First editions of Darwin’s Origin of Species

By Margaret Kaiser

On November 24, 1859, Charles Darwin’s On the origin of species by means of natural selection was published in London. From the beginning, the book was popular and the first edition sold out on the first day. The Origin is Darwin’s great work and considered to be one of the most important books on biology ever printed. The National Library of Medicine has recently acquired a number of interesting editions of Origin.

Darwin wanted Origin to be translated and available to scientists all over the world and in his lifetime the book was translated into 11 languages including German, French, Russian, and Danish.   The complex nature of the text, as well as the difficulties of translating scientific terms were issues in preparing translations. In addition, some translators felt it necessary to annotate their texts to provide more explanation.

The book below is the first American edition of Origin. Although Harpers was also considering publishing the book, Appleton published their edition in January 1860. The text is the same as the London 1859 edition.

The plate below, from the 1860 American edition of Origin is a diagram showing Darwin’s theory of evolution. Each of the letters, A through L horizontally, represents a species of a genus. Each of the intervals between the horizontal lines, Roman numerals I through XIV, represents one thousand generations.

A simple chart representing 11 species branching over 10,000 generations

The first German translation of Origin was published in 1860. It was translated by Heinrich Georg Bronn, a naturalist and paleontologist. Bronn did not entirely agree with Darwin’s theory of evolution and added his own footnotes and a concluding chapter to the translation.

The first French translation of Origin was by Clémence Royer, a French author who was primarily self-taught and wrote and lectured on science, politics, and women’s rights. Royer not only added a lengthy preface but also many footnotes.

The book pictured below is the rare first edition of the first Russian translation of Origin. The translator was Sergīeĭ Aleksandrovich Rachinskīĭ, a professor of botany in Moscow. Rachinskīĭ began work on the translation in 1862 and it was published in 1864.  Rachinskīĭ did not comment on the text.

Origin was translated into Danish by Jens Peter Jacobsen from the fifth English edition of 1869. Jacobsen was a botanist, however he was better known as a poet and novelist. His translation of Origin was first published as booklets entitled Naturlivets grundlove [The Laws of Nature] and offered by subscription. The first booklet appeared in 1871. In 1872 however, the booklets were collected in a single volume and the title was changed to Om arternes oprindelse…, a more literal translation of Darwin’s title.

Although the original edition of Origin has only one plate, this Danish translation also included the illustrations of five breeds of doves. These illustrations were inserted in the section in which Darwin discusses the differences in domestic pigeons. Shown are the Engelsk Brevdue (English Carrier) and Kortnæbet Tumler (Short-faced English Tumbler). The illustrations originally appeared in Darwin’s Variation of animals and plants under domestication published by Orange Judd & Co., New York, in 1868.

Illustrations of two birds from a Danish edition of the Origin of Species.Learn more about Charles Darwin and The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in NLM’s Rewriting the Book of Nature: Charles Darwin and the Rise of Evolutionary Theory.

For questions about these titles, including how to consult them, please contact the History of Medicine Division Reference staff at or (301) 402-8878.

Margaret Kaiser is Acquisitions Librarian for the Rare Books and Early Manuscripts Section in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.