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.
February - April
Edmonstone, 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 habits.
1826 November 6
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
1827 Winter - Spring
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.
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.
London for the first time, then went with his Uncle,
Josiah Wedgwood II, for a tour of Paris.
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 University.
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
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.
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
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.
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 family.
1829 October 15
Now back at Cambridge, Darwin spent all of his time
studying for the preliminary exams coming up in March.
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 England.
1830 September 10
home at Shrewsbury he received a letter from Fanny
that she was engaged to be married. This upset Darwin
a great deal.
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 time.
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
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.