of Darwin's College Years:
Eager that Darwin should not "go astray" his father decided
that his son will pursue a medical career as he and his grandfather
did before him. Darwin was sent to the University of Edinburgh
in Scotland, known as having one of the best medical schools
in all of Europe. Once there he joined his brother, Erasmus,
having finished most of his medical studies at Cambridge. They
took lodgings together in 11 Lothian Street, right across from
the University. Darwin did not particularly take a liking to
medical studies - the fear of the sight of blood being a major
hindrance, but the primary reason for his aversion appears to
be that he found the study of medicine incredibly boring.
His first year at Edinburgh was somewhat uneventful, about the
only part of medical school that sparked Darwin's interest were
the chemistry lectures given by professor Thomas Hope.
1826 February - April
a freed black slave from Guyana, South America, taught Darwin
taxidermy. The two of them often sat together for conversation,
and John would fill Darwin's head with vivid pictures of the
tropical rain forests of South America. These pleasant conversations
with John may have later inspired Darwin to dream about exploring
the tropics. In any event, the taxidermy skills Darwin learned
from him were indispensable during his voyage aboard H.M.S.
Beagle in 1831.
Darwin finished his first year of medical school and spent the
summer hiking in the Welsh hills near his home in Shrewsbury.
During this time Darwin read Revd. Gilbert White's, "The Natural
History of Selborne" and he came away from this book with a
much greater appreciation for wildlife. Darwin started making
detailed observations of birds and kept a notebook of their
1826 November 6
Darwin began his second year of medical school at Edinburgh,
but now he was alone; his brother, Erasmus, having left Edinburgh
for London to study anatomy. Darwin spent a lot of time at the
university museum, taking notes on the plants and animals on
display there. He also joined the Plinian Society during this
time and often attended their scientific debates. These debates
were perhaps his first exposure to anti-Christian sentiments.
The topics of these debates centered upon the merits of scientific
investigation stemming from a an examination of natural causes
rather than divine intervention. Darwin also attended Professor
Robert Jameson's lectures on Geology, and ironically he found
himself dreadfully bored with the subject, and vowed never to
read or study geology again.
1827 Winter - Spring
Robert Grant, a
Scottish zoologist, became a very close friend of Darwin. They
would often go out on long walks together at the Firth of Forth,
an estuary just north of Edinburgh, discussing marine life and
collecting specimens. On these walks Grant filled Darwin's head
with evolutionary ideas, especially those of Lamarck,
whom Grant admired a great deal.
1827 March 27
Darwin gave his first scientific speech at a meeting of the
Plinian Society. The subject was his discovery that the larva
of sea-mats can swim, and that the tiny black specks inside
old oyster shells were skate leech eggs. Not the most earth
shattering discovery, but it was a start for Darwin.
Darwin quit medical school for good.
He visited London for the first time, then went with his Uncle,
Josiah Wedgwood II, for a tour of Paris.
By this time Darwin's father was rather displeased with his
son, fearing he will amount to nothing but an "idle gentleman."
Plans were made for Darwin to study for the clergy, and his
father arranged for him to attend Christ's College at Cambridge
Darwin started to take an interest in one of his sisters best
friends, Fanny Owen;
daughter of William Owen of Woodhouse. They spent much time
riding horses together, shooting birds, playing billiards, and
engaging in mild flirtations.
Darwin was accepted into Christ's College at Cambridge, but
did not start until winter term because he needed to catch up
on some of his studies.
Darwin began studying for the clergy at Christ's College. His
brother, Erasmus, joined him at Cambridge where he would be
studying for his medical exams.
1828 Winter Term
Once again Darwin did not take his studies very seriously, spending
much of his free time collecting beetles, reading Shakespeare,
and having dinner parties with his friends.
William Darwin Fox,
Darwin's cousin, introduced him to Revd.
John Stevens Henslow, Professor of Botany at Cambridge.
Darwin started attending Henslow's lectures and was very soon
addicted to natural history. By spring term Darwin saw a natural
science career in his future.
Darwin spent the first part of summer at home in Shrewsbury.
In June he went to the Welsh coast at Cardigan Bay, taking a
math tutor with him so he could bone up on algebra, a subject
he found very difficult to grasp. The tutoring only lasted a
few weeks, at which time Darwin got back to serious business
- collected beetles and fly fishing. He also went on a reading
tour at Barmouth with his Cambridge friends, John Herbert and
Thomas Butler. During this tour Darwin confided with Herbert
that he had serious doubts about entering the clergy. Towards
the end of summer he spent some time with Fanny
Owen at her father's estate.
1828 October 31
He returned to Christ's College, and took up residence in Revd.
William Paley's former rooms.
During winter break Darwin visited London where his brother
showed him around to the Royal Institution, Linnean Society,
and Zoological Gardens. These visits further ignited Darwin's
interest in natural history. Afterwards Darwin visited Woodhouse
to see his girlfriend, Fanny Owen.
1829 Early Year
Darwin began to have more doubts regarding pursuing a religious
career. His studies were not going very well, and he was spending
too much time out in the countryside collecting beetles.
1829 February 21
He spent part of his spring break in London where he met with
the famous entomologist, Revd. Frederick Hope. They spent many
days talking about insects, and Hope gave him over one-hundred
new species for his collection.
Darwin spent the summer at home, visiting Fanny at Woodhouse,
and hunting pheasants at Maer Hall (the estate of his uncle,
Josiah Wedgwood II). During this time his brother, Erasmus,
decided not to pursue a medical practice and his father put
him up with a generous pension.
1829 early October
Darwin attended the Birmingham Music Festival with the Wedgwood
1829 October 15
Now back at Cambridge, Darwin spent all of his time studying
for the preliminary exams coming up in March.
Darwin's relationship with Fanny was beginning to diminish.
The reasons for this are not entirely clear, but evidently Darwin
had developed too much of a relationship with entomology (he
had not visited her the previous winter break, having stayed
in Cambridge to hunt beetles), and Fanny
was being pursued by more attentive suitors. Just after he passed
his "little go" exam they broke up.
1830 March 24
Darwin passed his "little go" exam at Cambridge. He was tested
on translating Greek and Latin text (barely squeaked by), questions
on the gospels (did fairly well with this), and on Paley's Evidences
of Christianity (he shined here, having a great fondness for
Paley's logic and simple elegance).
1830 Spring term
Most of the term was spent attending botany lectures from Professor
Henslow. By this time Henslow had marked Darwin out as a
gifted student with great promise. They often went on long walks
together, discussing botany and going on plant collecting outings.
Henslow also had Darwin over to his house for his Friday night
dinner parties. It was during this time in his life that Darwin
clearly saw his future; he would become country clergyman/naturalist
1830 August 11
Darwin went on holiday to Barmouth, in Wales. He spent sunny
days collecting beetles, and rainy days fly fishing at the mountain
lakes. When he was young Darwin was an avid hiker and during
this holiday he explored the Capel Curig region and climbed
Mt. Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales.
1830 September 10
Upon returning home at Shrewsbury he received a letter from
Fanny that she was
engaged to be married. This upset Darwin a great deal.
1830 October 7
Darwin returned to Cambridge for the fall term. He shifted his
focus away from beetle collecting and exerted a huge burst of
energy towards studying for his final exam. During this time
Revd. Henslow became
his private tutor.
1831 January 22
He took his final exam and passed with very good scores! The
exam covered such topics as Homer, Virgil, Paley's Moral and
Political Philosophy (good scores here), Locke's Essay concerning
Human Understanding (did well here, too), mathematics (did not
do so well), physics and astronomy (also, not very good). He
came in 10th place out of 178 students who passed the exam.
Darwin started thinking about settling down in a nice countryside
parish as a clergyman with ample time to ramble about the countryside
collecting bugs and plants. He read Paley's "Natural Theology,"
Sir John Herschel's
book, "Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy"
and gained a burning zeal for science. Another book he read
had a strong influence on his life; it was Alexander von Humboldt's
7-vol. "Personal Narrative" of his South America adventures.
Now Darwin began dreaming about the glorious tropical rain forests.
Revd. Henslow suggested
that he should go off and explore in the tropics for a short
Inspired by Henslow's advice, Darwin planned out a ocean voyage
to explore Tenerife at the Canary Islands. He tried to get Revd.
Henslow to go along with him but he could not go (his wife just
had a baby). Darwin's father tentatively approved the trip,
wanting him to first work out the logistics and expenses.
1831 April 26
Darwin returned to Cambridge for graduation and studied for
his trip. Seeing that Darwin would benefit from knowing a little
something about geology, Henslow introduced him to Professor
Adam Sedgwick, professor
of Geology at Cambridge. Darwin was invited to attend Sedgwick's
geology lectures which oddly enough he enjoyed a great deal
(this is ironic, as he found Jameson's geology lectures at Edinburgh
to be very boring).
Not wanting to explore the tropics alone, Darwin convinced his
friend, Marmaduke Ramsay, a tutor at Jesus College, to travel
with him to the Canary Islands
1831 August 4 - 18
Darwin returned to Shrewsbury for summer vacation. Professor
Sedgwick came by the house on 4 August loaded down with
hiking gear and geology tools. He and Darwin went off to Northern
Wales where Sedgwick gave him a crash course in field geology.
Within a week Darwin was addicted to the subject. He only spent
a week with Sedgwick, then went off to visit with friends at
Barmouth, geologizing along the way.
Darwin's Tenerife Island plans were crushed when found out that
his friend, Ramsay, had died on 31 July. Months of preparation
were wasted and Darwin was now very despondent.