People of Science: Charles Darwin

People of Science with Brian Cox - Sir David Attenborough by The Royal SocietyThe Royal Society

Portrait of Charles Darwin (1912) by Mabel Beatrice Messer (1874-1950)The Royal Society

Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882)

Darwin stands as a major figure in the history of science: he revolutionised our understanding of nature and of the origins of man. Most famously, he contributed to proving the theory of evolution against that of transmutation, using examples from zoology, botany and geology.  

Engraving of the Beagle in the Straits of Magellan (1913) by Robert Taylor Pritchett (1828-1907)The Royal Society

The Voyage of the Beagle

Between 27 December 1831 to 2 October 1836, a recently graduated Darwin sailed across the world as the appointed naturalist on the second expedition of HMS Beagle. This engraving served as the cover illustration of The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin's field journals for the scientific expedition published on his return in 1839. Darwin describes in details the geological and zoological discoveries made during his journey.

Darwin and the Beagle - Objectivity #86 (2016-09-16) by James Hennessy and Brady HaranThe Royal Society

Charles Darwin's barometer, From the collection of: The Royal Society
,
Charles Darwin's barometer, From the collection of: The Royal Society
,
Charles Darwin's barometer, From the collection of: The Royal Society
Show lessRead more

This is the mountain barometer Darwin took on board of HMS Beagle. The instrument, purchased personally by Darwin before the expedition, allowed him to measure the altitude of the reliefs he was encountering.

Royal Society Fellowship election certificate for Charles Darwin (1839) by The Royal SocietyThe Royal Society

A scientific life

Darwin was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1839. At the age of 30, he was recognised for his contribution as a naturalist on the Beagle and for being 'well acquainted with geology, botany, zoology & many other branches of natural knowledge'. Darwin was also awarded the Royal Medal in 1853 and the Copley Medal in 1864, both highest distinctions bestowed by the Royal Society. He was also made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Linnean Society and Zoological Society. 

Darwin, Charles PortraitsLIFE Photo Collection

Darwin's work remained interdisciplinary throughout his life. His theories were developed by crossing geological observations, an excellent knowledge of botany, population studies and analyses of the zoological world. 

Referee report by C. R. Darwin on 'Researches on the Foraminifera' by W. B. Carpenter Referee report by C. R. Darwin on 'Researches on the Foraminifera' by W. B. Carpenter (1855-08-18) by Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882)The Royal Society

Darwin was involved in various Royal Society scientific activities. This letter indicates his contribution to the publication of biological papers in the Philosophical Transactions, the Royal Society scientific periodical. In this early form of peer reviewing, Darwin discusses the article on Foraminifera (or 'Orbitolites' as Darwin calls the shells) submitted by zoologist William B. Carpenter (1813-1885) FRS for publication. Peer review is still today an essential part of science. 

Title page from the first edition of On the Origin of Species (1859) by Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882)The Royal Society

On the 'Origins of Species' was published by Darwin in 1859. In it, Darwin demonstrated that life evolved from a common branch and sketched the theory of natural selection. The book has become a foundation for evolutionary biology. 

Letter from Charles Darwin to Sir John Herschel Letter from Charles Darwin to Sir John Herschel (1861-05-23) by Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882)The Royal Society

Doubts and reflections 

In this letter to Sir John Frederick William Herschel (1792-1871), Darwin discusses intelligent design and declares himself "in a complete jumble on the point". However, he expresses his confidence in the ultimate acceptance of his views and hopes that Herschel will at least partially agree.

Portrait of Charles Darwin (1868) by Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879)The Royal Society

This portrait of Darwin was photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron in Kent.

Julia Margaret Cameron, née Pattle (1815-1879) considered photography both as science and art. Her softly-focused portraits and medievalist tableaux were influenced by the raphaelites but did not foster much enthusiasm amongst her contemporaries, now her talents are being recognised.

At the bottom of the photograph Darwin writes: 'I like this photograph very much better than any other which has been taken of me'.

Letter from Charles Darwin to Sir John Lubbock Letter from Charles Darwin to Sir John Lubbock (1846-01-16) by Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882)The Royal Society

In this letter, Darwin thanks his neighbour, John William Lubbock (1803-1865), for agreeing to grant him access to sheltered land adjacent to his property. This became known as Darwin's 'thinking path'.  

Down House, Home of Charles Darwin

An accomplished botanist, Darwin used his garden and greenhouses as laboratories to test his theories. The 'thinking path' loaned from Lubbock can still be walked to the West of the property.  

John William Lubbock's Natural History notebook John William Lubbock's Natural History notebook (1852/1861) by John William Lubbock (1803-1865)The Royal Society

Darwin's legacies

The young John William Lubbock (1834-1913), Darwin's neighbour, became an influential naturalist. Throughout the pages of this notebook, Lubbock relates his exchanges with Darwin regarding collecting, illustrating and identifying samples. In this section, Lubbock names a species of crab after Darwin, the Pontella Darwinii. 

Bust of Charles Darwin (1898) by Horace Montford (1840-1919)The Royal Society

The legacy of Darwin's evolutionary theories can be felt in all branches of biology and beyond, in paleontology, economics, etc... Darwin was not the first to theorise evolution, but he carefully analysed evidence and explained the process of natural selection with unique clarity and strength.

Credits: Story

© Royal Society 2017

For more information about the Royal Society Library and Archive please visit our website: https://royalsociety.org/collections/

Visit Down House: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/home-of-charles-darwin-down-house/

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
Once Upon a Try
A journey of invention and discovery with CERN, NASA, and more than 100 museums around the world
View theme
Google apps