Charlotte Moore

My ancestor’s private memories of Darwin

Sir Norman Moore was Charles Darwin’s doctor and friend for many years. Charlotte Moore, his great-granddaughter, reveals the intimate recollections in his private correspondence

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Sir Norman Moore was Charles Darwin’s doctor and friend for many years. Charlotte Moore, his great-granddaughter, reveals the intimate recollections in his private correspondence

I live in the house my family have occupied since 1888. My great-grandfather, a tremendous letter-writer and note-taker, never threw anything away. Sorting through barrowloads of his correspondence, I built up an intimate picture of Darwin family life, as well as finding many accounts of the great man’s experiments and conversation.

My great-grandfather’s was a remarkable Victorian success story. Aged 14, he was sweeping floors at a cotton warehouse in Manchester, but a combination of natural ability, night school and sympathetic mentors eventually took him to Cambridge, then to a career at St Bartholomew’s Hospital; he was made a baronet, and was president of the Royal College of Physicians. He also had a great gift for friendship. A Cambridge friend was Frank Darwin, a fellow medical student and the third son of Charles. In the 1860s acceptance of evolutionary theory was not widespread; still, I was startled to find that Moore, opposing the motion ‘that this meeting view with regret the abolition of slavery’, used the distinctly pre-Darwinian argument that ‘since mankind are sprung from one pair it is manifest that at one time the whole human race was free’.

In 1871 Moore, aged only 24 but already making a name as a naturalist and man of letters as well as a doctor, was asked to review The Descent of Man by the publisher John Chapman. ‘I foolishly agreed to review Darwin ... My review will be so hostile that I doubt their inserting it,’ he told a friend. His preconceived antipathy to the idea of man’s descent from a subhuman ancestor colours his argument: ‘False views are a result of limited knowledge ... when they are expanded into gigantic theories they... retard unbiased investigation and even bring discredit on the study of science.’ As he expected, the review was not printed. This was lucky; had it appeared, the friendship that was later to blossom with Darwin would surely have withered in the bud.

Soon after the non-appearance of the review Frank took his friend to meet his father at Down, only 16 miles from London but then in deep country — Moore noted how from nearby Keston Common he could see ‘the whole outline of the nave and western towers as well as the dome of St Paul’s’. Charles Darwin was, Moore told his mother, ‘exactly like his caricature and very tall... I had much conversation with... the great developer, son of the gorilla & brother of the ornithorhyncus.’ He was much taken with the atmosphere at Down which mixed scholarship with friendly informality: ‘We sat by the kitchen fire and discussed cannon and projectiles... A fine deerhound named Bran, a white English terrier and a longhaired grey cat are further inmates of the house. The butler is an old portly man of admirable manners. He asked me if I would have some plum tart in a way which won my heart at once.’

Moore’s antipathy soon softened: ‘[Darwin] is so cheery and so fond of Natural History that, though I cannot take his side in science, I like him.’ However, Moore remained troubled by the implications of evolutionary theory. Proud of his own Irish descent, in old age he remembered that Darwin ‘liked the Irish reapers who used to come to Down. One talked to him a good deal and seems to me to have thought it possible to bring him to the Faith.’

Moore stayed at Down often during the 1870s. Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, artist, feminist campaigner and co-founder of Girton College, was one of his mentors; she was a lover of natural history, and in his letters to her Moore describes Darwin’s experiments and conversation: ‘Mr Darwin is working at a curious acacia. It grows execrescences [sic] on its leaves which feed ants which live in its thorns. These ants in return protect the tree from another kind which would otherwise strip it of leaves, a natural example, Mr Darwin says, of a paid standing army’; ‘we found Mr Darwin in high spirits. He has proved that the sundew manufactures starch from meat’; ‘I think I told you of his experiments which showed the constant diurnal movements of cotyledons. He is now trying whether these depend on an effect of light on the tip of the young leaf’; ‘Mr Darwin... talked... about monkeys, idiots and deaf mutes. An infant, he says, only notices the transparency of a lens but a monkey finds the focus.’

Darwin comes across as open-minded, endlessly curious and charmingly modest. ‘Mr Darwin talked of the Lady’s Slipper orchid. He thought it must be fertilised by an insect but did not know how, so walked out & caught the first insect he met. It was a little bee. He put it into the large flower & it crawled out of a little hole... well dusted with pollen. He mentioned this in print & some time afterwards a German published an elaborate treatise in which he said that Mr Darwin by an amazing acuteness had stated that the Lady Slipper could be fertilised by this kind of bee & that... no other insect ever fertilised it... Mr Darwin added, it was an example of credit unjustly given for acuteness, for I merely tried the first insect I came across.’

The Darwin family was famously close-knit. ‘I do not wonder that Mr Darwin’s children are fond of him... He is wonderfully kind and altogether simple,’ Moore wrote. In October 1973 he told his mother that ‘Frank... is going to give up medicine and act as scientific assistant to his father and... work at nothing but the Darwinian theory.’ The letter mentions Frank’s work on electric currents in muscles and in carnivorous plants. Three years later Frank’s wife died in childbirth; Moore hastened to Down to comfort him. Frank and the baby Bernard were incorporated into the family home: ‘They have made him a very pleasant sitting room in which are his old drawing room & dining room furniture & pictures.’ The Darwins were genial hosts. At Down Moore met, among many others, Matthew Arnold, Lord Rayleigh the mathematician (‘a few words on axles were all his say’) and Sir Joseph Hooker, who talked of novels and politics as well as of geology. ‘I wish you had been there,’ Moore told Barbara Bodichon, ‘for there can have been few more lively, interesting, fireside conversations going on in England.’

Darwin wrote a glowing testimonial when Moore applied for promotion at Bart’s, and later asked him to become his own doctor. On 25 March 1882 Moore wrote in his medical casebook: ‘Valetudo conquassata. [Approximately, his health is shattered]. Chest rounded. Cardiac dulness almost absent. Heart: no murmur action feeble... No doubt dilated. Artery at wrist somewhat hardened... Attacks of pain in chest at night seemingly due to air in stomach he says... Urine: no albumen.’ Ten days later he was summoned again. ‘Says his pulse has been irregular all his life... Never had ague. Not even on Beagle travels... Seems to me very feeble.’ Moore was right; the health of the ‘head sage’ was indeed shattered. Frank telegrammed with news of his father’s death on 19 April.

Moore wrote to Frank, ‘Your father... said that... he was anxious that his end might not be one of gradually increasing and prolonged suffering and he added that he wished this as much for his friends as for himself. It is a thing,’ he said, ‘that I have always dreaded.’

‘There was something in your father which seemed to me superior even to his scientific greatness... I shall always remember him, in addition to all his fame, as a man whose spirit and mind made me feel him one of the kindest and best of his time.’