The Edinburgh years

The University of Edinburgh

Darwin arrived in Edinburgh alongside his older brother Erasmus in 1825. With them they had recommendation letters from their father, which managed to open important doors to both the scientific and the social environment in the Scottish town. Through medical school, Darwin met several of the finest naturalists at the time, although he was rarely impressed by their lectures, which mostly seemed to bore him.

His early fascination with nature was, however, still nourished. At the Museum of Natural Science, which held one of the largest collections in Europe, he got along well with a freed slave, who taught him taxidermy. Darwin also joined The Plinian Society, a student group where he met a young teacher, Robert Grant. It was also here that Charles Darwin announced his first scientific discovery.

Grant brought Darwin with him on research trips, where he learned to classify invertebrates and was introduced to scientific discussions. Grant believed in the evolutionary theory as it was described by Lamarck and Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin. He did, however, not manage to convince Darwin, but it did lay the foundation for critical thinking and not necessarily accepting conventional thinking.

Medical school was clearly not the right thing for Darwin. He could not bear watching the surgeries, and was obviously worried about whether he would ever be able to hold the knife himself. It did not make things any better that anaesthetics were not yet invented at the time, and patients were both conscious and able to feel the pain they were subjected to. An especially painful operation on a child made it clear to Darwin that he needed to choose another career. 

Peter C. Kjærgaard