Darwin at the Museum

Charles Darwin is probably the most famous biologist of all time. The Origin of Species, published in 1859, challenged the prevailing world view of God's divine creation of the Earth and its inhabitants, and laid the foundations of modern biology. The Museum has a collection of Darwin's crustaceans that he amassed on his voyage on The Beagle, and this article gives an account of his life, work, and his association with the Museum.

Statue of Charles Darwin in the court

Darwin's early life
Charles Darwin was born in 1809. He grew up with an interest in natural history and this interest continued when he began his medical studies in Edinburgh. Primitive surgery, disease, and the sight of blood repelled Darwin, and he never completed his degree. In 1828, at his father's insistence, he went to Christ's College, Cambridge to study theology. He graduated in 1831. During his time at Cambridge he regularly discussed the natural world with the botanist John Henslow, the geologist Adam Sedgwick and others. It was Henslow who recommended Darwin for the post of naturalist and captain's companion on board HMS Beagle.

Darwin's work
During the famous round-the-world voyage between 1831 and 1836, Darwin observed and recorded the rich variety of plant and animal life that he encountered. While visiting the Galapogos Islands in 1835, he found significant evidence for his ideas on variation, and the birds and tortoises he observed there became the subjects of some of his most famous studies.

Back in England in 1836, Darwin tried to solve the questions raised by these observations, and the great mystery of how new species arose. He realised that parents passed on characteristics to their offspring, that there was variation between individuals within populations of a species, and that limited resources were available to support populations. He concluded that new species arose as a result of what he termed natural selection acting on these variable populations.

Darwin continued to work on his theories for 20 years, and in 1859 published his famous and controversial book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. This sparked a furious debate between scientists and theologians, most notably the one between Thomas Henry Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce that took place in Oxford in 1860 at the newly opened University Museum. Darwin died at home in 1882 after suffering an extended illness and was buried at Westminster Abbey. The Archbishop was indisposed.

Darwin's collection at the Museum
Darwin not only made ecological and geological observations during the voyage of The Beagle, but also amassed a vast collection of specimens. On his return to England these were entrusted to various scientists for study, with the Crustacea being sent to Thomas Bell.
These specimens were never properly described and remained in Bell's cabinets for many years. In 1862 much of the Bell collection was purchased by J. O. Westwood, the first Hope Professor of Zoology, on behalf of the University Museum. Over the years, this material was transferred to the zoology collections, with the last transfer taking place in 1975.
Darwin's collection chiefly comprises crustaceans, but also a few other invertebrates (such as insects, sea spiders, millipedes, spiders, etc.). Some of this material is stored dry and some preserved in spirit, although it is clear from Darwin's notebooks that originally everything was stored in spirit. Many of the surviving specimens have either numbered labels attached to them in handwriting that has been ascribed to Covington, Darwin's servant on The Beagle, or numbered metal tags. These numbers correspond with those listed in the 'Catalogue for specimens in Spirit of Wine' - a chronological listing of specimens collected throughout the voyage.
All the crustaceans listed in this catalogue are marked in pencil with the letter 'C', presumably to allow a separate list to be copied out. In total, 230 specimen lots are marked as crustaceans in the catalogue, however, only 110 can be traced in the zoological collections today; further specimens can be tentatively linked to Darwin through more circumstantial evidence.
The Darwin database, holds details of the dry material in the Darwin collection. For details of the spirit preserved material see Chancellor et al. (1988). The existing dry material, which can be positively attributed to Darwin, consists of 40 taxa (39 decapods and 1 stomatopod), collected from fifteen locations spanning the voyage of The Beagle.

Map showing the voyage of The Beagle

The database and specimens
After inital neglect Darwin's collection of dry crustaceans was transferred to the zoological collections. The last of it was moved in 1975. Since then, each specimen has been re-housed separately in conservation grade material. All original labels were retained, and the specimens have been kept as close to their original appearance as possible.
The Museum has electronically catalogued Darwin's collection which is now available as a searchable database. It is fully illustrated and contains Darwin's original diary entries. It is available to browse linking from the zoological collections' pages. Further information about Darwin's holdings can be found by contacting the Museum.

Zoology collections homepage
Zoology databases

Chancellor, G., A. diMauro, R. Ingle & G. King (1988). Charles Darwin's Beagle collections in the Oxford University Museum. Archives of Natural History, 15: 197-231.

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