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On the Origin of One of W&L’s Most Valuable Books Washington and Lee University owns a first edition of one of the most important — and controversial — books ever written.

Today, we continue our ongoing series of feature articles about interesting and important items in the university’s Department of Special Collections and Collections of Art and History. To peruse previous articles, click here.

By Tom Camden
Head of Special Collections at W&L

“On the Origin of Species” (or more completely, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,” or “The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”), by Charles Darwin was published on November 2, 1859. The book was priced at 15 shillings with a first printing of 1,250 copies. After deducting presentation and review copies and the five copies required for Stationers’ Hall copyright (the British equivalent to our Library of Congress), there were only 1,170 copies for sale, and all available copies were sold immediately. During Darwin’s lifetime, the book went through six editions, with cumulative changes and revisions that dealt with counter-arguments raised.

Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” is widely regarded as one of the most important  and controversial  books ever written. Indeed, there is scarcely an area of human endeavor that has not been impacted by Darwin’s theory, the terms “Darwinism” and “Darwinian” now an integral part of the modern lexicon. Because of the importance of the book, a census of the surviving copies of the first edition was begun in 2009, on the 150th anniversary of the publication.

The census project was undertaken by the Huntington Library, in conjunction with Cambridge University and under the auspices of the website Darwin Online. A representative of the project contacted Washington and Lee University’s Special Collections in November 2013, informing me that Washington and Lee owned a “true” first-edition of Darwin’s landmark work, and requesting a full physical description with vital details about Washington and Lee’s copy.

Washington and Lee University’s copy of “On the Origin of Species,” while in excellent condition, nevertheless bears a stamp on the inside front board (across an ownership bookplate) which states “Withdrawn 18 July 1927” from the Ilkley Public Library. It was purchased either that year or in 1928 by a Washington and Lee biology professor and given to the University Library.

Ilkley is an ancient spa town in Yorkshire, England, and it is known that Charles Darwin was undergoing hydropathic treatment at Wells House spa in Ilkley while waiting for his book to come out in 1859. It was thought that he might have presented W&L’s copy to the public library there in person, but further research has proven that story unlikely. Darwin was given only one advance copy, and it is in Cambridge University Library with his annotations. All other presentation copies were sent directly to the recipients from the publisher.

Regardless of the disappointing provenance, Washington and Lee owns a very fine, “true” first edition of a landmark work. It is housed in the Special Collections vault. A similar copy, which had been rediscovered sitting on a bookcase in the guest bathroom of the vendor’s home in London, was sold at Christie’s Auction House in London on Nov. 24, 2009  150 years to the day after the seminal work of scientific literature was first published. That copy fetched $200,000. Of the 1,250 original copies published, fewer than 300 have been located, either in institutions or private hands.