March 23, 2009

Archives Reveal Insights Into Darwin’s College Years

Unlike most penniless college students surviving on ramen noodles and crackers, Charles Darwin enjoyed a pampered existence with someone to polish his shoes, make his bed and stoke his fire in his lavish room at the University of Cambridge where he attended almost two hundred years ago.  These new details of the famed scientist's life before he ventured out on his arduous five-year voyage that would vastly change the scientific opinion of the world, have recently been discovered by scholars, Reuters reported.  

Buried in years of dust in university archives, six leather-bound ledgers were uncovered which reveal how he lived in the most luxurious offered to a student of his rank from 1828 to 1831. 

His extravagant life included a panel of assistants to attend to his daily chores, including a personal dishwasher, a laundress and a shoeblack. 

His vanity did not go unchecked either.  He had a tailor, hatter and barber that maintained his physical presentation, while a chimney sweep and a coalman kept his fire going.  To make sure he received his desired portion of daily vegetables, he paid five and a half pence extra each day to have this addition included with his basic ration of meat and beer at Christ's college. 

Not much had been known about the years of Darwin's life as a student before his personal accounts were found in the mostly hand-written ledgers describing his finances, explained Darwin scholar, Dr. John Van Wyhe of the University of Cambridge. 

"It is just wonderful to have a previously unknown insight into what Darwin was up to in this part of his life," he told reporters, "These are really intimate details."

A Monday publication of the archives on the internet can be viewed at darwin-online.org.uk.

During his three years of study for a basic bachelor of arts degree at Cambridge, Darwin accomplished a tab equaling 636 pounds.  It is no wonder he would later refer to his days of college as "the most joyful of my happy life." 

This was a fairly customary bill for a student at Cambridge in the 19th century.  Fortunately, Robert Darwin, his wealthy doctor father would deal with his substantial bill.

"Cambridge was full of well-to-do gentlemen living a pretty good life," van Wyhe commented. "When you look at the books, you see he is just one of a hundred students or whatever. He is well off, but they are all well off."

Not only did he have paid help to make his time in college more comfortable, but Darwin could also count on the help of the college "gyp," a slang term for a Cambridge valet or servant. 

Van Wyhe also added, with only two hours of mathematics and classics lectures required in a routine day, compiled with so much personal assistance, there was ample time for socializing or private study. 

"He would be out shooting, collecting beetles, doing his scientific hobbies or visiting friends," he said. "They played cards and drank wine at night, just like students always have."

His life of luxury at Cambridge soon came to an end when Darwin set sail on the Beagle, headed for South America and Australia.  It was on this voyage that he developed his theories on evolution, for which he is most distinguished by, that have been published in his very well-known book "On the Origin of Species."  


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