The Childhood and Youth of Charles Robert DarwinJune 26, 2021
Darwin was born on February 12, 1809, in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England, the fifth child of Robert and Susannah Darwin. His father, Robert Darwin, and his paternal grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, were famous doctors. His mother was the daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, a wealthy pottery maker. Darwin lost his mother in July 1817, when he was only eight years old. In September 1818, he began his education as a boarding student at Shrewsbury School.
After graduating in 1825, Darwin worked for his father as an intern for a while, then enrolled in the medical school of Edinburgh University in Scotland. However, he could not warm up to surgery and started to skip medicine courses. He learned the art of taxidermy (stuffing animals) from a freed slave of Guyana origin who worked at the school. He joined the Plinian Society, founded by students interested in natural history. He learned Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s theory of evolution from his teacher, Robert Edmund Grant, and together with Grant, he studied sea creatures and found examples of homology (the presence of organs with the same basic structure in different species) that support the theory of evolution from common ancestors. He took classes on geology and plant classification from another teacher, Robert Jameson, and helped Jameson organize the plant collection of the Royal Museum of Edinburgh.
Realizing that Darwin had neglected his medical education, his father took him from Edinburgh in 1827 and enrolled him in Christ’s College, Cambridge University. He hoped that Darwin would study theology and become a clergyman. While Darwin was more successful in theology than in medicine (he particularly liked the writings of the theologian William Paley linking the complexity of living things to a gifted creator), his main interest was still natural history. He enjoyed collecting insects with his cousin, William Darwin Fox. Thanks to his interest in insects, Darwin met the botanist professor John Stevens Henslow, became close friends with this professor, and both enrolled in Henslow’s natural history course and began taking private lessons from him. Thanks in part to these lectures, he graduated 10th in his 178-man circuit in 1831. Darwin spent the summer of 1831 together with Adam Sedgwick, professor of geology, mapping the geological strata of Wales.
In the fall of 1831, Henslow introduced Darwin to Robert FitzRoy, the captain of the HMS Beagle. The Beagle was to embark on a two-year South American voyage under FitzRoy in December 1831, and the captain wanted a well-trained naturalist to accompany him en route. On Henslow’s advice, FitzRoy agreed to take Darwin on his ship. Although Darwin’s father did not allow the long journey at first, he changed his mind when his brother-in-law intervened.