Leonard Darwin

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Leonard Darwin
Leonard as a boy with his mother, Emma Darwin

Major Leonard Darwin (15 January 1850 – 26 March 1943), a son of the English naturalist Charles Darwin, was variously a soldier, politician, economist, eugenicist and mentor of the statistician and evolutionary biologist Ronald Fisher.


Ronald Fisher in 1912

Leonard Darwin was born in 1850 in Down House in Kent, England into the wealthy Darwin-Wedgwood family. He was the fourth son and eighth child of the British naturalist Charles Darwin and his wife Emma (née Wedgwood), and the last of Darwin's immediate offspring to die. He considered himself to be the least intelligent of their children (brothers Frank, George and Horace were all elected Fellows of the Royal Society). He was sent to Clapham School in 1862.

Darwin joined the Royal Engineers in 1871. Between 1877 and 1882 he worked for the Intelligence Division of the Ministry of War. He went on several scientific expeditions, including the Transits of Venus of 1874 and 1882.

In 1890 was promoted to the rank of Major. He left the army and from 1892 to 1895 was a Liberal Unionist Member of Parliament (MP) for Lichfield constituency in Staffordshire (his grandfather Josiah Wedgwood II had also been an MP). He wrote vigorously on the economic issues of the day, bimetallism, Indian currency reform and municipal trading.

He married Elizabeth Frances Fraser on 11 July, 1882, but she died on 13 January, 1898 and was buried in Putney, London. On 29 November, 1900 he married his first cousin Charlotte Mildred Massingberd (1868–1940). She was daughter of Edmund Langton (1841–1875), and granddaughter of Rev. Charles Langton and his wife Charlotte Wedgwood, sister of Leonard Darwin's mother Emma. Their shared ancestor was Josiah Wedgwood II, father of Emma and Charlotte. Charlotte Mildred Massingberd's paternal grandfather Charles Langton (1801–1886) also married Charles Darwin's sister Emily Catherine Darwin after Charlotte Wedgwood's death. Since Charles Darwin and Emma Wedgwood were also cousins, Charlotte Mildred Massingberd was also a second cousin on his father's side. He had no children from either marriage.

He was President of the Royal Geographical Society from 1908 to 1911. He was then Chairman of the British Eugenics Society between 1911-1928 (succeeding his half-cousin once removed Francis Galton), and became Honorary President from 1928 until his death. In 1912 the University of Cambridge conferred on him the honorary degree of doctor of science.

Darwin played an important part in the life of the geneticist and statistician Ronald Fisher, supporting him intellectually, morally and sometimes financially. When Fisher was elected to the Royal Society, Darwin congratulated him. Fisher replied on 25 February 1929, "I knew you would be glad, and your pleasure is as good to me almost as though my own father were still living." Darwin always treated Fisher with tact and generosity.

An example came later in 1929. Some years before, after a disagreement, Fisher had resigned from the Royal Statistical Society. Darwin regretted the development and engineered Fisher's re-entry by making him the gift of a life-time subscription to the society. (Letters of 25 and 27 June.) Fisher's 1930 book The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection is dedicated to Darwin. After Darwin's death in 1943 at the age of 93, Fisher wrote to Darwin's niece, Margaret Keynes, "My very dear friend Leonard Darwin... was surely the kindest and wisest man I ever knew". Leonard was the last surviving as well as the longest lived of Charles Darwin's 10 children.

Leonard Darwin and his second wife are buried at Forest Row Cemetery, Forest Row, East Sussex.


  • 'The Need for Eugenic Reform', Murray, 1926.
  • 'What is Eugenics?', London, Watts & Co, 1928, sec. ed. 1929.


  • A. W. F. Edwards, ‘Darwin, Leonard (1850-1943)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • The editor's introduction to the volume of Darwin-Fisher correspondence (links below) has a sketch of Darwin's life.

Two of Darwin's nieces, daughters of George Howard Darwin, described their uncle. Gwen Raverat wrote about "Uncle Lennie."

  • Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood, first published in 1952 by Faber & Faber.

Margaret Keynes, wife of Geoffrey Keynes, wrote a more formal piece which was published in the Economic Journal.

  • Obituary (in Notes and Memoranda) Economic Journal, 53, 439-448 (1943)

This was preceded by an account of Darwin's economic writings by the editor of the journal, Margaret's brother-in law, John Maynard Keynes. Keynes explained the decision to publish the niece's "very personal account": "Leonard Darwin's life covered so vast an epoch of change in men's ideas, his own attitudes towards the problems of his age were so characteristic of the best and noblest intelligences of his time, and he grew up in the environment of a family of so immortal a renown ..." (p. 439) Darwin expressed his feelings about Keynes in a letter to Fisher (Correspondence p. 141), "I neither like him nor trust him ... But he’s very clever ..."

External links

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Sir John Swinburne
Member of Parliament for Lichfield
Succeeded by
Henry Charles Fulford