Darwin’s fossil collection discovered by chance

Fossils unearthed by Charles Darwin have been discovered in a dusty old cabinet in London after being lost for 165 years.

Found by chance at the British Geological Survey, they’ve been photographed, and can now be seen online.

“This is quite a remarkable discovery,” says  Dr John Ludden, executive director of the Geological Survey. “It really makes one wonder what else might be hiding in our collections.”

The discovery was made quite by chance by Dr Howard Falcon-Lang, from the Department of Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway.

“While searching through an old cabinet, I spotted some drawers marked ‘unregistered fossil plants’. I can’t resist a mystery, so I pulled one open. What I found inside made my jaw drop!” he says.

“Inside the drawer were hundreds of beautiful glass slides made by polishing fossil plants into thin translucent sheets. This process allows them to be studied under the microscope. Almost the first slide I picked up was labelled ‘C. Darwin Esq.’ This turned out to be a piece of fossil wood collected by Darwin during his famous Voyage of the Beagle in 1834!”

The collection was originally put together by Joseph Hooker, a botanist and Darwin’s best friend, who briefly worked for the British Geological Survey in 1846.

Other specimens include fossils that Hooker found during an Antarctic voyage in 1840, as well as some owned by the Revd John Henslow – Darwin’s mentor at Cambridge – whose daughter later married Hooker.

Unfortunately, Hooker failed to number them in the formal ‘specimen register’ before setting out on an expedition to the Himalayas. Over the years, the unregistered fossils were moved several times, and their significance was gradually forgotten.