charles darwin in Hobart Town February 1836  


erasmus darwin
Dr. Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s paternal grandfather 1731-1802

Darwin, Erasmus 1794-1796: Zoonomia: or the laws of organic life.
2 vols. Printed for J. Johnson, London. (First edition)
- from the University of Tasmania Special and Rare Materials collections.

Charles Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, physician, naturalist, poet and inventor, was born in Elston near Newark, Nottinghamshire, on 12 December 1731. He was the author of several important works of poetry and of science. The first volume of his most important work, Zoonomia, was published in 1794 with the second volume appearing two years later. In Zoonomia Darwin proposed a theory of evolution, which was to prefigure the theories of his grandson Charles.

The most remarkable element of the book is not Darwin’s system of classification … or its medical content, but is his speculations on evolution. In a chapter entitled “Of Generation” he speculates that all warm-blooded animals may have arisen from “one living filament”, which:

'the Great First Cause endowed with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions and associations: and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and delivering down those improvements, by generation to posterity, world without end!'.
[Zoonomia I, p.505]

Charles Darwin aged 6 with his sister in 1815

'I remember I took great delight at school in fishing for newts in the quarry pool. I had thus young formed a strong taste for collecting, chiefly seals, franks, etc., but also pebbles and minerals – one which was given me by some boy decided this taste. I believe shortly after this, or before, I had smattered in botany, and certainly when at Mr. Case’s school I was very fond of gardening, and invented some great falsehoods about being able to colour crocuses as I liked.’

Charles Darwin

Charles Robert Darwin was born in England, 12 February 1809, the son of a wealthy physician.  Already as a child he had a ‘taste for natural history’, collecting plants, minerals, shells, birds’ eggs, and more.  By contrast, Charles found no interest in the classical education given him at Shrewsbury School.  Next came two years, 1825-7, at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing scientific studies, with the (vague) intent of following his father’s profession; while so youthful, the undergraduate had contact with learned elites, did some original research in marine zoology, and began thinking about the evolution of living forms.  Then came a switch to Cambridge University, Darwin senior now thinking his son might become a clergyman.  In fact, Charles’s autobiography tells that he now ‘got into a sporting set, including some dissipated low-minded young men’.  More important, while giving the barest necessary attention to the classics, Darwin now strengthened his scientific and philosophic interests.  A particular passion was to collect beetles, ‘some very rare species’ among them. 

beetle cartoon of darwin

Cartoon of Charles Darwin in his Cambridge days riding an enormous beetle, drawn by his friend Albert Way.  Darwin’s passion for beetle collecting developed early in life and inspired him to observe, collect and think about the living world.

Alfred Wallace at a ceremony to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the famous Darwin/Wallace paper when asked to explain: ‘Why did so many of the greatest intellects fail, while Darwin and myself hit upon the solution of this problem?’ Could only offer: ‘In early life both Darwin and myself became ardent beetle-hunters’. enlarge


Immediately on graduation, Darwin engaged in geological work in North Wales.  Soon he was invited to serve (without payment) as naturalist on HMS Beagle, then preparing for a massive surveying venture.  Concentrating on South American waters, but extending wider, this voyage lasted from December 1831 to October 1836.  The experience, Darwin stressed, ‘has been by far the most important event in my life’. 

hms beagle
The Beagle at Mount Sarmiento, Magdale Channel,
Straits of Magellan, by Conrad Martens

the beagle
Plan of HMS Beagle. enlarge

On return he organised the recording of massive data collected largely by himself, as well as writing a Journal account of the voyage.  Simultaneously, he pondered the deeper meaning of what he had observed, so early as 1839 forming the theory of evolution through natural selection. 

charles darwin 1840
Charles Darwin 1840

emma darwin
Emma Darwin, 1840

‘I marvel at my good fortune that she, so infinitely my superior in every single moral quality, consented to be my wife.’
Charles Darwin

charles darwin and son william
Charles Darwin aged 33, with his eldest child William in 1842.

‘ I have indeed been most happy in my family, and I must say to you my children that not one of you has ever given me one minute’s anxiety, except on the score of health. There are, I suspect, very few fathers of five sons who could say this with entire truth. When you were very young it was my delight to play with you all, and I think with a sigh that such days can never return...’

Charles Darwin

Not until 1858 did he publicise this concept, and the next year elaborated it in his most famous book, The Origin of Species.  Darwin long continued his phenomenal intensity of research and publication; The Descent of Man (1871) affirmed that evolution applied to human kind..  Death came 19 April 1882.

[Notes by Michael Roe]

charles Darwin 'The origin of species' origin of species first edition title page

British Museum 1909: Memorials of Charles Darwin, British Museum, London
In the 1872 edition of On the Origin of Species Darwin remarked on the resemblance between dog and thylacine jaws (see illustration right) showing how selection worked in a similar way on “quite distinct beings” and the exhibition held at the British Museum on the centenary of Darwin’s birth included a thylacine skull that illustrated the argument on page 49.

thylacine skull
zoology of the beagle

Darwin C. 1840:  Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle under the command of Captain FitzRoy, R.N. during the years 1832 to 1836. Part 111 Birds by John Gould (above) - Tanagra Darwini (below)

tanagra darwini

delphinus fitzroy
(above) Delphinus FitzRoyi
“This porpoise, which was a female, was harpooned from the Beagle in the Bay of St. Joseph, out of several, in a large troop, which were sporting round the ship. I am indebted to Captain FitzRoy for having made an excellent coloured drawing of it, when fresh killed, from which the accompanying lithograph has been taken …This species [which] I have taken the liberty of naming after captain FitzRoy, the Commander of the Beagle. [From Part 1 Fossil Mammalia by Richard Owen of:
Darwin C. 1840:  Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle under the command of Captain FitzRoy, R.N. during the years 1832 to 1836

(Below) Plate 15 fig. 3 Cyclodus Casuarina. (The modern scientific name is Tiliqua casuarinae). [From Part V Reptiles by Thomas Bell of Darwin C., Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle...

cyclodus casuarinae

charles darwin's study
Darwin’s study at Down House.  Here he wrote the Origin of Species and most of his other books.
The Darwin family outside the old drawing-room at Down House.

darwin 1853
Darwin 1853

‘ The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life and has determined my whole career; ... I have always felt that I owe to the voyage the first real training or education of my mind. I was led to attend closely to several branches of natural history, and thus my powers of observation were improved, though they were already fairly developed.’

‘If I lived twenty more years and was able to work, how I should have to modify the Origin, and how much the views on all points will have to be modified! Well it is a beginning, and that is something...’



darwin aged 60
Charles Darwin, aged 60, 1869











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thomas midwood 1854 - 1912 Hobart Tasmania