Biological Sciences

Charles Darwin

Perhaps surprisingly, Charles Darwin did not study biology or “natural history”. He enrolled at the University to study medicine in 1825, when he was just 16 years old.

Portrait of Charles Darwin

Darwin’s father and grandfather had both studied medicine. Edinburgh had the reputation of providing the best medical education in Britain, but Darwin did not enjoy his studies. He left after two years without graduating.

The Plinian Society and Robert Grant

However, while at Edinburgh Darwin became a member of a student natural history group called the Plinian Society.

He spent time with Robert Grant, a marine biologist and sponge expert, and assisted Grant in his studies of the marine life of the coastline near Edinburgh.

Darwin’s work with Grant is considered to have had an influence on his thinking. It was while at Edinburgh that Darwin wrote his first scientific paper, on bryozoans, which he presented to the student society.

The Beagle and the theory of evolution

Four years after leaving Edinburgh, Darwin joined HMS Beagle as the ship's naturalist, for a round the world voyage under the command of Captain Robert Fitzroy. On the voyage he observed and collected plants, animals, rocks and fossils.

We now know that Darwin came up with his theory of evolution by natural selection soon after his return home from the Beagle voyage, but it was many years before he had accumulated enough evidence to publish his work.

Four other men with Edinburgh University connections assisted Darwin before and after the publication of The Origin of Species.  Hewett Cottrell Watson, who studied natural history at Edinburgh was acknowledged several times in The Origin of Species. 

Mr H C Watson, to whom I lie under deep obligation for assistance of all kinds

Charles Robert DarwinThe Origin of Species

Two other naturalists who assisted Darwin during the two decades that  he worked on the manuscript, were Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker FRS and Edward Forbes. After the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859, Thomas H Huxeley, who had initially disagreed with Darwin's early evolutionary sketches, became a keen champion of his work. Huxley and Hooker defended Darwin, who faced much criticism as well as praise after publication.


Darwin’s 200th anniversary fell in February 2009. "Darwin200" is a national series of events that will celebrate the impact that Darwin's ideas about evolution, as well as his approach to the understanding of the natural world and his outstanding example as a scientist, continue to have on our lives.

The celebrations centred on February 2009, but built up to November 2009, which was the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's famous work "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection".

Further Information

Book - Science at the University of Edinburgh 1583-1993, Ronald M Birse ISBN 09522883 1 1