Charles Darwin: An investigation of Darwin's Life and Connections with Derbyshire

PUBLISHED: 21:27 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:49 20 February 2013

Charles Robert Darwin

Charles Robert Darwin

Martin Baguley investigates a turning point in Charles Darwin's life and Darwin's Derbyshire connections.

Picture the scene. Edinburgh 1825. Decaying tenements and stinking, crime-ridden alleys of the Old Town. Wide streets of the stylish, Georgian New Town.

During October of the year, two elegantly dressed young men could be seen strolling along the streets of the polarised city. They were sixteen-year-old Charles Robert Darwin and his brother Erasmus, five years his senior. They could be excused from looking like tourists for, with their home being in Shropshire, Edinburgh was alien territory for them.

But the brothers weren't tourists - they had come to study. Charles's mother had died from a tumour when he was only eight years old and at sixteen he was becoming a worry to his father, Robert. He hadn't shown much promise as a student at Shrewsbury School and Robert, thinking that if he was committed to a career it would give him a sense of direction in life, decided that Charles would follow in his brother's and father's footsteps and train in medicine. He removed him from Shrewsbury School in June 1825, two years early, and made him spend the summer of 1825 practising on the sick and poor of Shropshire, both helping his father and even, surprisingly, attending to some patients of his own.

Robert decided that Charles's medical training should be at Edinburgh University where both he and Charles's grandfather (Erasmus), had studied medicine. His brother Erasmus, who had already spent three years studying medicine at Christ's College, Cambridge, really wanted Charles to join him at Cambridge, but his father's wishes prevailed. He would join Charles in Edinburgh and keep an eye on his young brother.

Although the education offered by Edinburgh University was considered to be the best in Britain, standards had fallen. Charles was appalled with some of the lectures. The Professor of Anatomy appeared in front of students fresh from the dissecting theatre, bloody and begrimed, and his lectures often degenerated into riots. He succeeded in putting Charles off human anatomy for life. Charles's disenchantment was accelerated by the clinical studies. He couldn't overcome his squeamishness. Surgical skill at the time was measured by how quickly an operation could be performed. The surgeon, his grubby hands gripping dirty saws, slashed through the skin and bone of screaming patients strapped down on tables, blood running into buckets of sawdust. During one particularly bad operation on a child, Charles finally cracked. Unable to watch he fled from the room, determined never again to enter an operating theatre. The experience was to haunt him for life.

To some extent Charles's disenchantment with his first year studies was allayed by other diversions. 'I am going to learn to stuff birds, from a blackamoor,' he wrote to his sisters. The 'blackamoor', John Edmonstone, was a freed black slave who had been brought to Edinburgh from Guiana. He had taken lodgings near to the Darwins and set up shop in Edinburgh Museum. Whilst Charles learned the skills of the taxidermist John regaled him with stories of the life of a slave and the luxuriance of the tropical rain forests (which probably whetted the teenager's appetite for travel).

Back in Shrewsbury for the summer of 1826 Charles read Gilbert White's Natural History of Selborne, which encouraged him to see birds more as living creatures than gun targets. Pressured by his father he browsed through medical textbooks, but nothing he read increased his enthusiasm for medicine.

Charles was back in Edinburgh during November 1826, this time without the company of his brother. He grew increasingly unsure about his future, any motivation to make a career in medicine dampened by the knowledge that his father would probably leave him comfortably off financially.

But aid was at hand for the despondent student in the form of the Plinian Society, nominally a student natural history society. By 1826 the society had been penetrated by fiery, free-thinking democrats who argued that science should be based on physical causes, not supernatural forces. Charles found that the raucous debates between the religiously orthodox and radical students gave him the mental stimulation acking from medical lectures.

One particular target for heated debate was the church's domination of society. The Established Churches ruled nearly all aspects of life. Radical members of the Plinian Society hated what they considered to be their corrupt power and didn't accept the church's orthodox Creationism. Charles, with a free-thinking, Unitarian Church heritage, wouldn't have been surprised with the way that Established Church doctrines were impugned. The excitement of the meetings gave the impressionable seventeen-year-old the mental stimulation he sought.

But the Society meetings were not all about high-brow heresy. Excursions were regularly held along the coast of the Firth of Forth where specimens of sea creatures, especially sponges and sea-pens (soft coral-like animals in the shape of a pen), were eagerly sought.

It was during this time that Charles met Robert Edmond Grant. Sixteen years older than Charles and a qualified doctor, he had abandoned his medical practice to study marine life. A freethinking Plinian stalwart, he disdained Creationism, convinced that the origin and evolution of life were the product of physical and chemical forces all obeying natural laws. To the Established Churches this was morally degenerate and subversive: evolutionary ideas, which undermined the Church's legitimacy, spelled the death knell for civilised society.

Grant became Charles' walking companion. As they explored the coast together, Charles, hanging on Grant's every word, was encouraged to make his own original observations. Thanks mainly to the Plinian Society and Robert Grant, Charles' mind had expanded during his second year in Edinburgh - but not as a result of his medical studies. He had come to train as a doctor, but he loathed medicine. In April 1827 he finally left Edinburgh without a degree.

Would Charles Darwin have written On the Origin of Species if he hadn't spent two of his formative teenage years in Edinburgh? His experience of early 19th century medicine put him off a medical career for life. John Edmonstone's tantalizing tales of the tropics probably influenced his decision to accept the offer made to him in 1831 to be the naturalist on the voyage of the Beagle. The debates of the Plinian Society stimulated his enquiring mind and the widely travelled evolutionist, Robert Grant, had a profound influence on the teenage Darwin.

Perhaps Charles would have developed his ideas on evolution regardless of his early education, but I think that it was his time in Edinburgh that laid the foundations for what he himself described as 'a very ordinary boy, rather below the common intelligence' to become the household name we know today.

Latest from the Derbyshire Life and Countryside