I am much Obliged For Your Kind Letter

Friday, December 9, 2022

A couple of months ago, as I was retrieving a book in the Rare Book Room of the Frances-Henry Library at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, something peculiar caught my eye. Viewing a shelf of books at an angle, I noticed a thin plastic cover, descent of manrising above the height of most of the books on the shelf.I took a moment to investigate and found that the insert was stored inside an 1876 New York printing of Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man, pictured here.




We do not hold much Darwin at HUC. Across our three North American branches, we hold only four other Darwin works: a 1970s reprint of Origen of the Species, two printings of Descent in Yiddish (one of this is pictured below), and a 1929 or 1930 Hebrew translation of his diary’s description of Tierra del Fuego, which he visited 190 years ago this very month, during his famed journey aboard the Beagle. In general, our holdings of scientific books are fairly limited to those written by or about Jewish scientists.





Based upon the name stamps on both inside covers, it seems that the 1876 Darwin volume joined our collection as part of a large donation of books by Rabbi Saul Bezalel Appelbaum (1907-1964). Rabbi Appelbaum was ordained at HUC in Cincinnati in 1931. He served congregations in the Midwest and then Congregation B’nai B’rith in Santa Barbara. Before his death, he donated his sizable library to the new and growing “California Branch” of Hebrew Union College. Incidentally, his brother-in-law was Pierre Salinger, a noted journalist, White House press secretary to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and briefly even a senator.


Rabbi Appelbaum’s copy of Darwin’s volume has an envelope pasted into the front cover, addressed to Dr. D. B. Miller of Cincinnati, Ohio. It is postmarked May, 28 ‘77 – Kent, and subsequently June 10 – New York. The envelope would have contained the letter now protected by the plastic cover and stored inside this volume, addressed to Dr. Miller and written by none other than Darwin himself:

May 28th 77

Dear Sir I am much obliged for your kind letter. I daresay that I have not laid stress enough on the general difference in constitution between males & females; but the subject is a very difficult & obscure one.

— I remain Dear sir yours faithfully & obliged

Charles Darwin

It is clear that Darwin was responding to an inquiry from Miller. Fortunately, that original inquiry is preserved and available to read online. In fact, the staff of the Darwin Correspondence Project at the University of Cambridge were very happy to learn about our letter and will be posting it to their website for posterity. Darwin was an avid letter writer, having authored over 15,000 letters for friends, colleagues, politicians, and all manner of people the world over.

Miller must have been an active and engaged reader, since the plastic cover also contains another letter, this time signed B. Stewart of The Owens College, Manchester. It is dated 12 February, 1880, and appears to be addressed to the same Miller. These circumstances suggest that it was written by Balfour Stewart. Like the Darwin letter, this second letter contains a brief response explaining a scientific experiment.

Darwin’s correspondent, David Benton Miller (1826-89), was a physician in Cincinnati in the late 1870s. Records from before the Civil War note him working and marrying in Kenton County, Kentucky, just south of the Ohio River. He would return there for his final rest, as he is buried in Highland Cemetery in Fort Mitchell.

It seems most likely that Rabbi Appelbaum gifted us these letters along with the book. Perhaps he himself obtained the letters with the book, possibly even in Cincinnati, where he studied and where Miller worked. Still, at least 30-35 years separate Miller’s death and Appelbaum’s arrival to the Queen City. In the intervening decades, was the book held by a bookstore or a mutual contact? Did Appelbaum acquire it for a college course or personal interest and simply stumble upon the letters inside? Or did Appelbaum obtain the letters and book separately? The truth of the matter is certainly “a very difficult & obscure one.”

Contributed by Rabbi Adam Rosenthal, Director of the Frances-Henry Library