Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Emma Darwin and women’s higher education

Samantha Evans

Amy Darwin: Bernard Darwin, The world that Fred made: an autobiography. London: 1955. Pl. facing p. 14. By permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

In 1888, Emma Darwin wrote to her daughter Henrietta, ‘Now I must write and decline subscribing to the Shaen memorial at Bedford College, but the fact is that I do not care for the higher education of women, though I ought to do so.’ (Later she continued, ‘After all I did send £10 to the Shaen Memorial’.) William Shaen had been a member of the council of Bedford College (a women’s college in London), as had Emma’s brother-in-law Erasmus Alvey Darwin and her sister-in-law Fanny Wedgwood. Emma was very friendly with William’s daughter Margaret, who she said was almost one of the family. All things considered, it was unlikely that she would fail to contribute to a cause so warmly espoused by her extended family and her friends.


Emma Darwin with Leonard. DAR 225: 93.

By permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.


While women’s higher education was not one of Emma’s causes (and she looked on votes for women with favour primarily because she saw female suffrage as a way of promoting action against cruelty to animals and land monopoly), she certainly wasn’t indifferent to it. In Darwin and Women I collected some quotations from her letters to Henrietta that seem to show some mild excitement about changes that were in the wind. Continuing to work on Emma’s letters, I found this quotation in a letter to her son George in 1881:


‘You heard of the triumphant vote for the girls at Cambridge having their places in the exam. made public. Horace went to tell them about it & was received w. clapping. Afterward they put all their candles & lamps in the windows & ended w. a dance. R. thinks it is the beginning of the end & (I believe), that they will turn out as badly as the Russian young lady Doctors at Zurich.’ (DAR 251: 1002 Emma Darwin to G. H. Darwin, 7 March 1881.)


R. was Henrietta’s husband, Richard Buckley Litchfield. It is interesting that he may have spoken against the general trend of the liberal-minded Darwins and Wedgwoods. After Darwin’s death, when the family was arguing about whether to include Darwin’s religious views in his published autobiography, Darwin’s sons (who were on the whole in favour of publishing) felt that Litchfield (who was against it) had undue influence on Henrietta and Henrietta in turn on Emma. I was also intrigued by the reference to the Russian young lady doctors in Zurich, and what influence they had on the mood in Britain.

Paulette Meyer’s, ‘They met in Zürich: nineteenth-century German and Russian women physicians’ in Women healers and physicians: climbing a long hill, explained. Zurich was, in the 1860s, one of the few places where women could qualify as MDs, and was very popular with German and Russian women wishing to practise as doctors; they would train in Zurich and then return to their own countries. The Russian women, however, were sometimes involved with radical political movements like Nihilism, and were accused of immorality. In 1873, the czarist government gave notice that Russian women who continued to study at Zurich would not be offered any sort of appointment when they returned to Russia.

These events were reported in Britain: in 1873, the Medical Times pointed out that reports from Zurich were not encouraging to advocates of women’s higher education. But in 1878, John Chapman (formerly Darwin’s physician) wrote in the Westminster Review on the education of girls and their admissibility to universities pointing out how successful the women had in fact been. The Russian women who left Zurich simply went to study elsewhere – some of them in Russia, where some institutions were now open to them.



About The Author

Samantha Evans

Samantha Evansauthor of Darwin and Women,2017 is an associate editor of the Darwin Correspondence Project, University of Cambridge ...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!