The lifelong connection between Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) and the University of Cambridge began with his arrival as a student in 1828, aged 18. The previous two years of his life had been spent at Edinburgh University studying medicine. Although his time at Edinburgh did encourage his growing interest in natural history, Darwin did not enjoy the study of medicine, being unable to stand the sight of blood or suffering. Abandoning the idea of a career as a physician, Darwin decided to become a clergyman on his father’s advice, and left Edinburgh for Christ’s College, Cambridge to obtain the B.A. from an English university needed to enter the church.
As at Edinburgh, it was Darwin’s extra-curricular passion for naturalism that most preoccupied him at Cambridge. A keen collector of beetles, Darwin was taken under the wing of the botany professor John Stevens Henslow (1796-1861), who mentored him in the natural sciences. Their friendship led them on frequent botanical field trips in and around Cambridge and the surrounding fens. He was also introduced to geology by Professor Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873). While Darwin later rued neglecting his academic studies at Christ’s, he counted his time at Cambridge as “the most joyful in my happy life”. Friends recall his enjoyment shooting and riding, and love of concerts in King’s College Chapel. Darwin also made many visits to the Fitzwilliam Museum, housed at Free School Lane, where he was particularly fascinated by the wide array of prints.
After graduating from Cambridge University in 1831, Darwin accepted the now-famous invitation – passed on by his mentor Henslow – to travel aboard the HMS Beagle as naturalist and companion to Captain Robert Fitzroy (1805-1865). Throughout its five-year journey around the world, Darwin continued to ship innumerable specimens back to Cambridge for Henslow. Upon the Beagle’s arrival back in Britain, in December 1836 Darwin took up lodgings again in Cambridge, this time on Fitzwilliam Street, overlooking the site where the Fitzwilliam Museum would open in 1848. This second stint in Cambridge was spent arranging his scientific collections and journal-writing. During this period, Darwin’s collections from his time aboard the Beagle were attracting intense interest in London scientific circles, and, in March 1837, Darwin left Cambridge for good to move to the capital. Five years later however, Darwin and his young family settled at Down House in the village of Downe in Kent.
By the 1870s On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871) had brought Darwin widespread fame and recognition. The University of Cambridge awarded him an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in 1877 – a somewhat raucous event in the Senate House which apparently saw a stuffed monkey being dangled above Darwin’s head by undergraduate pranksters.
Darwin died in 1882 at home in Down House aged 73 and, 27 years later, Darwin’s centenary was celebrated in Cambridge. The event – which began with a reception at the Fitzwilliam Museum – saw over 400 scientists and dignitaries from around the world gather to honour Darwin’s great achievement and continuing legacy.