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How Charles Darwin became an Honorary Doctor in Leiden

Charles Darwin received an Honorary Doctorate from Leiden University on 9 February 1875. What traces did he leave behind in Leiden?

Darwin in Leiden

The famous biologist was unable to be in Leiden to receive his Honorary Doctorate in person. He had already reached a venerable age, and ill health prevented him from leaving his home town in Downe, just outside London. He never actually came to Leiden but traces of him are still here in the city. Leiden Biologist Rinny Kooi talks about these traces in her book Darwin in Leiden (2009). 

Leidse scientists were sceptical

In her book Kooi reconstructs how Charles Darwin came to receive an Honorary Doctorate. Darwin’s early publications on the theory of evolution did not impress Leiden’s scientists and they did not readily embrace his ideas. A number of researchers criticised his magnum opus On the origin of Species (1859) on the grounds that he had not dequately substantiated  his theory of speciation. 

New generation

But in around 1870 the tide turned: there was a new generation of scientists and Darwin’s theory of evolution became more widely accepted - and was even praised in Leiden. Reason enough for the University to confer an Honorary Doctorate on him in 1875. The University was celebrating its 300th anniversary, so it was the ideal year for a special Honorary Doctorate. The recently appointed Rector Magnificus J.T. Buys addressed the new Honorary Doctor – even though this key person was not present. According to the almanac (1876) of the Leiden Student Corps, the conferral was met with long applause.   

Darwin's letter of thanks

The University Library has a copy of the letter written by Darwin thanking the University for this honour: 

June, 3,

Sir, I beg leave to acknowledge the receipt of your obliging letter of March 26, and of the Diploma from the University of Leyden. I request that you will be so good, on any fitting occasion, to Present to the Senate of your University my sincere acknowledgements for this distinguished honour, which is most highly gratifying to me, I beg leave to remain Sir your obliged & obedient Servant Charles Darwin.

The University Library has more letters written by Darwin to Dutch researchers.  

‘Darwin finches’ in Naturalis collection

Museum Naturalis in Leiden also has tangible traces of Darwin: five Galapagos finches and a harrier. This very special collection was passed on by the forerunner of Naturalis, the National Museum for Natural History, that had been affiliated to Leiden University. Darwin may never have been in Leiden in person, but his legacy is still very much present in the city.  

Darwin in Leiden
Rinny E. Kooi.
ISBN 10: 9071256103
ISBN 13: 9789071256103
Publisher: Ginkgo
72 pp.
€ 17.50

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