Darwin’s Botanists: In the Family

Frontispiece for Eramus Darwin’s The Botanic Garden, Biodiversity Heritage Library

In this series of post’s I’ll be discussing key botanists who influenced Charles Darwin’s work:  John Stevens Henslow, Joseph Dalton Hooker, and Asa Gray.  But first I’ll look at those closer to home who were important to Darwin’s development as a naturalist.  The most obvious is his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, a physician with broad interests including botany.  He worked with two others in his town of Litchfield to translate some of Linnaeus’s work, and after that wrote a volume of poetry, The Love of Plants, as an introduction to the Linnaean classification system.  It was well-received and was followed by The Economy of Vegetation; the two were then published together as The Botanic Garden.  There are hints of evolutionary thinking in them, but are more overt in Zoonomia, a two-volume medical work with a chapter on generation that presents a somewhat Lamarckian view of species change.  Erasmus died before Charles Darwin was born, so most of his grandfather’s influence on him was through his writings.  By the time Charles was studying at Cambridge, he was aware of Erasmus’s ideas as well as those of Lamarck.

Darwin’s father Robert was also a physician interested in botany, though not a writer.  However, he took pleasure in gardening with his children.  This is probably how Charles was first introduced to nature, and he early had a fascination with plants and animals, with closely observing nature as every good gardener must.  Since it’s impossible to garden without encountering insects, it was probably in working with his father that Charles developed his interest in insects and became a collector.  Robert also kept a notebook where he recorded phenological events such as first flowerings, something that his son and grandsons also did.  At one point Robert set the young Charles the task of counting the number of peony blooms each year.  What I find interesting about this is that the number varied from 160 to 363, an impressive display.

Robert Darwin hoped that Charles would follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, not only in gardening but in becoming a physician as Robert’s older son, Erasmus, did.  But after spending two years at the University of Edinburgh studying medicine, Charles had to break it to his father that he was not cut out to be a physician (Browne, 1995).  It was a tremendous relief to be free of that burden, and Robert sent his son off to Cambridge to become a clergyman, a profession that was at the time full of naturalists.  At Cambridge Darwin met the cleric/professor of botany, John Stevens Henslow, but that is the story of the next post.

While at the university, Darwin became friendly with a cousin, William Darwin Fox, who was also interested in natural history, particularly entomology.  It was Fox who introduced Darwin to the wonders of beetles.  This was a time when divisions between biological disciplines was permeable so in hunting for beetles it was impossible not to take an interest in birds, plants, and even aquatic life that filled the wetlands around Cambridge.  After acquiring a microscope from a friend, Darwin became fascinated by the world of aquatic invertebrates and studied their reproductive cycles.  There seemed to be no aspect of natural history that didn’t engage him.  At the end of his time at Cambridge, he went on a geological fieldtrip to Wales with Adam Sedgewick, professor of geology, and there he made what is considered his oldest existing herbarium sheet. 

After Cambridge came Darwin’s five years of travel on the Beagle which involved collecting specimens that he sent back to Henslow.  In fact, Henslow served as receiver for all eight shipments of plants, animals, fossils, and rocks that Darwin had amassed.  I’m skipping forward very rapidly, but much of this story is familiar to many of you, and for those who want more detail, Janet Browne’s two-volume biography is a joy to read (1995, 2002).  As he was creating the first draft of his theory of species change in 1838, Darwin decided to marry Emma Wedgewood.  They had 10 children, seven of whom lived to adulthood, and all were assistants in his work to a greater or lesser extent.  They pitched in with the endless experiments Darwin devised at Down House, their home in the country outside London.  As they got older, they took on more responsibility.  His daughter Henrietta was his editor and proofreader, and his sons George and William made many of the drawings for his botanical works.  Darwin even engaged George Sowerby, a member of a distinguished family of natural history artists, to teach engraving to George Darwin, whose daughter became the famous printmaker Gwen Raverat.  She also wrote a great book on growing up a Darwin in Cambridge (1952).

Francis Darwin was the son who was most involved in Darwin’s later scientific work, particularly in investigating plant movements and phototropism.  Francis’s first wife died in childbirth.  To ease his grief, his parents urged him to move back to Down House with his infant son.  This is when his collaboration with his father became particularly close, and they co-authored The Power of Movement in Plants, published in 1880, two years before Charles’s death.  Francis also edited collections of his father’s letters.  So even without going outside his family, Darwin received a great deal of inspiration and assistance from those related to him, across the generations.  In the following posts, I’ll discuss some of those outside the family who were also important to his botanical work.


Browne, J. (1995). Charles Darwin: Voyaging. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Browne, J. (2002). Charles Darwin: The power of place. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Raverat, G. (1952). Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood. London: Faber & Faber.