Darwin’s student booklist

In October 1825 Charles Darwin and his older brother, Erasmus, went to study medicine in Edinburgh, where their father, Robert Waring Darwin, had trained as a doctor in the 1780’s. Erasmus had already graduated from Cambridge and was continuing his studies; his father thought that Charles, who was only sixteen and had not found his years at Shrewsbury School very enjoyable or profitable, would find the discipline of medicine more congenial. In October 1826 Charles returned to Edinburgh for a second year, this time without Erasmus, who had moved on to London for further medical training (see letter from E. A. Darwin, [29 September 1826]). However, Charles’s medical education was not a great success: he did not enjoy anatomy and dissection; and much later in life he wrote of surgery:

‘I also attended on two occasions the operating theatre in the hospital at Edinburgh, and saw two very bad operations, one on a child, but I rushed away before they were completed. Nor did I ever attend again, for hardly any inducement would have been strong enough to make me do so; this being long before the blessed days of chloroform. The two cases fairly haunted me for many a long year.’ (Autobiography p. 48).

By the time Charles returned to Shrewsbury in the summer of 1827 he had decided not to continue the study of medicine, and in January 1828 he went up to Cambridge to read for a degree that would enable him to be ordained in the Church of England.

This list is difficult to date precisely. Darwin mentions reading Granby in a letter to his sister dated 29 January 1826, so perhaps he meant that the list began when he returned to his studies at the beginning of 1826. The position of Granby on the list would suggest that Darwin was very busy reading in January 1826! However, Granby follows Cuvier: Darwin’s own copy of this is the fifth edition of 1827. Of course he could have borrowed an earlier edition and bought it later for himself. Or perhaps, having returned to Edinburgh in the autumn of 1826, he made a list of some books he had been reading, and then added all the books he had read since starting at Edinburgh in 1825.

Some of the books are suitable reading for a medical student: John Abernethy was a London surgeon whose lectures were extremely popular; John Bostock was a physician and medical chemist from Liverpool whose Elementary system of physiology was an influential work; John Ayrton Paris, a doctor from Cambridge, published the first edition of his Pharmacologia on the History of Medical Substances in 1812; William Henry, after some medical training in Edinburgh, returned to Manchester to work in the family chemical business and wrote the Epitome of chemistry in 1801.

Other books illustrate Darwin’s wider scientific interests, and also show the close connections of Edinburgh’s intellectual community. A translation of the principal geological work of Georges Cuvier, Discours sur les re?volutions de la surface du globe was produced by Robert Jameson, who started the Edinburgh philosophical journal in 1819 with David Brewster. Robert Grant wrote articles for the Edinburgh journal of science, which was edited by David Brewster; and Robert Grant took Darwin to meetings of the Wernerian Natural History Society of Edinburgh. Hugh Blair, although not a scientist, first gave his lectures on English language and literature in Edinburgh in 1759, and in 1760 the University of Edinburgh created a professorship of rhetoric for him, the first professorship of English to be created in any university.

There are several books of travel, and Darwin seems to have been particularly interested in the far north: as well as two books of arctic exploration there is also a book of arctic zoology.

Two titles are closely connected with Darwin’s family. Zoonomia was written by Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, a doctor at Lichfield; Anna Seward wrote a biography of him, Memoirs of the life of Dr Darwin, which was not well received by his descendants, including Darwin’s father, when it was first published in 1804. On rereading this work in 1879 Darwin judged it ‘a wretched production’ (letter to Ernst Krause, 19 March 1879); Darwin arranged for Krause’s more generous essay on Erasmus Darwin to be published in English.

The Rambler was a magazine of essays, many of a philosophical nature, produced by Samuel Johnson and published twice a week between March 1750 and March 1752. Both he and Dr Darwin had Lichfield connections, but the writer left for London about twenty years before the doctor arrived to set up his medical practice.

The remaining titles provide lighter fare. Henry Kirke White (1785–1806) died aged 21 while a student at Cambridge: his verse became popular when a selection of his work was published by the poet Robert Southey in 1807. Finally there are three novels, Almack’s, Granby and Brambletye House. Darwin wrote to his sister Susan on 29 January [1826]:

I have been most shockingly idle, actually reading two novels at once. a good scolding would do me a vast deal of good, & I hope you will send one of your most severe one’s.— What an entertaining book Granby is; do you remember Lady Harriet talking about inhaling <Ni>tric Oxide?

Books that I have read thro since my return to Edinburgh.—

Franklins Journal to the North. Pole. 2 Vol. 8 Vo.1

Cochrane Travels in Columbia.2 2 Vol. 8 Vo

Abernethy Physi. Lectures3 1 Vol.

Scoresby account of Polar Regions.4 2 Vols. 8Vo.

Darwins Zoonomia 2 Vols 4to.5

Paris Pharmacologia6 2 Vols 8 Vo

Pamplets by Drs. Grant & Brewster on Nature History.7 7 in number

Blairs lectures on Belles Lettres.8 3 Vol. 8Vo

Abernethy Hunterian orat & Lect. Pamph.9 8 Vo.

H K Whites Letters & Poems 12 mo10

Pennants Arctic Zoology11 2 Vols 4to

Several papers in the Werner. Trans.12

Several numbers in the New Edinb: Philos Journal.13

Bostocks Physiology14 2 Vol 8 Vo.

Cuviers theory of the earth.15 1 Vol. 8 Vo

Almack & Granby16 6 Vols 12. mo

Henry Chemistry17 2 Vols 8 Vo

Sewards memoirs of Darwin18 1 Vol 8 Vo.

Several essays in Rambler19

Brambletye House20 3 Vos 12 mo

Clarkes travels21 5 Vols. 4to.

Provenance: DAR 271.1: 5


1Franklin 1823. 8 Vo: octavo.

2Cochrane 1825.

3Abernethy 1822. There is a lightly annotated copy in the Darwin Library–CUL, bound with Abernethy 1819a, Abernethy 1819b and Abernethy 1823. The volume has ‘Erasmus Darwin’ on the flyleaf.

4Scoresby 1820. There is an annotated copy in the Darwin Library–Down.

5E. Darwin 1794–6. CD’s annotated copy is in the Rare Books Department–CUL. 4 to: quarto.

6Paris 1825. There is a copy in the Darwin Library–Down.

7CD probably refers to the Edinburgh journal of science (1824–32), which was edited by David Brewster (ODNB); Robert Edmond Grant contributed several papers on invertebrates (ODNB); Desmond and Parker 2006).

8Blair 1790.

9Abernethy 1819a; CD perhaps refers to Abernethy 1819b and Abernethy 1823 (see n. 3).

10White 1826. 12 mo: duodecimo.

11Pennant 1784–5.

12Memoirs of the Wernerian Natural History Society. Vols 1–8i (1808–39).

13Edinburgh new philosophical journal vols. 1–19 (1826–64), a continuation of the Edinburgh philosophical journal vols. 1–14 (1819–26).

14Bostock 1824–7. Volume 1 is in the Darwin Library–Down.

15Jameson trans. 1827. There is an annotated copy in the Darwin Library–CUL.

16Hudson 1826; Lister 1826. CD described Lister 1826 as an ‘entertaining book’ (see letter to S. E. Darwin, 29 January [1826]). The letter from Sarah Harriet Owen (31 [December 1827]) refers to ‘Scorpions’, a term used in Lister 1826 for younger sons.

17Henry 1823. Volume 2 is in the Darwin Library–CUL.

18Seward 1804. There is a copy in the Darwin Library–Down.

19Rambler. 1–208 (1750–2). A periodical by Samuel Johnson.

20Smith 1826.

21Clarke 1810–23.



Abernethy, John. 1819a. The Hunterian oration, for the year 1819: delivered before the Royal College of Surgeons, in London. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown.

Abernethy, John. 1819b. Part of the introductory lecture for the year 1815, exhibiting some of Mr. Hunter’s opinions respecting diseases, delivered before the Royal College of Surgeons, in London. New edition. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown.

Abernethy, John. 1822. Physiological lectures, exhibiting a general view of Mr. Hunter’s physiology, and of his researches in comparative anatomy: delivered before the Royal College of Surgeons, in the year 1817. 2d edition. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown.

Abernethy, John. 1823. Introductory lectures, exhibiting some of Mr. Hunter’s opinions respecting life and diseases: delivered before the Royal College of Surgeons, London, in 1814 and 1815. New ed. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown.

Blair, Hugh. 1790. Lectures on rhetoric and belles letters. 4th edition. 3 vols. London: A. Strahan and T. Cadell; Edinburgh: W. Creech.

Bostock, John. 1824–7. An elementary system of physiology. 3 vols. London: Baldwin, Cradock and Joy.

Clarke, Edward Daniel. 1810–23. Travels in various countries of Europe, Asia and Africa. 3 pts in 6 vols. London.

Cochrane, Charles Stuart. 1825. Journal of a residence and travels in Colombia, during the years 1823 and 1824. 2 vols. London: H. Colburn.

Darwin, Erasmus. 1794–6. Zoonomia; or, the laws of organic life\ 2 vols. London: J. Johnson.

Desmond, Adrian, and Sarah Parker. 2006. The bibliography of Robert Edmond Grant (1793–1874). Archives of Natural History 33: 202–13.

Franklin, John. 1823. Narrative of a journey to the shores of the Polar Sea, in the years 1819, 20, 21, and 22. London: John Murray.

Henry, William. 1823. The elements of experimental chemistry. 9th ed. 2 vols. London.

Hudson, Marianne Spencer. 1826. Almack’s: a novel. 3 vols. London: Saunders & Otley.

Jameson, Robert, trans. 1827. Essay on the theory of the earth with geological illustrations. By Georges Cuvier. 5th ed. Edinburgh: William Blackwood. London: T. Cadell.

Lister, Thomas Henry. 1826. Granby. 3 vols. London.

ODNB: Oxford dictionary of national biography: from the earliest times to the year 2000. (Revised edition.) Edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. 60 vols. and index. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2004.

Paris, John Ayrton. 1825. Pharmacologia. 6th ed. London: W. Phillips.

Pennant, Thomas. 1784–85. Arctic zoology. 2 vols. London: Henry Hughs.

Scoresby, William. 1820. An account of the Arctic regions, with a history and description of the northern whale-fishery. 2 vols. Edinburgh: Archibald Constable and Co., Edinburgh, and Hurst, Robinson and Co., London.

Seward, Anna. 1804. Memoirs of the life of Dr. Darwin. London: J. Johnson.

Smith, Horace. 1826. Brambletye House: or, cavaliers and roundheads. 3d ed. 3 vols. London: Colburn.

White, Henry Kirke. 1826. The life and remains of Henry Kirke White of Nottingham: late of St. John’s College, Cambridge. London: J. F. Dove.