Apologies for the poor quality of this interior view of Burlington House, taken in bad light. According to the hooker Harriette Wilson (Question 50), she caught Byron alone at the party and upbraided him for his shabby treatment of Lady Caroline:
‘Such contempt as you have lavished on poor Lady Caroline Lamb would kill me.’
Byron’s response, according to Harriette? ‘Is there any sort of comparison to be made between you and that mad woman?’
The gateway to Burlington House opens onto Piccadilly. During the 19th century, various learned societies used it to hold meetings in the upstairs rooms beside the gate. On Thursday, 1 July 1858, 30 members of the Linnaean Society gathered here for a natural history conference at which two last-minute contributions had been added to the agenda.
Neither of the contributors was present. One was in the Far East. The other was at home in Kent. His baby son had died three days earlier and he was too upset to attend the meeting.
Between them, the two contributors had come up with one of the most revolutionary scientific ideas of the 19th century, indeed of all time. After many years of research, they had concluded that organisms fight for survival and only the strongest make it. The survival of the fittest leads to evolution over time.
Each of the contributors had been working on the same idea, unknown to the other. It was therefore arranged that they should go public together at the Linnaean Society’s Burlington House meeting.
Their papers were read out by the society’s secretary. The audience had come to hear something completely different and failed to grasp the significance of what they were being told. They were in at the birth of evolutionary theory – one of the greatest moments in natural history – but very few of them realised it at the time.
HISTORIC LONDON: X MARKS THE SPOT. Question 134. Charles Darwin was one of the two contributors. His paper was published a year later as part of The Origin of Species. Who wrote the other paper?
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