Student daze

Early October inevitably brings signs of autumn to Cambridge: chilled breezes, colourful leaves, and wide-eyed Freshers wandering through town and library full of fear and anticipation for their university career. Clearly, the university experience has changed dramatically in the last two hundred years, but some student concerns remain the same – where to live, whom you’ll meet, whether classes are interesting, how to take advantage of a new city and independence.


Charles Darwin was not immune to any of these concerns. He went off with his older brother, Erasmus, to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh in October 1825. Darwin was only sixteen, and was not known to be particularly studious. His first letter back to his father, written [23 October 1825] strikes a familiar note to everyone who has been a student – he dutifully told his father about his accommodation, sending the address and a description, pointing out that the rooms were nice, light, and also very near their lectures, to justify the cost and their choice. They were oriented by a kindly theology professor who took pity on them and gave them a map. They acquainted themselves with the city, went to the theatre, and attended their matriculation ceremony. Darwin was pleasantly surprised that when they attended a local church the sermon was limited to twenty minutes, having feared that a Scottish homily would go on for hours! Throughout his studies Darwin continued to make the most of the entertainment possibilities presented to him, attending dinner parties, the theatre, and reading the popular novels of the day (and, of course, occasionally asking his father for money), as shown in a letter to his sister Susan in January 1826.


Darwin kept in touch with all his sisters, a written conversation that he continued years later even when he was far away on the Beagle. By the time he wrote to his sister Caroline in January he was very accustomed to his studies, and had settled opinions on his lecturers and their topics. He seemed to enjoy the practical lectures involving particular patients (despite being very distressed by some), but had no taste for anatomy. He recorded in his Autobiography that he twice witnessed operations; in 1825 and 1826 there was no form of anaesthesia available, and he found the experiences so appalling that both times he had to rush out before the operation was complete and after the second time refused ever to go back again. Darwin wrote in his Autobiography of the way his scientific thought was formed during his years at the University of Edinburgh can, and suggested that many of the experiences he later found most important were related to the people he met and the societies he joined rather than lectures, which for the most part he found rather dry. He made good use of the scientific acquaintance available to him through the university, finding people to encourage his interests in geology and marine zoology.


After two years, it was clear to the Darwin clan that Charles was not cut out to be a physician. Accordingly, his father sent him off to Cambridge, preferring to have a clergyman for a son than an idle gentleman. This, of course, was a whole new chapter of life that led ultimately to his journey around the world on the Beagle – and would need a whole new blog post to itself!


For more information on Darwin’s earliest student days, check out our article on his student reading notebook, available here.

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