Charles Darwin

1809 - 1882

Naturalist. Born in Shrewsbury (England), his mother was a Wedgewood, of the pottery dynasty, while his father belonged to a medical family. Darwin was named after his uncle who had died in 1778, aged only 19, while undertaking his medical training. In 1825, his overbearing father sent the young Darwin to follow the same path as his uncle at the University of Edinburgh. He did not complete his degree and left in 1827. Although Darwin was later to claim he gained little from his medical education, he studied in Edinburgh in the aftermath of the Scottish Enlightenment and was greatly influenced by some of those he met such as Prof. Thomas Charles Hope (1766 - 1844), Prof. John Lizars (c.1787 - 1860), Robert Edmond Grant (1793 - 1874), Charles Lyell (1797 - 1875), John James Audubon (1785 - 1851), Prof. Robert Jameson (1774 - 1854), and the taxidermist John Edmonstone, who began as a slave on a Guyanan sugar plantation. These conversations further stimulated his interest in natural history and began him thinking about evolution. After another failed attempt to gain a degree, this time studying theology at Cambridge, in 1831 he began his celebrated five-year voyage around the globe on HMS Beagle, noting the fossils of Argentina, the biodiversity of Chile, where he also experienced volcanoes and earthquakes, the remarkable variations in species of the Galapagos Islands and a coral reef in the Cocos Islands, amongst many other experiences. He collected thousands of plant, animal and rock specimens, wrote an extensive diary and collected hundreds of pages of notes which were to provide the evidence for his later work.

In 1838, Darwin visited Edinburgh again and spent time studying the geology of Salisbury Crags, which had been described by James Hutton (1726-97). He then travelled north to examine the 'parallel roads' of Glen Roy which he compared with similar structures he had seen in Chile and wrongly interpreted these as marine terraces. Two years later the Swiss geologist Louis Agassiz (1807-73) correctly interpreted these as being of glacial origin.

Darwin's health suffered as he directed the publication of the multi-volume The Zoology of the Voyage of HMS Beagle (1838-43) and wrote other books to strict deadlines from the publishers. He spent the succeeding years as a gentleman-naturalist, reflecting on his ideas, having moved his family to the seclusion of Down House in Kent. In 1859, Darwin published his thoughts about evolution through natural selection in On the Origin of Species. This proved controversial, especially his suggestion that humans and animals had common ancestors, and brought him into conflict with the religious establishment and some mockery. However it proved popular with a growing scientific community, who were observing the world and found traditional doctine did not provide explanations. He was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1865.

Darwin died at Down House and his funeral was attended by thousands. He was buried in Westminster Abbey. Among those features named in his honour are the Darwin Mounds off the northwest coast of Scotland. A plaque in Lothian Steet commemorates where he lodged while a student in Edinburgh.

Use the tabs on the right of this page to see other parts of this entry arrow

If you have found this information useful please consider making
a donation to help maintain and improve this resource. More info...

By using our site you agree to accept cookies, which help us serve you better