Charles Robert Darwin (1809–1882)
Charles Darwin came up to Cambridge as a student in 1827, when he was 18, having earlier had an unsatisfactory spell as a medical student at Edinburgh University. He was a member of Christ’s College. His father wished him to become a Clergyman and he was enrolled for a general degree which included the study of theology and mathematics. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1831.
As a student Darwin enjoyed Cambridge life to the full, hunting, collecting natural history specimens – especially beetles – and, with a group of like minds, forming the “Glutton Club”, a dining club devoted to eating “Birds and beasts which were before unknown to human palate”.
He made friendships which lasted the rest of his life, and also found some inspirational teaching, both formal and informal, in particular from John Stevens Henslow, Professor of Botany and Director of the Cambridge University Botanic Garden and Adam Sedgwick, Woodwardian Professor of Geology.
In 1831 Henslow was asked to suggest a suitable gentleman naturalist to sail with HMS Beagle on an admiralty surveying expedition to South America. Henslow recommended his recently graduated protégé, Charles Darwin. Despite initial opposition from his father, Darwin was on board when the Beagle set sail on 27 December 1831.
Henlsow and Darwin corresponded throughout the 5 year voyage as Darwin made many forays inland, with the Cambridge Teacher continuing to advise his former pupil on techniques for collecting specimens.
Henslow was the recipient and clearing house for volumes of specimens, presenting Darwin’s discoveries to learned societies in England. Many of these specimens remain in Cambridge University museum collections. In addition to specimens Darwin kept notebooks and diaries and wrote many letters. Darwin’s reputation as a serious naturalist preceded his return from the voyage and was confirmed when he began to draw conclusions from the material he had sent back to England, culminating much later in his theory of “natural selection” as the mechanism for species change. On his return to England in 1836 Darwin made an emotional visit to the family home in Shrewsbury and then returned to Cambridge to catalogue his material