Which book by Charles Darwin (1809-82) sold most copies during his lifetime? “The Origin of Species”? No. The answer might surprise you. It was “The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms”, which was published in 1881 and was the last title to appear in his lifetime.
As well as formulating the theory of evolution by the processes of natural selection, Darwin had been interested in earthworms for many years. This came about shortly after his return to England in 1837 after his famous voyage on HMS Beagle. He had picked up various illnesses while overseas and visited his uncle, the potter Josiah Wedgwood, with a view to spending some time recuperating in Staffordshire.
Uncle Josiah could see that young Charles needed something to occupy his mind during his stay and suggested earthworms as a subject for study. To Josiah’s surprise, Charles was extremely interested, and forty years of research ensued.
Darwin’s final book made clear to his audience that earthworms were the lifeblood of the average garden through their action in aerating the soil and aiding drainage. The Victorian reading public may have had serious doubts about the Theory of Evolution, but they were more than ready to learn about nature’s unsung garden heroes.
On publication of “The Formation of Vegetable Mould” Charles Darwin remarked that he wanted to publish the fruits of his work on worms “before joining them”.
© John Welford