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Charles Darwin

Childhood

The Darwin Family

Edinburgh

Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809. His father's connections and well- paying job as a physician, and his mother's connection the Wedgwood family, placed the Darwin family securely in the realm of the liberal and well-off. Robert Darwin was forty-three at the time Charles was born, at the height of his reputation and energy as a physician. Charles already had four older siblings: Marianne, Caroline, Susan, and his brother Erasmus. With scarlet fever and other diseases in the air, the major concern of the household was the health and growth of the children. Susannah was in charge of the house, the children, and the finances, while Robert occupied himself with his patients.

Charles spent his early years at a house called The Mount in Shrewsbury, which Robert had had built in the early years of his marriage to Susannah. He seems to have been a quiet, solitary child; he had no great difficulty making friends, but his best times were spent on exploratory walks, on which he would collect whatever he could find.

Charles's mother died when he was only 8. In 1817 she started growing ill, with gastrointestinal symptoms that were probably a sign of either a severe ulcer or stomach cancer. She died on Thursday, July 15, 1817. Robert dedicated himself even more into his medical practice even more than he had before, leaving the household to be run mostly by his elder daughters Marianne and Caroline. Robert had always been an enormous presence in the house when he returned from work at the end of the day, but it had been tolerable as long as his mood was good. Now, however, he was almost always irritable and depressed. The house remained comfortable and well kept, but gloomy. In later descriptions of his childhood, Charles wrote that he remembered very little of his mother, particularly since his sisters forbade him to talk about her.

Charles looked up to his sisters as teachers. School for Darwin was never a joyful thing. He was first educated by Caroline, and then spent a year at a day school in Shrewsbury. From there he was sent to the Shrewsbury School, about a mile away from The Mount, at the age of 8. The Shrewsbury School was a boarding school run by the elder Samuel Butler that focused almost exclusively on the classics, a subject which Darwin found nearly useless. His lack of interest in school led his parents to worry that he had not inherited his fair share of the Darwin energy and intelligence. Towards the end of his schooling he made up somewhat for his mediocre performance by conducting experiments with his older brother Erasmus in a shed in the back of The Mount. They conducted experiments from 1822 until Erasmus set off for Christ's College, at the University of Cambridge, to study medicine. Darwin later looked back on the experience as an invaluable introduction to scientific experimentation.

As Darwin grew older, collecting became his major hobby. He collected minerals and insects. He also became a bird-watcher, and was fond of hunting. Later, during his Edinburgh years, his passion for hunting became so great that his father was afraid that he would become an "idle hunting man." After killing his first snipe, he wrote "my excitement was so great that I had much difficulty in reloading my gun from the trembling of my hands." Hunting combined the joys of collecting with the thrill of the chase. It was a skill that would come in handy later in life. Charles's long, solitary walk started to become even longer adventures. He traveled some with his older brother Erasmus, into Wales and on visits to the Wedgwood cousins at Maer.

At the age of sixteen, Charles was taken aside by his father Robert and told that it was time for him to make something of himself. He would go to the University of Edinburgh, where his father and grandfather had trained to become doctors. His brother Erasmus, who had been studying medicine at the University of Cambridge, would join him there.

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