Charles Darwin’s daughter Annie died at the age of ten after an illness of several months.
It’s not known for certain what Annie died of. For a long time it was believed to have been scarlet fever. More recent research has suggested it may have ben tuberculosis. Today, TB is preventable by vaccine; both it and scarlet fever are now treatable by antibiotics.
These twin medical revolutions, vaccination and antibiotics, are both incomprehensibly recent. Americans who are old today grew up in a world without them. The overwhelming majority of people who have ever lived on earth grew up in a world without them. Nearly every parent who ever existed lived without them, which means that nearly every parent who ever existed lived with the ever-present terror that became a reality for Charles and Emma Darwin.
And yet we have as a culture forgotten that world, and that terror. And so vaccination rates are dropping, and children are once more dying. The terror is returning.
We should remember that terror; and Charles Darwin’s memorial to his dear daughter Annie, written just a week after her death, is the most acute expression of it that I have ever read.
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Our poor child, Annie, was born in Gower St on March 2nd 1841 & expired at Malvern at Midday on the 23rd of April 1851.
I write these few pages, as I think in after years, if we live, the impressions now put down will recall more vividly her chief characteristics. From whatever point I look back at her, the main feature in her disposition which at once rises before me is her buoyant joyousness tempered by two other characteristics, namely her sensitiveness, which might easily have been overlooked by a stranger & her strong affection. Her joyousness & animal spirits radiated from her whole countenance & rendered every movement elastic and full of life & vigour. It was delightful & cheerful to behold her. Her dear face now rises before me, as she used sometimes to come running down stairs with a stolen pinch of snuff for me, her whole form radiant with the pleasure of giving pleasure. Even when playing with her cousins when her joyousness almost passed into boisterousness, a single glance of my eye, not of displeasure (for I thank God I hardly ever cast one on her,) but of want of sympathy would for some minutes alter her whole countenance. This sensitiveness to the least blame, made her most easy to manage & very good: she hardly ever required to be found fault with, & was never punished in any way whatever. Her sensitiveness appeared extremely early in life, & showed itself in crying bitterly over any story at all melancholy; or on parting with Emma even for the shortest interval. Once when she was very young she exclaimed “Oh Mamma, what should we do, if you were to die.”
The other point in her character, which made her joyousness & spirits so delightful, was her strong affection, which was of a most clinging, fondling nature. When quite a Baby, this showed itself in never being easy without touching Emma, when in bed with her, & quite lately she would when poorly fondle for any length of time one of Emma’s arms. When very unwell, Emma lying down beside her, seemed to soothe her in a manner quite different from what it would have done to any of our other children. So again, she would at almost anytime spend half-an-hour in arranging my hair, “making it” as she called it “beautiful,” or in smoothing, the poor dear darling, my collar or cuffs, in short in fondling me. She liked being kissed; indeed every expression in her countenance beamed with affection & kindness, & all her habits were influenced by her loving disposition.
Besides her joyousness thus tempered, she was in her manners remarkably cordial, frank, open, straightforward natural and without any shade of reserve. Her whole mind was pure & transparent. One felt one knew her thoroughily & could trust her: I always thought, that come what might, we should have had in our old age, at least one loving soul, which nothing could have changed. She was generous, handsome & unsuspicious in all her conduct; free from envy & jealousy; goodtempered & never passionate. Hence she was very popular in the whole household, and strangers liked her & soon appreciated her. The very manner in which she shook hands with acquaintances showed her cordiality.
Her figure & appearance were clearly influenced by her character: her eyes sparkled brightly; she often smiled; her step was elastic & firm; she held herself upright, & often threw her head a little backwards, as if she defied the world in her joyousness. For her age she was very tall, not thin & strong. Her hair was a nice brown & long; her complexion slightly brown; eyes, dark grey; her teeth large & white. The Daguerrotype is very like her, but fails entirely in expression: having been made two years since, her face had become lengthened & better looking. All her movements were vigorous, active & usually graceful: when going round the sand-walk with me, although I walked fast, yet she often used to go before pirouetting in the most elegant way, her dear face bright all the time, with the sweetest smiles.
Occasionally she had a pretty coquettish manner towards me; the memory of which is charming: she often used exaggerated language, & when I quizzed her by exaggerating what she had said, how clearly can I now see the little toss of the head & exclamation of “Oh Papa what a shame of you”.
She had a truly feminine interest in dress, & was always neat: such undisguised satisfaction, escaping somehow all tinge of conceit & vanity, beamed from her face, when she had got hold of some ribbon or gay handkerchief of her Mamma’s.
One day she dressed herself up in a silk gown, cap, shawl & gloves of Emma, appearing in figure like a little old woman, but with her heightened colour, sparkling eyes & bridled smiles, she looked, as I thought, quite charming.
She cordially admired the younger children; how often have I heard her emphatically declare. “what a little duck, Betty is, is not she?”
She was very handy, doing everything neatly with her hands: she learnt music readily, & I am sure from watching her countenance, when listening to others playing, that she had a strong taste for it. She had some turn for drawing, & could copy faces very nicely. She danced well, & was extremely fond of it. She liked reading, but evinced no particular line of taste. She had one singular habit, which, I presume would ultimately have turned into some pursuit; namely a strong pleasure in looking out words or names in dictionaries, directories, gazeteers, & in this latter case finding out the places in the Map: so also she would take a strange interest in comparing word by word two editions of the same book; and again she would spend hours in comparing the colours of any objects with a book of mine, in which all colours are arranged & named.
Her health failed in a slight degree for about nine months before her last illness; but it only occasionally gave her a day of discomfort: at such times, she was never in the least degree cross, peevish or impatient; & it was wonderful to see, as the discomfort passed, how quickly her elastic spirits brought back her joyousness & happiness. In the last short illness, her conduct in simple truth was angelic; she never once complained; never became fretful; was ever considerate of others; & was thankful in the most gentle, pathetic manner for everything done for her. When so exhausted that she could hardly speak, she praised everything that was given her, & said some tea “was beautifully good.” When I gave her some water, she said “I quite thank you”; & these, I believe were the last precious words ever addressed by her dear lips to me.
But looking back, always the spirit of joyousness rises before me as her emblem and characteristic: she seemed formed to live a life of happiness: her spirits were always held in check by her sensitiveness lest she should displease those she loved, & her tender love was never weary of displaying itself by fondling & all the other little acts of affection.
We have lost the joy of the Household, and the solace of our old age: she must have known how we loved her; oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly we do still & shall ever love her dear joyous face. Blessings on her.