Darwin’s On the Origin of Species: A Rare Treasure at the P. I. Nixon Medical Historical Library

Illustration of Charles Darwin

Summer is a great time to explore nature and science with your family. The P. I. Nixon Medical Historical Library may be a place to begin your adventure.

The library owns a rare first edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection, or the Preservation of
Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
Published in 1859, the library’s fragile volume is a treasure. The valuable first editions with iconic green spines are in high demand for book collectors and science lovers. A first edition was recently found in the lou of a home in Southern England. It was sold to an anonymous buyer through Christie’s of London. The library’s copy, one of only approximately 1,250 printed, is part of many antiquarian texts originally donated to the Health Science Center in the early 1970’s by the Bexar County Medical Society.


Copy of Origin of Species

Darwin was born on February 12, 1809 in Shrewsbury, England. His mother, the daughter of the famous potter Josiah Wedgwood, passed away when he was eight and he was raised by his sisters. Darwin’s school record wasn’t outstanding yet he began his medical studies in 1825 at Edinburgh University.  He found “anatomy and material medica dull and surgery unendurable.” He entered Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1828 and took a course in botany where his beetle collection became famous. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1831, he took his botany instructor’s advice and accepted the position of naturalist for the second voyage of the H. M. S. Beagle. In December 1831, the voyage took Darwin to the coast of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego off the coast of South America.

The breakthrough in his ideas came in the Galapagos Islands, 500 miles west of South America. In observing the birds and animals on the islands, Darwin noticed that each island supported its own form of finch, which were closely related but differed in important ways.  On his return to England in 1836, Darwin proposed a theory of evolution occurring by the process of natural selection to solve the riddle of how different species evolve.  He worked on his theory for 20 years and along with another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, announced the discovery in 1858.

Illustration of FinchesDarwin had published several articles on his species studies but On the Origin of Species introduced Darwin’s works to a much larger audience. According to the Encyclopedia of World Biography, “The publication of Darwin’s book secured worldwide attention and aroused impassioned controversy.” Jon van Wyne, Bye-Fellow at Christ’s College, Cambridge, England, explains how the work “demonstrated with converging evidence from geological distribution, comparative anatomy and embryology, and the fossil record that life evolves.”

No matter your take on Darwin’s science, consider your nature exploration in San Antonio. The Witte Museum is currently hosting the American Museum of Natural History’s Darwin exhibit Darwin: How One Man’s Theory Turned the World on its Head. It runs through September 3, 2012 and includes Darwin’s handwritten journals of his observations while on the Galapagos Islands. For additional resources for children and families, visit the American Museum of National History’s Resources for Darwin. Darwin’s complete works can also be read online.

To view the Health Science Center’s first edition of On the Origin of Species, or any of the other 5,000 treasured medical texts, contact Special Projects Librarian Susan Hunnicutt at (210) 567-2406 or hunnicutt@uthscsa.edu; or Mellisa DeThorne at 210-567-2470 or dethorne@uthscsa.edu.  Additional and selected materials from the Nixon Library may also be viewed online in the UTHSC Digital Archives / Historical Collection.

 – Melva Ramirez, MLS, Records and Information Management Intern, Special Collections

 Information Courtesy of:

Christ’s College, Cambridge

 Gale Document Number: GALE|K1631001688

The Huffington Post

P. I. Nixon Medical Historical Library

San Antonio Express News

 Photographs Courtesy of: