Darwin in Edinburgh

THE screams of the strapped-down child amid the blood and sawdust of the Edinburgh operating theatre were too much for the sickened student, who fled from the room, vowing never to return. It was the mid-1820s, and the prospect of Charles Darwin's medical career was dwindling fast, but his abhorrence of pre-anaesthetic surgery would drive the teenager in another direction, one which would result in him becoming arguably the most influential naturalist in history.

As recent biographers have acknowledged of the great evolutionist, born 200 years ago today, his two years as a disaffected medical student in Edinburgh between 1825 and 1827, far from being a backwater in his development, were critical, as he not only furthered his interests in natural history and geology, but also immersed himself in the hotbed of often radical scientific and philosophical debate that was post-Enlightenment Edinburgh.

Perhaps the nub of it is encapsulated by a well-fingered volume that Dr John Scally, the director of Edinburgh University's collections, shows me, deep within the university's special collections rooms in George Square. It is the minute book of the Plinian Society, one of various debating clubs that Darwin joined, and in an entry dated 27 March 1827, it records not only what was effectively Darwin's first scientific paper, on the Flustra, a marine invertebrate known as a sea mat, but also, tellingly, a heated debate around a proposition, by William Browne (who had proposed Darwin for Society membership), "that mind as far as individual sense, & consciousness are concerned, is material".

Tantamount to heresy in those days of widespread acceptance of the biblical scheme of creation, this was the kind of issue debated at the Society's gatherings, which, according to Darwin's biographers Adrian Desmond and James Moore, "could be electric, while some topics bordered on the indictable". The entry regarding Browne's propositions has been scored through, in what appears to be an act of self-censorship by the society.

Most Popular

    "Previously Darwin's time in Edinburgh has been seen as a relatively sterile period," says Scally, who is preparing a major exhibition, Darwin's Edinburgh, to open in the University's Talbot Rice Gallery in Old College in October. "People know that he ran out of an operation, and effectively they stop the story there. But the approach we are taking – and this comes from recent biographers – is that Darwin's time in Edinburgh really shaped his thinking.

    "What we would argue is that is that when Darwin dropped out of medicine he dropped into the latter stages of the Scottish Enlightenment, with its traditions of rational thought, and of pushing the Bible to one side as you observe nature."

    The Edinburgh in which the young Shropshire student and his brother Erasmus arrived, taking lodgings at 11 Lothian Street, was not only a renowned centre for medical learning, but still a city of intellectual ferment. It was during Darwin's final year there that Sir Walter Scott publicly admitted to being the author of the Waverley novels – Darwin actually saw Scott chair a meeting of the Royal Society of Edinburgh he was taken to, and later recalled that "I looked at him and the whole scene with some awe and reverence".

    That same year, the infamous Burke and Hare would embark on their nefarious activities, meeting the insatiable demands of anatomists by murdering the vulnerable and delivering them to Surgeon's Square. Dr Robert Knox, much maligned later as the recipient of the corpses, was a well-known figure about the medical school with his blood-spattered gown. Darwin and his brother, however – their signatures still visible in neat copperplate in the matriculation book for 1825 – were taught anatomy by Alexander Munro tertius, third in line of a famous medical dynasty, of whom Darwin thought very little. "I dislike him and his lectures so much that I cannot speak with decency about them," he told an acquaintance.

    However, his repugnance toward the medical school drove the teenage Darwin into the company of others whose influence would be crucial to his later thinking. John Scally opens another volume from the university collections, James Wilson's Illustrations of Biology . Published in 1831, a few years after Darwin had returned south to the less free-thinking atmosphere of Cambridge, the book's beautifully executed engravings of birds and animals were based on specimens cramming the university's College Museum, installed amid the newly built splendour of what is now Old College. Then one of the greatest museums of its kind in Europe, it was established by Robert Jameson, the eccentric and autocratic Regius Professor of Natural History, whose lectures Darwin attended – and founder of the Plinian Society.

    The Wernerian Natural History Society also met in Jameson's room at the museum, and it was there that Darwin would witness the striking figure of the celebrated visiting "American woodsman" and bird illustrator, John J Audubon, discussing his work.

    The university hopes to recreate a section of Jameson's museum in its original home, as part of the Darwin's Edinburgh exhibition, which will run in tandem with an art exhibition at the Talbot Rice, An Entangled Bank, exploring contemporary artists' responses to Darwin. Possibly the most influential of all Darwin's contacts in Edinburgh, however, was Robert Edmond Grant, who took Charles on collecting expeditions along the shores of the Firth of Forth – and out into the Firth itself, onboard fishing boats. Grant was a radical thinker and a disciple of the influential French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, to whose theories of "transmutation", an early form of evolutionist thinking, he introduced Darwin.

    Which brings us to Darwin's epoch-making Origin of Species, a draft page from which is also destined for the exhibition. Written in Darwin's hand, it speculates on how all organisms "multiply and vary and the strongest things live and the weakest die…"

    Almost two centuries on, the public interest in Darwin's Edinburgh years is demonstrated by the fact that Thursday night's "Darwin Day" lecture, Darwin's Edinburgh, in Edinburgh's McEwan Hall has sold out. The chairman of the evening's panel, zoologist and broadcaster Professor Aubrey Manning, describes himself as "intrigued by the increasing insights about Edinburgh's influence on the young Darwin. Of course he was only 16 or 17 at the time and it is so easy to use hindsight, but there can be no doubt that those were an important 18 months for Darwin."

    Manning points to Edinburgh's intellectual ferment at the time – "The age of the Earth, the creation of fixed species; anatomist Knox revealing the human body as a mechanism etc; challenges to conventional religious ideas coming from all sides… Some of this must have rubbed off on the young Darwin and freed up his mind, as it were."

    • Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury on 12 February 1809, the son of a doctor, Robert, and Susannah, of the Wedgwood pottery family.

    From an early age, he showed an interest in the outdoors, and collected beetles.

    When he arrived in Edinburgh in 1825, he was the latest in a long line of Darwins to study medicine there: his uncle Charles, had died there in the 1770s, having infected his finger dissecting a child's brain.

    Abandoning his medical studies, he went to Cambridge to study theology, but kept up his interest in natural history and, at 22, was invited to join the voyage of the Beagle, taking in the Galapagos and South America, where he made extensive observations and collections.

    He refined his theories of evolution over many years, publishing On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection 150 years ago this year. He died in 1882.

    Capital Connections

    Professor Robert Jameson and the College Museum

    A ZOOLOGIST and mineralogist and Regius Professor of Natural History at Edinburgh, Jameson established one of Europe's finest natural history museums in the newly built Old College, its collections reputedly stalked by a live puma. He was also the founder of the Plinian and Wernerian societies.

    Irascible in temperament and possessive about his collections, and described by the impatient young Darwin as "an old brown, dry stick", Jameson was nevertheless an influential figure. An "Edinburgh Lamarckian", like Robert Grant, Jameson published a paper extolling the French zoologist for explaining how higher animals had "evolved" from the "simplest worms" – Darwin's biographers Desmond and Moore suggest that this was possibly the first use of the term "evolved" in the sense that we now know it.

    Salisbury Crags

    DARWIN went on Professor Jameson's geological field trips to locations such as Edinburgh's Salisbury Crags which, a generation before, had assisted James Hutton, "father of modern geology", in discerning the immensity of the geological timescale. This notion of "deep time", which was an essential element of Darwin's theory of imperceptible natural selection and evolution over vast periods of time, would be endorsed by the famous Kirriemuir-born geologist Charles Lyell, who later became Darwin's friend and mentor.

    William MacGillivray

    DARWIN was taken under the wing of Jameson's more approachable assistant at the museum, William MacGillivray, whom some regard as Scotland's greatest-ever naturalist, as well as an accomplished wildlife artist, highly regarded by the visiting Audubon. McGillivray was a man who spoke his mind, which didn't help his career. However, Darwin recalled him fondly: "He had not much the appearance and manners of the gentleman (but] I had much interesting natural history talk with him, and he was very kind to me."

    Robert Edmond Grant

    SIXTEEN years older than Darwin and a significant influence on him, Grant was a radically minded doctor who had given up his practice to study marine life. His consuming interest in marine invertebrates infected Darwin as they defied all weathers to collect sponges and sea slugs and other seemingly humble organisms, which were Grant's ammunition in rejecting the established biblical concept of each species being "designed" for its place in the scheme of things. Grant pointed to the fact that animals, from the humblest to the highest, shared similar essential organs, suggesting a chain of development. Apart from shaping his thoughts, Darwin's collecting expeditions with Grant would prove useful training for his momentous five-year Beagle expedition.

    John Edmonstone

    Another influential if unlikely figure who haunted Jameson's museum was John Edmonstone, a freed black slave whom the traveller Charles Waterson had brought to Edinburgh from Guyana. He was a skilled taxidermist who taught the craft to students, including Darwin.

    Darwin found him "very pleasant and intelligent" and the specimen stuffing and mounting skills he acquired from the Guyanese – probably initially with his enthusiasm for shooting in mind – would prove invaluable during his Beagle voyage. Edmonstone also gave the young student vivid descriptions of his native South America and its rainforests, whetting his appetite for travel.