Charles Darwin

1758 - 1778

Unfortunate medical student. Born in Lichfield (England), the eldest son of physician Erasmus Darwin and uncle of the famous naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-82). He was privately educated in Paris, with the hope that learning French would cure him of a stammer (which it did), and then attended Lichfield School, before going to Christ Church College, Oxford. He did not enjoy Oxford and transferred to the University of Edinburgh in 1775, lodging in the house of Dr. Andrew Duncan (1744 - 1828). An enthusiastic and talented student with a precocious interest in science, he wrote a dissertation on the distinction between mucus and pus, which won the gold medal offered by the Aesculapian Society of Edinburgh, founded by Duncan. He had prepared a thesis for his graduation entitled 'An account of the retrograde motion from the absorbent vessels of animal bodies in some diseases'. Darwin was the first to describe the therapeutic effects of an extract of foxglove (Digitalis) on patients suffering from heart problems (dropsy), preceding William Withering's more famous account by seven years. Today, digitalins are still prescribed for such conditions.

Darwin cut himself while undertaking an autopsy and became infected. Within hours he suffered from a severe headache and, despite treatment by his father and medical tutors, including Prof. William Cullen (1710-90) and Prof. Joseph Black (1728-99), he died within days, while still a teenager. Darwin is buried in Andrew Duncan's family vault in the kirkyard of Buccleuch Parish Church. Both his dissertation and thesis were posthumously published by his father in 1780, who did much to preserve the memory of his son. It was undoubtedly this memory that brought the more famous Charles Darwin to study medicine at Edinburgh almost 50 years later.

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