Darwin | Charles Robert | 1809-1882 | naturalist

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

Charles Robert Darwin was born on 9 February, 1809 in Shrewsbury, Shropshire. He abandoned medical studies in 1827 after two years in Edinburgh, but not before friends interested him in geology, in marine wildlife, and in Lamarckian evolutionary zoology. He trained half-heartedly for Anglican ordination in Christ's College, Cambridge, taking a poor degree in 1831, but other friends had by then helped him set his professional sights on geology and natural history, one of them even arranging a volunteer naturalist's berth for him on the Admiralty survey vessel HMS Beagle. Darwin's five years aboard that ship, exploring the Pacific coast of South America, shaped his critical sense that species were a natural record of change, not stasis. He developed the twin notions of geological and biological mutability for which he is famous over the rest of his life. He wrote prolifically from his study in a quiet London suburb, being debarred from a conventional academic life by chronic ill health, possibly due to an infection contracted on his voyage. He died on 19 April, 1882, and lies buried (by special dispensation from the Church of England) in Westminster Abbey.

Inspired by recent work by Charles Lyell, Darwin laid siege to prevailing opinion that the geology of the earth was the result of successive catastrophes, the latest of which was the flood of Noah. He demonstrated in a trilogy of books on the subject how various natural forces also operated to transform the face of the planet over great amounts of time. Observing also variegation and extinction among species, and impressed by Thomas Robert Malthus' thoughts on the pressure of finite food supply, he suggested a mechanism for how evolutionary principles might work on populations of living things too. The dynamics of adapted variants and ecological niches, he tried to show the new community of paleontologists, could even extend to prehistory. Mature expression of Darwinian evolution in the animal kingdom came in the 1859On the Origin of Species and the 1871The Descent of Man. Adaptation among plants occupied him late in his career. He produced remarkable studies in the minutiae of things as diverse as phototropism, growth hormones, insect-eating sundews, and the ecological necessity of worms.


Darwin was exposed to geology in Edinburgh by Robert Jameson (1774-1854 ), geologist and professor of natural history, and at Cambridge by Adam Sedgwick (1854-1913), zoologist. He learned of the early evolutionary teachings of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) through his friendship with Robert Edmond Grant (1793-1874), Edinburgh zoologist, and grew as a naturalist at Cambridge under the mentorship of botanist and mineralogist John Stevens Henslow (1796-1861), who subsequently arranged his place on the Beagle. Good friends were Charles Lyell (1797-1875), geologist, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), naturalist, and Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911), director of the Royal Gardens, Kew, though not all of them friends of evolution as such, who helped get Darwin's papers read before the Linnean Society of London, the influential venue for natural historians.

His grandfather was Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), a physician, naturalist, poet, and philosopher. His father was Robert Waring Darwin (1766-1848), physician. His mother was born Susannah Wedgwood (1765-1817), daughter of the potter Josiah Wedgwood I (1730-1795). His cousin, by second marriage of his Grandfather Erasmus, was Francis Galton (1822-1911), creator of the science of eugenics. Four of his children were scientists in their own right: Sir George Howard Darwin (1845-1912), mathematician and astronomer, Sir Francis Darwin (1848-1925), botanist, Leonard Darwin (1850-1943), engineer and promoter of eugenics, and Sir Horace Darwin (1851-1925), scientific engineer and founder of the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Co. His grandson was Charles Galton Darwin (1887-1962), mathematician and physicist.

He lived with his wife and children at their home in the village of Downe, fifteen miles from London.

Other Significant Information

Notable publications:

Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by H.M.S. Beagle, ( 1839)

The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs , (1842)

Geological Observations on the Volcanic Islands Visited During the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle , (1844)

Geological Observations on South America, ( 1846)

A Monograph of the Subclass Cirripedia, 2 vols. , (1851 and 1854)

A Monograph of the Fossil Lepadidae, or Pedunculated Cirripedes of Great Britain , (1851)

A Monograph of the Fossil Balanidae and Verrucidae , (1854)

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life , (1859)

On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilized by Insects, and on the Good Effects of Intercrossing , (1862)

The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication , (1868)

The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex , (1871)

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals , (1872)

Insectivorous Plants , (1875)

Climbing Plants , (1875)

The Effects of Cross and Self Fertilization in the Vegetable Kingdom , (1876)

The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species , (1877)

The Power of Movement in Plants , ( 1880)

The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits , (1881)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

3 foreign doctorates, the Prussian Ordre pour le mérite, and membership in 57 learned societies, notably:

1839: Elected Fellow, Royal Society of London

1878: Elected Member, French Academy of Sciences


List of sources for the biographical information:

Gillespie, CC, ed, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, (New York, Scribner's, 1970-1990), s.v. "Darwin, Charles" by Gavin de Beer