Darwin’s first anniversary (1909)

In 1909, it was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Darwin and the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. The theory of evolution was well known and Darwin himself was a famous figure. People all over the world were presented with images as well as personal stories about Darwin. However, the publication of biographical material was rigorously controlled by his family who tried to preserve an image of the good, mild Victorian patron who devoted his life to science, family and the preservation of a high moral on a personal as well as societal level.

The family’s attempt to monopolise an untarnished and pure image of Darwin was by and large successful in the years around 1909 when the most heated debate surrounding Darwin’s theory and his person had died down. People had got used to Darwin. In most circles, he had gradually become harmless. In many religious circles, people had come to terms with Darwin as a Victorian gentleman and not necessarily a pioneer of atheism.

Scientifically, the theory of evolution experienced some pressure from genetics which represented an alternative to explaining the fundamental mechanics of heredity. This also meant that Darwin and his theory no longer represented the only and therefore necessary explanation to a scientific world view.

However, Darwin was still an important figure within scientific circles as an icon for modern science and was celebrated by scientists worldwide at academic events. Most famously at the conference in Cambridge which at that time had successfully placed itself at the centre of the study and celebration of Darwin. Here, scientists and heads of state met in celebration of themselves and scientific progress with Darwin as the main occasion.

In Denmark, the anniversary of Darwin was celebrated with revised rereleases of J.P. Jakobsen’s translation of On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man among other things. The new editions were cheaper and easier to read. Darwin’s anniversary was also marked in newspapers and magazines as well as in lectures and meetings all over the country.

The scientific, academic, and cultural elite tried to control the public image of Darwin. But since the release of On the Origin of Species half a century ago, widespread discussions about the theory of evolution and what it meant for man’s view of himself and nature had left its mark. Alongside the Darwin of the elite, there was now also the Darwin of the people. This was naturally reflected in both the academic and the popular publications.

Peter C. Kjærgaard