On the Origin of Species

Charles Darwin
On the Origin of Species [First Edition], 1859
Gifted in 2012
Rare Books Collection Shelfmark: Darwin.15

On the Origin of Species is one of those books which changed the world; putting forward for the first time the theory of evolution of species by natural selection, and specifically applying it to the human species as well as animals and plants. It caused an instant sensation; it was read, reviewed, and argued about from the moment it first appeared, and for years to come.

On the Origin was a great commercial success with the entire first printing sold out on the first day of publication. It was rapidly reprinted, and soon went through many new editions and many more reprints. The volumes were produced to the ordinary standards of mass production of the day, with machine-made paper and cloth case binding. These are not particularly durable materials, making copies of the early editions fragile. Copies of the first issue in original condition are especially rare.

The University had a copy of the first edition when it was published, but it disappeared from the library catalogue in about the 1880s. It may well have disintegrated from too much use. Given that Charles Darwin studied here, this was for a long time a particularly sad gap in our collections, which we were delighted to be able to fill by the donation of two copies in 2012 by the Heiskell Bibliographical Foundation, as part of a collection of editions of Darwin published in his lifetime.

Charles Lee Heiskell was born in Arkansas in 1927. Qualified as a doctor, he served in the U.S. Air Force medical service, largely in Japan. Subsequently, he was Fellow and later Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Infectious Diseases at UCLA, and ended his career in private practice in California, setting up a medical diagnostics business which enabled him to have more time to pursue his outside interests.

He devoted much of his spare time to collecting books and prints, on many topics. He had been collecting Darwin since long before the early editions had started to fetch the very high prices they now do, and had built up a near-complete set of editions of all Darwin’s works, published during Darwin’s lifetime. Towards the end of his life he set up the Heiskell Bibliographical Foundation to manage his collections, and allow him to pursue philanthropic enterprises with them.

After his death in 2006 the executors of the Foundation sought an appropriate home for the Darwin material, and, discovering that the University, despite our connection with Darwin, lacked such a collection, very kindly donated it to us.

Story by Elizabeth Quarmby Lawrence, Rare Books Librarian