About 90,000 pages of manuscripts, field notes, photographs and sketches connected with Charles Darwin are being placed online, where they can be viewed free. Among the gems are his first formulation of the theory of natural selection, his first written doubts that species were fixed and touching correspondence from his wife on religious faith.
The huge set of documents and images is part of the Darwin Online project, based in Cambridge, which claims to be the largest Darwin bibliography and manuscript catalogue created. Many of items were previously available only to scholars with access to the Cambridge University Library.
The project began in 2002 and this is the last major set of additions. Dr John van Wyhe, Darwin Online's director, said: "[The documents] have been known to scholars, but for the first time they are available to everyone for free online."
One set of pages that is likely to attract considerable interest is Darwin's scrawled first draft of his theory of evolution from 1842. The scribbled argument is crammed with afterthoughts, footnotes and crossed-out text. A transcript of the text has been published previously, but few will have seen the original facsimile of Darwin's unpolished thought process.
"There is a kind of fascination about it having all the original handwriting and the places where he was making changes and was struggling with issues," said Dr Paul White, part of the Darwin Correspondence Project, a separate effort to catalogue Darwin's letters.
The collection also touches on Darwin's views on religion. Although he shook the foundations of religious faith with his scientific work, scholars know only a limited amount about Darwin's personal views. In a memo written by his wife, Emma, in 1839, she expresses her concerns about Darwin's declining faith. "May not the habit in scientific pursuits of believing nothing till it is proved, influence your mind too much in other things which cannot be proved in the same way?" she wrote.
DARWIN ONLINE PROJECT: http://darwin-online.org.uk/
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