Young Darwin

On this fine Darwin Day, I thought I’d just include an excerpt from Janet Browne’s excellent biography of the man, Voyaging(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). It does a fine job of telling us a little bit about the human being behind the famous and infamous scientist.

Charles Robert Darwin was born on 12 February 1809, the fifth child of Susanna and Robert Waring Darwin of The Mount, a large Georgian house overlooking the bend in the river with gardens running down to water meadows and the town beyond. In one of those odd coincidences of history, Abraham Lincoln was born on the same day; Tennyson and Gladstone were born a few months later. His father was a prosperous physician, one of three practicing in Shrewsbury, his mother a daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, the founder of the china company and an influential Staffordshire entrepreneur. They called their infant son “Bobby.”

Into this affluent, forward looking household came Charles Darwin, a dreamy, grey-eyed, thickset child, intent on his own thoughts behind a shock of brown hair, but warm-hearted and loving for all that. He was not good-looking in the conventional sense, for the square boyish face was blighted by a nose inherited from the doctot, almost too adult—”like a farmer,” someone said—for a young boy. Darwin did not grow into his nose until he was much older and was always slightly embarrassed about it, his later jokes revealing a shaky self-image and a lack of confidence in the outer man that made his manners particularly retiring. It was a nose “as big as your fist,” he plaintively wrote to a schoolfriend. Few portraits show him in profile for that reason.

Like his father, and Grandfather Darwin as well, he tended to stammer, having special difficulties with the letter w. There was a prize of sixpence waiting for the day he could manage to say “white wine”: an odd requirement in a teetotal household.

Charles and his son William in 1842

He was so quiet that relatives found it difficult to say anything about his character beyond an appreciative nod towards an exceedingly placid temperament. To them he was a self-sufficient younger, content to wander the country paths around Shrewsbury searching for birds, watching a fishing float for hours from the banks of the Severn, or trailing helpfully after Abberley, the elderly gardner at The Mount, in his well-regulated cycle of horticultural duties.

Both the boy and his childhood appear to have been unremarkable, a point often commented on by friends and relations after he became famous. William Allport Leighton, an early schoolfriend, thought the nine-year-old Darwin entirely ordinary: no obvious candidate for subsequent achievement.

In figure he was bulky and heavy-looking, and did not then manifest any particular powers of mind. He was reserved in manner, & we thought him proud inasmuch as he did not join in any play with the other boys but went directly home from school…. Though reserved in manner he was of a kindly disposition & seemed pleased to do little acts to gratify his fellows—one instance of which was bringing plants from his father’s garden for our little gardens.

Olduvai George has another portrait of young Mr Darwin.


  1. Torris says

    Interesting post. I learned some new facts about young Darwin. Now I’ll have to locate Browne’s book.

  2. says

    I was revising some undergrad-level stuff on cellular respiration (you know: Krebs cycle, ATP synthase, ‘outboard motors’, etc!) and was wondering what Darwin would’ve made of modern biology and how far we’ve come since his day.

    It really is true that we stand on the shoulders of giants – by just glancing through a chapter or two of cell biology I know way more about it than Darwin ever could have. It actually helps to motivate me, since I don’t want to waste the priviliged temporal position I find myself in!

  3. says

    If you can demonize Darwin, you can demonize anybody. Great men are usually forgiven their personal foibles, but Darwin didn’t seem to have any. He was a thoroughly decent man, a fond parent, a loving husband, a good citizen. Most famous thinkers have an exalted idea of their own mental faculties. Not Darwin. Which perhaps explains the recurrent notion that he really wasn’t all that bright. After all, he never claimed to be a genius so why should we think he was one.