park with the light gate and a beautiful lodge. I was beginning to think that I had missed my turn and would have to go back. But a watchman soon appeared, asked me whether I was going to Downe. If my memory doesn’t fail me the park belongs to Lubbock, a well-known amateur scientist, now Lord Eubury. As I emerged from the park I caught sight of roof tops and the dome of a small village church which must have been Downe. As I approached I noticed that the village was situate to the right and that on the left-hand side there was a stone wall and behind it a garden with large and diverse trees. Knowing that Darwin was something like a church elder and much loved by the people of Downe I boldly addressed the first man I met with the question, how to get to Mr. Darwin, to which he replied, somewhat reproachfully, “You mean, Doctor Darwin? This is his garden, only you have to approach the house from the other end.” Since then I have had many occasions to note that the English, even the commoners, set great store by academic titles. For example, the people at Brentwood, where Ruskin lived, invariably referred to him as “Professor”. There was nothing particular about the view of the house from the road with its kitchen and outbuildings, but the same could not be said of the facade which gave onto the garden. It had a cosy and picturesque look thanks to an asymmetric turret-like structure and most important to the creeping green plants that covered it from top to bottom.

The door was answered by an old butler, most probably the one of whom Francis Darwin said in his reminiscences, “We had come to see him as a member of the family”. He looked at me with a mixture of surprise and admonition: surprise, because I had come on foot and admonition because, as everyone else in the family he was afraid of intruders. But he mellowed when I told him that I only wanted to see Mr. Francis and handed him the letter. In a moment Mr. Francis appeared. he looked very young although he must have been approaching thirty (since he is now approaching sixty). He showed me into the drawing room warning me that it was unlikely that I would see his father who gets excited talking to strangers, which he should not do considering his ill health. I hastened to agree and gave him my book and made to go but he told me to stay and said he would see if his mother would like to meet me, and that she probably would. In his absence I surveyed the room. It was a usual English parlour with a mantle-piece, a veritable “family hearth” around which were the seats usually occupied by its inhabitants, with Darwin’s comfortable chair and a smaller one, a writing desk, apparently the favourite place of Mrs. Darwin. Along the walls and in the corners there were a few établissements and on the wall facing the fireplace two windows with a door in between. Near the left window there was a small writing desk on curved legs with all sorts of bric-à-brac which obviously belonged to Mrs. Darwin. Everywhere there was the simplicity and cosiness of an English home. There door opened into the garden without a single step or even a threshold — de plain pied, as the French say — right onto a space covered, as in most European gardens by fine gravel, very inconvenient for flimsy shoes but a good protection against mud and slush  so common on our roads. There was a light gallery running the length of the parlour forming what was locally called a verandah, and under it were flowerpots and easy-chairs, including Darwin’s chair with a high back known from numerous photographs.

Frequently the son led in Mrs. Darwin, an amiable old woman, without a shade of primness or a desire to show off her worldly manner and her way with guests, with a simple and easy grace that bespeaks a truly educated and cultured person.2 Her tone and her conversation did not reveal a trace of provincialism or strain in dealing with strangers. Incidentally, I could never tell the difference between a Londoner and a provincial, while the difference between  a Parisian and a provincial is frequently noticeable, and a typical Berliner is the most provincial of all Germans. Unfortunately I was too anxious to see Darwin to pay much attention to her and only the moving and heartfelt things that the son wrote about her in the memoirs about his father made me aware of how much humanity is indebted to that modest unassuming woman who had performed her quiet feat of love: by daily and constant care she had allowed her husband, who had hardly known a day of full  good health and had despaired of his life thirty years ago, to complete his Herculean work.

A few minutes later, and quite unexpectedly, Darwin entered the room. I have already had occasion to describe my first impression of him.3 It must be said that the familiar portrait of him with a long grey beard was not yet known at the time. The only known portrait of him was one in the German edition of his “Origin of Species” (and in my book Charles Darwin). That portrait, dating back to the 1850s shows him as a man of about forty, well-shaven and with trimmed side-whiskers and because the portrait showed him from the waist up one could not help seeing him in one’s mind’s eye as a shortish plump man looking rather like a businessman or perhaps a sportsman but certainly not a profound and great thinker. And now I was confronted with an impressive old man with a large grey beard, deep-sunken eyes, whose calm and gentle look made you forget about the scientist and think about the man.4 It couldn’t help comparing him to an ancient sage or an Old Testament patriarch, a comparison which has often been quoted since.

I do not remember exactly how our conversation began but I do remember that it was he who opened it and I was spared the embarrassment of explaining or justifying my awkward call, my intrusion into the house of a great man and a tireless worker telling himself diem pertidi (lost day) when he failed to accomplish the day’s task, the man who had become a recluse to avoid visitors taking away his time and his health, which was exactly what I was doing on the occasion. I know only that in a few minutes after our conversation began I saw him as a very kindly and gentle man and felt that I had known him for a long time. But this was not the complacency of an old man who had accomplished all he had ever set out to accomplish and, away from the vanity of the world, is looking down on other people’s youth with condescension. There was no trace of an old man’s deductiveness or sentimentality about what he said. On the contrary he spoke in a lively boisterous manner interspersing his speech with jokes and pointed irony and hew as interested in questions of science and life. Nor were there any of the questions that Europeans, even educated ones commonly ask of Russians such as, “Is it true that it is very cold in Russia and that you have many bears?” It is true though that when his wife asked whether I would like tea or coffee he hastened to answer for me, “Coffee of course. How can you offer tea to a Russian?” Proving that he too shared the common Russian prejudice that Russian tea is better than European, a prejudice which in olden days was explained by saying that “tea does not like the sea.”

But when our conversation drifted to serious scientific subjects it assumed a purely English character. Learning that I was studying plant physiology he immediately confounded me with a question: “You must have felt it odd to find yourself in a country where there is not a singly botanist-physiologist?” Only a true Briton, proudly aware of his nation’s virtues, can be so candid about its shortcomings know that acknowledging them is the only way to get rid of them. I could not help agreeing to that, with the reservation, however, that I had found one and “he was the greatest of all ages and nations.” From this question and the conversation that followed, I guessed that I had come to Downe at a very opportune moment (though I only learnt it with certainty many years later). It is known that after publishing his Origins of Species and other works which look at particular sides of his theory Darwin concentrated on botany, more specifically experimental and physiological botany. All this special research was designed to prove the usefulness of his theory as a “working hypothesis”. At the time of my visit he was already engaged together with Francis on a piece of research that provided the content of a volume called “The Power of Movement in Plants”.

And there he must have been confronted with the fact that English science which had given the world so many outstanding researchers in the related field of descriptive botany and the physiology of animals — not to speak of other areas — had not in the past hundred years produced a single botanist physiologist and did not even have a single laboratory equipped for this kind of research. But I only learnt that for certain 30 years later after reading his letter to Mr. Dayer written a few months after my visit. I cannot resist the pleasure of quoting this letter here. “I am deeply convinced,” wrote Darwin to Mr. Dayer, about the organization of a plant physiology laboratory at Kew for those who wanted to undertake deeper investigations — “that it would be a great pity if the physiological laboratories already built were not supplied with the best instruments. It may be that some of them will become outdated before they are used. But this is not an argument against acquiring them because a laboratory without instruments is of no use and the very fact that there are instruments may prompt the idea of using them. You at Kew as the guardians and disseminators of the botanical science will at least fulfill your duty and if your laboratory is not used the shame will be on our educated society. But until bitter experience teaches me otherwise I will not believe that we have fallen so far behind. I think the German laboratories could serve as an example but Timiryazev from Moscow who has travelled all over Europe, visited all the laboratories and who is so good a fellow could provide us with a better list of the necessary instruments.”5 As if divining the question that “there are no people before people”, a saying which, though not always true of the great satirist’s country was undoubtedly true in the land of the great scientist. I need hardly had that our common expectations were soon fulfilled and the Jordrel laboratory at Kew — a tiny house less than an auditorium at any of our universities — became a centre that produced some research which has already become classic. From plant physiology the conversation switched to my work6 and learning that I was making a special study of chlorophyll he promptly said the words that I have since quoted many times. They were amazing words to come from a man who was removed from chemical and physical science: “Chlorophyll is perhaps the most interesting organic substance.” It is interesting that his last article which appeared a few days before his death was about chlorophyll. Then he asked me what else, apart from Kew interested me in Britain from the botanical point of view. I said that I was planning to go to Rothamsted (a well-known agronomy experimental station, the first in Europe) and said that in terms of the teaching about “the struggle for survival” the current experiments of the changing composition of the meadow flora due to the use of fertilizers was of some interest. While I was talking he made signs to his son and when I finished he said reproachfully, “You see, the man has come from across the world and he is going to Rothamsted tomorrow and we still have not been there.” And Again, it was only many years later when the first volume of his letters appeared, that I learnt that Darwin was at the time planning a large series of experiments with artificial-cultures as a means of changing forms and had entered into correspondence on this matter with Gilbert, a well-known chemist from Rothamsted. At about the same time he conceived with amazing penetration his experiments in obtaining artificial plant growth (in nuts, etc.) and methods of experimental study of the laws of evolution. In the 30 years since that time no progress has been made on that matter. I mentioned this as proof that Darwin constantly,7 and more particularly in recent years was leaning towards a new area of science which, if not a necessary component of “Darwinism”, is its natural extension, as I have pointed out more than once.

From botany we went on to discuss science in general. Darwin was particularly pleased that he had found among young Russian scientists some ardent supporters of his theory, referring most frequently to the name of Kovalevsky. When I asked him whom of the two brothers he had in mind — probably Alexander, the zoologist — he replied, “No I believe that Vladimir’s work on paleontology is even more important.” I quote these words because the unfortunate Vladimir Anufrievich (Kovalevsky) was never a “prophet in his own land”. If my memory does not fail me he had flunked an M.D. examination in paleontology, the subject on which he was already a world famous authority. In the midst of this conversation Darwin startled me with a question: “Tell me, why do these German scientists quarrel so much among themselves?” “You are in a better position to judge,” I replied. “How is that? I’ve never been to Germany.” “Yes, but this must be another proof of your theory: there are probably too many of them. It’s another example of the struggle for survival.” He was taken aback for a second and then burst out laughing heartily. At last I managed to broach the subject which I had long wanted to talk about and which engaged him at the moment and he offered to go out to the greenhouse where he was conducting his experiments with insectivorous plants.

In spite of the fact that it was a hot July day (albeit a cloudy one) and the greenhouse was within a short walking distance, his wife and son brought a short overcoat and the soft felt hat that are so famous now from his photographs. In front of the verandah there was a large English lawn trimmed like velvet on which you could nevertheless walk freely, sit or lie about. The flowerbeds were nothing special. The greenhouse in the opposite corner of the garden was small, the kind that any Russian landowner could afford for his hortensias and pelargonias. It was light and airy thanks to the light iron frame and clear glass, just like in Holland. Only later I learnt from his letters how long he had hesitated before allowing himself such a luxury which was not a luxury at all but a necessary aid to his work, how glad he was when it was ready at last and he began to receive not ordinary flowers but exclusively “botanical” plants from Kew and from the best gardens in a country famous for its gardens. Tending plants is known to have been Darwin’s biggest passion. His earliest portrait as a child show him with a flowerpot in his hands. On the threshold of the greenhouse we were met by an old gardener, the very gardener whose comment on Darwin was recently recalled by Lubbock at the jubilee meeting of the Linnaeus Society in 1908: “A good old man, it’s a pity though that he can’t find a proper occupation for himself. Just imagine: he stands and peers at a flower for several minutes. What man with something serious to do would behave in that way?”

At that time Darwin was working on an answer to the accusation that he had not proved how insects [insectivorous plants? -KM] benefited from the animal food and that this process was not eating but decay under the influence of bacteria. I saw a series of pans with Drosera turf; each was divided into two halves by a tin plate; the leaves of one were fed with meat and the leaves of the other were without any meat food and it was obvious that the former were much larger than the latter.

Showing me his nurslings Darwin spoke in a very pacific tone as if defending and justifying himself that he “was probably right”, and that the results of the experiment spoke in his favour. Meanwhile we know now from the memoirs of his son that no objection vexed him as much as this one.8

When we returned home coffee had arrived, and the talk assured a more general character. it is known that Darwin was obliged to rest in the afternoons and that during that time his wife read aloud to him. For the most part these were novels of somewhat inferior quality but with a happy end. But sometimes by way of an exception he had something serious read to him. On that occasion the book on his desk was McKenzie-Walles’  well-known book about Russia. I must say that in spite of the 15-odd years that had passed since the abolition of serfdom in Russia many people in Europe still remembered that peaceful revolution that had liberated some 20 million peasants (with land) in particular in the light of the bloody war for the liberation of Negroes in America. During his round-the-world voyage Darwin had come to hate slavery, and this led him (and not him alone) to see the future of the Russian people in the rosiest of colours. Another question that interested him was free thought that was beginning to manifest itself in Russia. “A society in which such books as Buckle’s History of Civilization (a fact probably borrowed from McKenzie-Walles) are wide-spread and where they freely read books by Layell [Lyall?] and Darwin’s The Origin of Man”, he said, “cannot revert to traditional views on the basic questions of science and life.”

Two or more hours sped by, and although I did not notice any trace of weariness in his voice he got up to say goodbye explaining that conversation with anyone except members of his family excites and tires him, deprives him of sleep and that that he was not sure whether we would not be punished for that day’s self-indulgence. “You will probably want to have my portrait which looks more like me than the one attached to your book,” he said approaching his wife’s desk and producing a photograph of himself, most probably home-made, and immediately signed it writing the date, 25 July, 1877.9  Saying goodbye he went to lie down but soon, to everyone’s surprise, came back with the words: “I forgot to tell you something. At this moment you will meet many foolish people in this country who think of nothing but involving Britain in a war against Russia. I assure you that the sympathies of this home are on your side and every morning we take up our newspapers wishing to read about your new victories.”

These words can only be properly assessed in a historical perspective. And that requires a small digression on the subject of English liberals and Russian patriots. One should remember that the Liberal Government of Gladstone had fallen shortly before that and that some of the far-sighted Russian patriots led by Katkov, welcomed the advent of a conservative government confident that it would have sympathy for the Russian government which had already embarked on the road to reaction. I remember that  Moskovskiye Vedomosti openly described as “vieux ramolli” (“old wreck”) the man whom the whole world had already proclaimed to be a “grand old man”. But in that vieux ramolli there woke up the former lion, the Gladstone who had fulminated against the “king of the bomb” who had destroyed his own cities, confined people to hideous prisons, the people to whom Naples would later erect monuments, and by that exposition he attracted the sympathy of Europe to the side of the Italian people who were fighting for their liberation. This time Gladstone used the “Bulgarian atrocities” as his battle cry. He called on the English people to bury their age-old suspicions of the Russian government and extend a hand to the Russian people who were ready to come to the aid of the oppressed. The movement assumed a scope unprecedented even by English standards but the Tories beloved of Katkov remained in power. The rest is well known. Disraeli pushed Russia into singled-handed confrontation and then in agreement with the “honest broker” [Bismarck -KM] (another idol of Katkov) managed to snatch the fruits of hard-won victory from the victors. Darwin’s words meant that he took the side of the “grand old man” and not of his triumphant opponents.10 It is heartening to remember that in a country to which one looks for comfort every time one becomes apprehensive about man’s future the sympathy of its greatest thinker, like that of its greatest statesman, was with the Russian people in the year of its trial. It is doubly heartening to remember this today when there is a glimmering hope of an entente cordiale between the two peoples at a time when the Russian people no longer dreams of liberating other peoples — finding itself too hard pressed for that — and is itself fighting for bare survival.11

The words I quoted were the last I heard from Charles Darwin. When he left, Mr. Francis offered to show me his study. It is by now well known through photographs — a small room with an ordinary fireplace, a simple writing desk in the middle and a small couch on which the tireless worker lay down when his illness got the better of him. What struck me about the study was complete absence of what we call a “library”. Darwin was known for his rather original attitude to books. If anyone could sincerely despise him it was the book lovers or rather the book maniacs who value the book as an object and would not allow themselves to cut an old publication in order not to depreciate its value to the antiquarian, or provide cheap trash with precious bindings. Darwin valued the book only for what he needed in it and so he tore out the pages that he needed and thus avoided cluttering up his desk and room. An even more modest room was shown to me on the upper storey. It was apparently occupied by Francis himself and also housed a kind of make-shift laboratory for experiments involved in Darwin’s last major work The Power of Movement in Plants which he had already begun.

It was time to think of returning home. Declining the kind offer of a cab I set out on my way back on foot. Mr. Francis accompanied me part of the way. But presently we were surrounded by a merry, laughing swarm of young boys and girls. Darwin introduced me to all of them. They were the “Lubbocks” (and their guests?) who injected a cheerful note in the serious life of the Downe recluse, as we have read in Darwin’s letters. Since then I have often recalled that meeting on a deserted English country road. These cheerful boisterous young people playing in the open air did not to be reminded of the Joys of Life and the Beauties of Nature, the titles of Lubbock’s books which have been translated into Russian.

Not wishing to keep Francis away from the merry company I bid him goodbye and hurried to catch my train. It was cool and the way back seemed shorter to me.

Upon return to London, in spite of the late hour, I could not help sharing my impressions with Dmitri Nikolayevich Anuchin who was in London at the time. He unloosed a flood of reproaches on me for having made my pilgrimage in secret, depriving him of a chance that would never present itself again etc. etc. I remember trying to justify myself and saying that I had been sure my visit would be a failure and that I hated him to see a door slammed into my face and that in any case it was not my fault that the greatest scientist had turned out to be the most affable of men.


End Cap


This article was first published in the Rosskiye Vedomosti newspaper,
Vols. 24 and 25 for 1909, and was included in the collection
In Memory of Darwin (Moscow, 1910). This text is taken from Timiryazev’s book
Science and Democracy (Moscow, 1920) -Ed. (translator)

Leon Bell’s autobiographical essay “An American Boy’s Life in the Soviet Union
 appeared in Archipelago, Vol. 8, No. 4.



1 That reminds me of another pilgrimage, to Byron’s Newstead. When I asked the station master there where I could find a cab he replied, “I fear you are in the wrong place,” which meant something like, “You must have lost your way, we don’t have any cabs here.” back to text

2 Mrs. Darwin was the granddaughter of Wedgwood, a famous potter who founded a porcelain plant and whose charming wares made from drawings by the famous Flaxman and reminding one of antique stones are so valued by connoisseurs.back to text

3 Darwin as a type of scientist. In: Charles Darwin and His Theory.back to text

4 It was not until I had returned from Downe to London that I came across a very curious photograph showing Darwin, Mill, Spencer, Ruskin and two less famous English writers. I could never find out whether such a meeting had actually taken place or whether the photograph had been cleverly assembled by the artist; all the people look like their best portraits but Darwin was for the first time portrayed as he has gone down in history. back to text

5 More Letters of Charles Darwin, Vo. II, p. 417. back to text

6 Along with the book, I gave him the offset copy of my paper just presented to the Paris Academy. back to text

7 Beginning from the famous page in his notebook, 1837. back to text

8 It was made by Batalin on the basis of experiments whose fallacy has since been proved. back to text

9 The portrait, one of the most faithful I know, is included in my book Outline of the Development of Biology. back to text

10 In a questionnaire sent to him by Hulton, the question “What is your political adherence” he replied: “Liberal or radical.” back to text

11 These words refer to 1909. Now (1918) it is the degrading of the ruling elite of the British people that makes one “fearful for man”. back to text



Down House, home of Charles Darwin

A tour of Down House by the biologist William Calvin

Timiriazev State Biology Museum (Gosudarstvennyi Biologicheskii Muzei imeni K.A. Timiriazeva)  Moscow (in Russian)

Overview of the museum

K. A. Timiriazev bibliography

Cine-Truth 13 (October Anniversary)/Kinopravda 13 (Oktiabr'skaia) documentary film (scroll down) “…project of a monument to Timiriazev, Pokrovskii, Sosnovskii, and Timiriazev's son speaking at the meeting….”



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