The Cambridge years

Christ's College in Cambridge, where Darwin lived

Darwin’s father accepted that his son would not become a doctor. After careful consideration it was decided that Charles would apply for another respectable profession for sons of the bourgeoisie in the first half of the 19th century: namely becoming a parson. The best education was received in Oxford or Cambridge. Since the Darwin family had good connections in Cambridge, it became the obvious choice. The now 18-year-old Darwin arrived in Cambridge by the end of 1827 after having refreshed his Latin and Ancient Greek, which he had happily forgotten all about in Edinburgh.

During this period, Darwin attended the more enjoyable parts of university life including parties, hunting and – collecting beetles. His interest in natural science became a passion under the competent direction of the botanist John Stevens Henslow and the geologist Adam Sedgwick. Henslow in particular became very important to Darwin, who soon became known as “the man who walks with Henslow”.

Darwin continued to grow fonder of the idea of his future work as a parson. Not because he was particularly religious, but because it would give him plenty of time to explore his growing interest in natural science. He followed the required courses and attended the mandatory exams, but there was no doubt that his main interest was studying and understanding nature.

Darwin completed his studies in 1831. He later expressed that “the three years I spend in Cambridge were the most joyful of my life”. During his summer holidays, he went on a geology field trip to Wales with Sedgwick, who thought him to identify rocks and identify their age. When Darwin returned to Shrewsbury a letter from Henslow was waiting for him; a letter which would change his life forever: an invitation to join the HMS Beagle on a trip around the world.

Peter C. Kjærgaard