September 23, 2004


     WALLA WALLA, Wash.-- A funny thing happened to Darwin on the way to Whitman College.

     The evolutionist’s classic biology tome, “On the Origin of Species,” published in 1859, has spawned more than a century of heated debate, courtroom drama and new scientific thought. But for most of the last century one beautifully preserved volume of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution sat demurely on a bookshelf gathering dust in one home or another of three generations of the Bromley family. Then late last month, Christopher Bromley pulled “Origins” off the shelf where it had rested next to Tom Clancy’s latest thriller, tossed it in the back of his ’95 Blazer and chauffeured it from his home in Boise, Idaho, to his alma mater in Walla Walla, Washington.

    The Bromley family, in appreciation of the education Chris received at this prestigious Northwest liberal arts institution, presented the first-edition volume, appraised at $125,000, to a modest but appreciative gathering of the college’s professors, administrators, librarians and President Tom Cronin at a ceremony in Penrose Library on Saturday, Aug. 28, following the college’s 123rd Convocation.

    About 100 years after the birth of “On the Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life,” Abbie Bromley purchased “Origins” at an auction house in New York for $100 and gave it to her husband, Alexander, for his birthday in 1950. A physician, Alexander Bromley had a reverence for life that made the book very meaningful to him, according to his son Michael. Now an attorney in Colorado Springs, Michael said his parents gave him the book on his 21st birthday, when they still harbored hopes that he would pursue a career in medicine. Earlier this year he decided to give the treasured family artifact to Whitman, where his son Chris, also an attorney, had graduated in 1997. It now holds a revered spot, safe yet accessible for student and faculty research, in the Penrose Library.

     Before being tucked safely away on the library’s ample shelves, however, “Origins” took quite a ride with Chris Bromley, who used the trip to take advantage of a few alumni events at Whitman. While he did stash his old friend in the safe at Howard Johnson’s before going out to dinner Friday night, the priceless relic of the 19th century rested unceremoniously on his passenger seat during the Whitman varsity soccer game on Friday afternoon. This was a step up from the unceremonious ride from Idaho, of course, and decidedly more dashing than the nearly 50 years on his grandparents’ book shelf, but far from the book’s dignified origins, when in October of 1859, it was one of only 1,250 printings which sold out on the first day of publication.

     Not to worry, however. Darwin’s treatise is now safely ensconced in the Whitman community. “We are honored by this gift,” said Cronin, “one of the most famous and influential books of the 19th century.”

    Charles Drabek, chair of Whitman’s biology department, noted “‘On the Origin of Species’ literally changed the world overnight. Today, nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of evolution.”

CONTACT: Lenel Parish, Whitman College News Service, (509) 527-5156