There’s a famous portrait of Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882) taken near the end of his life.
In it, Darwin stares off-camera into eternity, the archetypal old man with pale eyes and a long white beard, the way many children picture God.
But I’m not interested in that Darwin.
The Darwin I’ve become fond of (Charles, I’ll call him, though his family called him Bobby) was a charming loafer with ruddy cheeks and changeable gray eyes.
He took six years to earn his BA degree, changing majors and colleges twice. In fact, he was never a great student. .
His father warned him:
You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.
But Charles possessed one trait that would compensate for everything—wonder. Wonder and a fascination for all living things, no matter how lowly. Worms, beetles, barnacles and the rest — Charles loved them all.
After graduation, he still couldn’t decide what to do with himself. But his mentor concocted a splendid idea—send the boy on a South American cruise!
And what a cruise. Yet Charles was 27 when he returned from his famous voyage on the Beagle. He didn’t publish On The Origin Of Species until age 50. Why did it take 23 years?
This is Part 1 of a series about Charles Darwin—trust fund slacker, med school dropout, and late-blooming author of an idea that rocked the world.
The Wedgwood Scion
Charles must have felt a tremendous pressure to succeed at something.
His genius grandfathers, Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood, met through the Lunar Society, a gentleman’s dining and science club (Ben Franklin was a corresponding member).
Erasmus Darwin was a polymath — doctor, natural philosopher, abolitionist, inventor and poet. Josiah Wedgwood founded Wedgwood Pottery and made a fortune.
Erasmus had a son Robert, who fell in love with Josiah’s daughter Susannah, but the two friends advised them not to wed until Robert could support her.
Robert became a doctor and did well for himself, but Josiah died before they married. Susannah inherited £25,000, equivalent to tens of millions today.
Robert and Susannah Darwin had six children. Charles was their youngest boy. Sadly, Susannah’s children would want for nothing, except her presence. She died when Charles was eight, and he recalled little of her. His two oldest sisters raised him.
Charles spent much of his childhood roaming the Shrewsbury countryside, rat-catching, collecting birds’ nests and hunting with his dogs. He attended boarding school in his teens, but was such a poor student that his father yanked him out at 16. Charles remembers:
Nothing could have been worse for the development of my mind than Dr. Butler’s school, as it was strictly classical, nothing else being taught, except a little ancient geography and history. The school as a means of education to me was simply a blank.
At wit’s end, Dr. Darwin dispatched Charles to the University of Edinburgh Medical School, where his older brother studied.
(What was Dr. Darwin thinking, sending a starry-eyed teenager to med school? Did his desire to have both sons follow in his footsteps overruled his common sense, or did he hope Charles would rise to the challenge?)
The Med School Dropout
Charles hated medical school. The operating theater horrified him:
I…saw two very bad operations, one on a child, but I rushed away before they were completed. Nor did I ever attend again, for hardly any inducement would have been strong enough to make me do so; this being long before the blessed days of chloroform. The two cases fairly haunted me for many a long year.
Instead, Charles combed tide pools with his zoology professor, attended natural history club lectures (where John James Audubon spoke) and apprenticed himself to taxidermist John Edmonstone, a freed slave, whom he greatly admired: “…he was a very pleasant and intelligent man.”
Old Dr. Darwin discovered that his son was skiving off and gave Charles an ultimatum. He would go to Cambridge and study for the clergy. Then, at least, he’d have a respectable post from which to pursue his little hobbies.
(At this point, I almost admire Dr. Darwin’s efforts to keep his son from trust fund slacker-dom.)
From Chasing Rats To Sucking Beetles
At Cambridge, Charles didn’t enroll for a theology degree, since the Church of England only required a basic BA and doctrinal study. He struggled through required Classics and mathematics courses, but excelled in botany and zoology.
Charles became an avid amateur entomologist. Beetle collecting was his obsession (faint of heart, skip this):
One day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles, and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas! it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one.
(That’s dedication to a passion.)
Botany professor Reverend John Henslow took him under wing. Henslow gave Charles a “burning zeal to add even the most humble contribution to the noble structure of natural science.”
Still, Charles graduated from Cambridge without distinction. He embarked on a geological tour of Wales to postpone the inevitable decision about Holy Orders.
When he returned, a letter awaited him. Henslow had recommended Charles for the position of
naturalist as companion to Capt Fitzroy employed by Government to survey the S. extremity of America—I have stated that I consider you to be the best qualified person I know of who is likely to undertake such a situation…
The only problem – Charles would have to pay his own way, which meant asking his dad to support him.
Seriously, at this point, if you were Dr. Darwin, would you finance your son’s South American cruise?
As Charles recalled, “I will here only say that I was instantly eager to accept the offer, but my father strongly objected. . . . So I wrote that evening and refused the offer.”
In The Next Installment…
Charles knows he’s found his calling, but his dad has cut him off. Find out how Charles got to the Galapagos here.