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Home > Banknotes > Charles Darwin 1809-1882

Charles Darwin 1809-1882

Charles DarwinCharles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, into a prosperous middle-class intellectual family – his paternal grandfather was the scientist Erasmus Darwin (whose work contains some hints of the evolutionary theory his grandson was later to elaborate) and his maternal grandfather, the potter Josiah Wedgwood.

When he was 16, he went to Edinburgh University to study medicine. He hated this, having neither aptitude nor the interest, and he survived only two years there. As a last resort, and under paternal pressure, he went to Christ’s College, Cambridge, he was able to pursue in a more congenial atmosphere his interest in the natural world – encouraged by his cousin William Darwin Fox, an entomologist, his botany professor John Stevens Henslow, and the Cambridge University Professor of Geology, Adam Sedgewick, who guided his interest in that subject.

In January 1831, he passed his BA at Cambridge. Decisions about his future in the church were put on hold when, in the same year, Darwin was chosen to become the naturalist on board HMS Beagle on a planned circumnavigation of the globe. The voyage took five years and was a magnificent experience.

The HMS Beagle was a 90-foot long, 24-foot wide vessel that carried a total of 74 people around the world. Many places were visited, including most famously, the Galapagos Islands, where the crew of HMS Beagle stayed for one month. The voyage gave Darwin the chance to collect many specimens and make daily entries into his journal. The journals demonstrate not only his inquisitive mind but also his scientific background and training. On his return, he worked up his notes and published them as The Voyage of the Beagle (1839).

A shy, retiring and modest man, and with his health seriously compromised by a tropical disease contracted whilst on the Beagle, he chose to withdraw from life at the centre, and in 1842 he moved to Down House in Kent, where he spent the rest of his life. His family resources were sufficient to support himself and his large family in a comfortable style. The move gave Darwin the opportunity to think about, speculate upon and draw conclusions from his mass of observations from the Beagle voyage.

On the Origin of Species. The first edition of the book that guaranteed Darwin’s continued importance – On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection - was published in 1859. It was a distillation and elaboration of his ideas first formulated on The Beagle voyage – that is, development of a theory to explain the richness and diversity of life observed while on HMS Beagle, the theory of natural selection.

Darwin continued to study and write for the rest of his life. He wrote a series of papers that supplemented the theories of the “The Origin”, and also some – such as The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Actions of Worms – which attest to his life as a country gentlemen.