Voted one of the top five greatest Britons by BBC viewers in 2002, Charles Darwin was an extraordinary thinker whose theories on evolution and the origins of man changed the entire direction of modern thought.
The restless school boy
While growing up in Shrewsbury, Charles - or Bobby as he was known at home - was a rather restless, energetic child who preferred riding horses and playing billiards to schoolwork. In fact his father eventually decided to take him out of school due to his poor grades and lack of application, famously observing 'You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family'.
Forays into medicine
In 1825 Charles followed in the footsteps of his older brother Erasmus, and his father and grandfather before him by going to study medicine at Edinburgh Medical School. Unlike Erasmus, Darwin didn't really take to his medical studies. He wasn't fond of the sight of blood, and preferred to spend his time poring over animal and plant exhibits at the university museum. He did however enjoy his chemistry lectures and picked up some valuable taxidermy skills along the way.
After two years in Edinburgh, Darwin shelved his medical studies and went to Cambridge on another abortive career move - to train for the clergy. Later with his uncle's help he managed to convince his father to let him accept a post aboard a British survey ship, HMS Beagle, as gentleman's companion to its aristocratic captain, Robert FitzRoy. From the 7th December 1831 to the 2nd October 1836 he sailed all round South America and Australasia with the crew making observations and collecting fossils, rock and plant samples, animals and insects all of which fuelled his imagination. The variations and similarities that he noticed between species of birds, plants, insects and reptiles on the Galápagos islands led him to begin questioning the contemporary belief that each species of animal was created by God and remained unchanged because of its perfect design.
On his return to England, Darwin was kept busy examining and cataloguing the huge amount of specimens he had brought home. He also decided to write an account of his journey - the fascinating journal The Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, which is still in print today. In 1839 Darwin married his cousin Emma Wedgwood and they set up home at Upper Gower Street, London. In September 1842 they moved to Down House; it was here that Darwin began to explore in earnest the theories that he had begun to develop following his return from the Beagle expedition.
Life at Down House
As a scientist Darwin was as unusual as he was brilliant, conducting most of his research not in a lab but at home surrounded by his eight children and an increasing array of pets. He entered into extensive correspondence with animal breeders all over the world to ascertain how and why certain characteristics were passed from one generation of a species to another, and undertook an immense range of cross-breeding experiments with various species of plants and breeds of fancy pigeons to gain more evidence for his theories. Much of his best thinking was done pacing up and down his favourite stretch of garden -The Sand Walk - which is still enjoyed by visitors to Down House today.
An authority on barnacles
In 1846 Darwin decided to undertake extensive research into the variations among barnacle species based on what he'd observed of marine life while travelling aboard the Beagle. As well as giving him the opportunity to carry out more research on species variation, he would also have the means of establishing himself as an expert on the subject before coming out with his more radical theories on how and why one species evolves into another. Little did he realise that his barnacle research would consume him for a further eight years!
The book that changed the world
In the autumn of 1858, a young British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace working in Indonesia and the Malay States, sent a paper to Darwin that outlined a theory of the evolution of species very similar to his own. Darwin was shocked. His scientific friends arranged for the simultaneous announcement of Darwin's and Wallace's work and Darwin himself finally decided to break his silence and publish his book On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection in 1859. Darwin's theory provoked a storm of mixed reactions. Some readers were excited, some were outraged by the challenge they feared it posed to society and religion, and others simply didn't understand it. Unlike other scientific studies of the time, it was written in everyday language, which helped to broaden its appeal.
The theories and evidence contained within the book sparked a debate across the world as it was translated into various languages. Scientists began to look at the origins of mankind itself and the possibility that we were descended from an ancestral ape many millions of years ago rather than Adam and Eve as was commonly thought. The church was in uproar. At Down House meanwhile, Darwin continued his research. He began cultivating orchids to investigate their intricate relationship with the bees that pollinated them and continued to puzzle over similarities and differences between the skeletons of different species of animals.
Darwin's final years
The ill health that had plagued Darwin on and off since his voyage on the Beagle kept him from his studies more and more as he entered old age. His bouts of illness did nothing to curb his enthusiasm for his work however, and he was awarded the prestigious Copley Medal from the Royal Society - Britain's National Academy of Science - in 1864. He continued to write and publish ground breaking accounts of his research on the origins and evolution of life on earth until he died in 1882, these works included The Descent of Man (1871), The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), Insectivorous Plants (1875), a biography of his grandfather Erasmus Darwin (1878) and his own autobiography which was published posthumously.