One of the treasures of the MSU Archives is featured in the 2009 Darwin Discovery Day programs at Michigan State University. An 1878 letter written by Charles Darwin to MAC Professor William J. Beal is part of the online exhibition. Darwin’s letter is in response to a letter that Beal had sent to him on May 2, 1878.
William Beal began lecturing in botany and horticulture at Michigan Agricultural College in 1870. He is, perhaps, best remembered for the botanical gardens which bear his name. While a professor at MAC, Beal conducted a number of experiments in horticulture.
In the mid-1870s, Beal was experimenting with cross-breeding corn to grow improved varieties. At the same time,he read naturalist Charles Darwin’s book, The Effects of Cross and Self-Fertilization in the Vegetable Kingdom. The book stated crossing two samples of one variety, not two varieties, would yield an offspring with more vigor than either parent. Beal wrote to Darwin expressing interest in experimenting with corn strains. Darwin’s reply was encouraging.
Beal did try the experiment with corn in 1879 and discovered that his hybrid yield did have improved vigor over the parent strains.
2009 marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birthday. You can view the Discovering Darwin Day websites for more information.
A transcription of the letter:
May 21, 1878
I am much obliged for your extremely kind notice of my book on Cross Fertilization and for your note of May 2d. I have further to thank you for a copy of your article on Hairs [grasses] etc. I am glad that you intend to experiment. I remain,