Charles Darwin Biography

Charles Darwin is most famous for his book Origin of Species, but his life consisted of numerous publications and scientific inquiries, many of which shaped modern biology and evolutionary theory.

Darwin’s Life

Charles Robert Darwin was born in February 1809 in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England, the fifth of six children, to Robert Darwin and Susannah Wedgwood. His father was a physician and financier. His grandfathers were Erasmus Darwin, a famous poet, and Josiah Wedgwood, who is considered to be one of the innovators of the industrial revolution. His mother died when Charles was only 8 years old in 1817. In 1818, Charles was sent to the Shrewsbury School, a boarding school near the family home. As a teenager and adult, Charles struggled to find his place in the world. In 1825 his father pulled him from the boarding school, and along with one of his brothers enrolled at Edinburgh University. Darwin intended to study medicine, but his aversion to blood and suffering led him to transfer to Christ’s College in Cambridge in 1827. His father had suggested he may be more suited to being a member of the clergy of the Church of England, so he pursued a basic degree, which was required prior to pursuing theological studies. In 1831, Darwin completed his studies, but he chose not to follow the theological tract of study and instead to study botany and geology, becoming a scientific member of the HMS Beagle crew from 1832-1836.

After returning from his voyage, Darwin began to write up his findings, working with many colleagues to make sense of the animals and geology he encountered around the world over the 5-year endeavor. In 1839, Charles married his cousin Emma Wedgwood. Over the course of their lives they had ten children, seven of whom survived to adulthood. Darwin himself was known to suffer ill health quite frequently in his adult life, which is sometimes attributed to inbreeding within his family (as are the early deaths of his children). Charles Darwin died of unknown causes in April 1882 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Darwin as a Naturalist

During his short time in Edinburgh, Darwin worked with Robert Grant on marine invertebrates, appearing in his first scientific paper. Some attribute his choice of pursuing theology to the idea that becoming a country parson would be a means for Darwin to quietly continue his pursuit of natural history. Monks and country clergy are among many of the scientists before Darwin’s time. Most notably is Gregor Mendel, the father of genetic theory, who founded the concept of basic heredity based on his pea plant experiments.

In 1829, Darwin’s work collecting beetles made its way into Stephens’ “British Entymology”. During his time in Cambridge, Darwin studied botany under Henslow, who is credited as being the man responsible for Darwin being aboard the HMS Beagle. The initial research from the voyage was published in 1839 as “Journal of Researches”, which was later re-titled “Voyage of the Beagle”. Darwin struggled to make sense of his observations for 20 years, publishing his diary of the zoology and geology observed on the voyage and picking the brains of his colleagues with published pamphlets asking questions in the interim. He only truly commented on the meaning of the differences he observed in 1859, when “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” was published. The book was followed by many works detailing natural selection, evolution, and speciation, including “The Descent of Man”.

Darwin published many papers and conducted many experiments over his 50-year career, many of which have been preserved and archived. He also contributed to developing more rigorous and standardized methods of collecting scientific data that are so common place today.

For more information, including a more thorough biography and a complete list of his publications, see Darwin Online.