“I think we might be on the verge of a new revolution in the study and appreciation of the work of Charles Darwin,” says Dr John van Wyhe, the Cambridge historian of science in charge of Darwin Online, a project dedicted to assembling the entire works of the great naturalist in a single place. He was speaking to me on the eve of making the entire collection of Darwin’s private papers freely available online, and was keen to stress the huge significance of this new resource. “It’s been a lot of work, but it’s worth it because these are some of the most important papers in the history of science. Because of the immense interest in and importance of Darwin, these papers are consequently extremely important and interesting.”

As the director of Darwin Online, which is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Van Wyhe, along with a team of three other academics, has spent the past three years cataloguing and uploading the 20,000 or so items that make up Darwin’s private papers. Previously anyone wanting to view them had to travel to the archive in Cambridge, but now academics the world over will have them at their fingertips. It’s a staggering amount of material, including his scientific notes, notes from the Beagle voyage, private photographs, newspaper clippings, caricatures of Darwin and much more. “From now on, whenever we need to check things or explore an aspect of Darwin’s life, the archive is there,” says Van Wyhe, explaining its significance for academics. “This is something that will greatly facilitate our ability to study and understand what he did.”

With their availability online, academics will be able to focus on parts of the papers that may have been underused in the past. One such area is the vast collection of news clippings put together by Darwin himself which, explains Van Wyhe, allow the reader to see “him combing across the scientific and popular literature, cutting things out, writing little notes on them and filing them in their appropriate folders.” Among these are the reviews that Darwin collected of his own works, which in Van Wyhe’s view could be some of the most important items in the archive. “There are hundreds of book reviews, in multiple languages, and there’s no way you could find them anywhere else. Here is the world’s premier resource for the study of the reception of Darwin and the Origin of Species – something we still don’t know enough about. It’s the most important change in history, but we’ve always based our study of it on a handful of big name book reviews. The rest are scattered across thousands of libraries around the world – they’re not located in any one place. But the best collection that has ever been made – Darwin’s own – is in this volume.”

While few could doubt the value of this resource to academics, I ask Van Wyhe how it might be of interest to general reader. Might those with no experience of archives be put off by the sheer volume of material in front of them? He points out that this was a major consideration during the construction of the archive, stressing that Darwin Online isn’t just for experts and explaining how the general reader can dip in: “I’ve tried to make it open and transparent. There’s a big browse page, where you can go in and see all the different sections that the archive is divided up into, with brief descriptions of what’s in them. You can jump in and start browsing, just leaf through it like you were in the archive. You’ll see one or two items that you’ve seen in the books, but you’re going to see a lot more that’s never been published. It’s just a treasure trove for anyone interested in Darwin. You can look at this material for months and not see it all – I know, because I’ve spent years.”

Given the enormous range of material now available at Darwin Online, I wonder if Van Wyhe can point the general reader to some areas of the archive they might find particularly fascinating. One document he’s keen for people to see is Darwin’s book of ornithological notes, compiled during the Beagle voyage in 1836, which contains the famous passage where Darwin notes that the divergences he has spotted among mockingbirds on the Galapagos Islands could have the potential “to undermine the stability of species”. This may have been quoted thousands of times, but it’s the fact that the reader can now see the original page, in Darwin’s own handwriting, that really excites Van Wyhe: “The great thing is that you don’t just get to see the original sentence – you’re in the middle of this scientific document. You can see it in its original context.” The bird book is a crucial document in the study of Darwin, especially given the fact that he intended to present it to a professional ornithologist on his return to England. “What this shows you,” Van Wyhe explains, “is that Darwin’s first doubt about the stability of species is written in a document that was meant for people to read. It shows that his doubts weren’t secret, and I don’t think that’s ever been remarked on before.”

If this comes as a surprise to those who doubt Darwin’s intentions in advancing his theory of evolution, Van Wyhe hopes the archive’s material relating to the Origin of Species might help to further dispel the arguments of those currently advancing Creationist and Intelligent Design theories. All the notes compiled by Darwin when writing this famous work, as well as those for his later book Descent of Man, are now available online, including reading notes, memoranda, press cuttings and the results of the thousands of experiments he conducted. “All this material is Darwin’s evidence for the theory of evolution of evolution by natural selection, and it’s really important that people should have access to this,” says Van Wyhe. “Even though to us it seems absurd that there should be any controversy about it, since it was done and dusted ten years after he published the book, 150 years later some people are still quarrelling about it. Maybe the availability of this material will have some impact on that debate.”

Often tied into this debate are discussions on Darwin’s own religious views and this is another area widely covered by his private papers. In fact, there’s so much in the archive on religion that Van Wyhe laughs when I ask him if there’s anything on the subject. “There’s just loads, absolutely tons of stuff,” he says. When I press him for an example he suggests a memorandum sent to Darwin by his wife Emma shortly after their marriage in January 1839: “She wrote to him expressing her concerns over his growing doubts about religion. Unfortunately we don’t know what he told her, which is a shame as what he was thinking at this time is of great interest. But we do have this document, which is a tantalising clue, because he’s told her ‘Look, I doubt. I don’t think I believe all of that’, and this is her response. So he obviously confided in her, even though his father told him ‘conceal your doubts if you ever get married’. Darwin was such an open person – he could never conceal his thinking apparently. Basically, the volume on religion shows that he gradually lost his faith, but never had any stress or crisis about it. It just faded away, and thereafter he never doubted for a second. He became a complete sceptic.”

Before our conversation ends, I ask Van Wyhe to point me towards a few more areas that general readers might take an interest in? One item he suggests is Emma Darwin’s recipe book, a “charming” volume that he believes would have attracted media attention even if it had been published on its own. True Darwin enthusiasts can even have a go at making Emma’s recipes, such as “Ilkley Pudding”, though Van Wyhe notes that Darwin Online “should have included a health warning, as they’re rather dangerous recipes.”

Another little-known volume concerns animal rights – something Darwin cared passionately about. Even in his day there was discussion over whether it was acceptable to conduct experiments on living animals, and Darwin became involved in that debate. As Van Wyhe explains, “Darwin was the most compassionate man about animal welfare you could ever meet – he once jumped off his carriage and shouted at a man who was whipping his horse too much – and for his own part he refused to take part in experiments on animals.” But this didn’t mean he was necessarily opposed to other scientists conducting them. “He said the importance towards the future of humanity and increasing human health and welfare was so great that man should not be impeded by laws, however well intentioned, that would cripple physiological research. He was convinced that just too much good could come out of it.”

Now that the private papers are online, what was once the preserve of those willing or able to spend days, weeks and even months in a library in Cambridge can now be accessed from anywhere in the world. As Van Wyhe jokes as I leave him to continue his last minute preparations for the launch, anyone who visits the archive will be able to experience the father of evolution raw and unfiltered – 100% Darwin.

The private papers of Charles Darwin were made available online, in their entirity, by the Darwin Online project on Thursday 17 April 2008