Charles Darwin FRS

12th February 1809-19th April 1882

February 12th 2009 marked the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, and 24th November 2009 marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of his seminal work On the Origin of Species.


An important book on evolutionary biology, On the Origin of Species created widespread interest for its controversial ideas that contradicted the leading theories of its day.

Published in 1859 by John Murray, only 1250 copies were printed, of which only 1170 were for sale. Such was the interest it is believed that all copies sold on the day of publication.


Charles Darwin, 1840. Chalk and water-colour drawing by George Richmond (1809-96)

Copies of the first edition are very rare. The University of Oxford has only three original copies of the 1st edition within its libraries. One belongs to the Sherardian Library, one to the Bodleian Library and the third is held in Christ Church collections.

The Plant Sciences Library copy of On the Origin of the Species has been digitized and is now available via Google book search

Darwin and the Beagle

At the age of 22, Charles Darwin, a graduate of the University of Cambridge, was offered the post of naturalist aboard HMS Beagle which was sent on a surveying voyage around the world by the Admiralty. During his 5-year voyage,  Darwin collected plants mainly from South America including Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru and the Galapagos Islands.  It was on the Beagle that Darwin formulated his ideas on the origin and evolution of species, of life on earth, which was to revolutionise previously held beliefs.

The plant specimens shown in this presentation  were collected on the Beagle Voyage by Darwin and are now held in Oxford University Herbaria in the Department of Plant Sciences.


Mikania trinervis (Family: Asteraceae)

Darwin collected this specimen in February 1832 from Bahia in Brazil.  This was only the second port of call on the voyage of HMS Beagle, after the Cape Verde Islands.  Darwin spent 19 days on land at Bahia.

The genus Mikaniais pantropical in distribution and comprises about 430 different species. Many are climbers, and are better represented in the Amazon region than other members of the Asteraceae family.

The name of this specimen today is Mikania cf. leutzelburgiiem as identified by Professor Steussy from a duplicate specimen in the Cambridge University Herbarium.


Oxalis corniculata (Family: Oxalidaceae).

Darwin collected this specimen in February or March 1832 from Bahia in Brazil.  The specimen is stamped "Mus. Henslow" and it was therefore originally part of Rev. J.S. Henslow's collection in Cambridge. Oxalis corniculata is a cosmopolitan weed with yellow flowers. Its origin is unknown.

How did Oxford University acquire a handful of Darwin specimens from the Beaglevoyage?

This is a mystery as we have no documentation. Darwin had sent most of his plant collections back to his mentor, the Rev. John Stevens Henslow (1796-1861), Professor of Botany at Cambridge University.

Henslow, who had recommended the young Charles Darwin as the naturalist on HMS Beagle, corresponded with Mr. Baxter (1787-1871) of the Botanic Garden, Oxford. They exchanged books and some plant specimens and seeds, and  Henslow visited Baxter in Oxford in July 1837.  Did he bring the Darwin specimens with him?

It is also possible that that Henry Borron Fielding, whose herbarium was bequeathed to the University of Oxford, acquired the Darwin specimens from W.J. Hooker, with whom he corresponded, or from his son J.D. Hooker, who married Professor Henslow's daughter.

Darwin and Orchids

Darwin made a study of the pollination of orchids - the orchids' partnership with bees and other insects. Darwin says: 'The contrivances by which orchids are fertilised are as varied and almost as perfect as the most beautiful adaptations in the animal kingdom'. He wrote that each kind of orchid has its special kind of mechanism, complex and fascinating, though the general design is the same.


Illustration of Angraecum sesquipedale. Tab. 5113 from Curtis's Botanical Magazine Volume XV (1859).

One particular rare Madagascan orchid, Angraecum sesquipedale, had a spur or whip-like nectary with an astonishing length of 11½ inches. Darwin predicted that the only insect capable of pollinating it would be some kind of Sphinx or Hawk moth (which has the longest tongue of any insect) with a proboscis of that length.

This idea was ridiculed by entomologists.  However later on a Madagascan Hawk moth with a proboscis of exactly 11½ inches was discovered. It was named Xanthopan morgani praedicta in honour of the fact that Darwin predicted its existence.


Photograph of Charles Darwin in 1881 from The Illustrated Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, abridged and illustrated by Richard Leakey, ISBN 0-571-14586-8

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