The origins of Darwin’s The Origin of Species

An exhibit at the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library traces the evolution of Charles Darwin’s theory.

A medical student, appalled at what he was witnessing, ran from the operating room. He was little more than a boy, having enrolled at the University of Edinburgh at 16, but his revulsion at the sight of human blood would stay with him throughout his life. That distaste was compounded by the horror of surgery before the advent of anesthesia. He had to admit to his family that he could not follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps to become a physician. But Charles Darwin made a name for himself nevertheless.

Marking the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species and the 200th anniversary of its author’s birth, an exhibit in the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library rotunda from February to April explored Darwin’s groundbreaking theory in the context of the scientific and theological beliefs of his contemporaries. From Natural Theology to Natural Selection: Celebrating the Darwin Bicentenary made use of the Historical Library’s own assets, including a first printing of the first edition of The Origin of Species from Harvey Cushing’s collection. Toby Appel, Ph.D., the John R. Bumstead Librarian for Medical History, curated the exhibit.

The exhibition opened with 17th-century texts that sought to reconcile scientific discoveries with Christian beliefs. John Ray’sWisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation is an early example of “natural theology,” a blending of religion and science that still had adherents when Darwin set sail for South America in 1831. Also in the exhibit is Zoonomia, a medical textbook by Erasmus Darwin, grandfather to the naturalist. Erasmus Darwin argued that organisms inherited useful characteristics, leading to the development of higher animals. Though muddled with notions about spontaneous generation and not nearly as well supported as Charles Darwin’s arguments, the book is a precursor to evolutionary theory.

While Darwin never acquired the family passion for medicine, he did inherit his grandfather’s curiosity about the natural world. During the years he studied at Cambridge to become a clergyman, Charles Darwin’s true enthusiasms were collecting insects and attending geology lectures. Not surprisingly, a professor recommended him for the post of naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle. The post was unpaid and designed not so much to serve science as to provide the captain with the company of a fellow gentleman on the long voyage. Journals and plates from the voyage were included in the exhibit. The plates—which contained new knowledge about plants, animals, native peoples, and geology—cemented Darwin’s scientific reputation.

Darwin would wait more than 20 years to publish The Origin of Species. He wanted first to increase his own knowledge and come up with a coherent theory. He may also have been reluctant—he knew his findings would put him at odds with both the religious and scientific establishments. Stress over his concerns, some biographers speculate, may have caused Darwin’s chronic headaches and cramps. He found relief in the “water cure” many Victorians took for all manner of complaints. A text on the cure was among the items on display.

Darwin was finally pushed toward publication when he learned that the naturalist and explorer Alfred Russell Wallace had developed a strikingly similar thesis. Friends of Darwin arranged for the joint publication of the Wallace and Darwin papers, andOrigin followed. Within two decades, most of the scientific community accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution, though debate about natural selection stretched on for decades.

Darwin’s landmark contribution to science—and the ongoing controversy it stirs in some circles—made the anniversary year a major public event. At Yale, it was observed throughout the campus. This spring and summer, the Peabody Museum took passengers aboard a wooden schooner to simulate the conditions on the HMS Beagle.

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  • 17th Century Medicine
  • 18th Century Medicine
  • 19th Century Medicine
  • Evolution
  • History
  • Medical/Historical Library