Sunday, July 17, 2011

Last resting place of Charles Darwin rediscovered

OK, so you are wondering what I am going on about with that title, as we all know that Charles Darwin (1809-1882), the famous naturalist and father of evolution is buried in Westminster Abbey!?!

But I am talking about the first Charles Darwin, the naturalist's uncle, who lived from 1758 to 1778. This Charles Darwin was the eldest son of Erasmus Darwin and Mary Pole (who incidentally died from an overdose of morphine). Here is what the younger Charles Darwin wrote about his uncle:
"His [Erasmus's] eldest son, Charles (born September 3, 1758), was a young man of extraordinary promise, but died (May 15, 1778) before he was twenty-one years old from the effects of a wound received whilst dissecting the brain of a child. He inherited from his father a strong taste for various branches of science, for writing verses, and for mechanics. "Tools were his playthings," and making machines was one of the first efforts of his ingenuity, and one of the first sources of his amusement." *

He also inherited stammering. With the hope of curing him, his father sent him to France when about eight years old (1766-67), with a private tutor, thinking that if he was not allowed to speak English for a time, the habit of stammering might be lost; and it is a curious fact that in after years when speaking French he never stammered. At a very early age he collected specimens of all kinds. When sixteen years old he was sent for a year to Oxford, but he did not like the place, and "thought (in the words of his father) that the vigour of the mind languished in the pursuit of classical elegance, like Hercules at the distaff, and sighed to be removed to the robuster exercise of the medical school of Edinburgh."

He stayed three years at Edinburgh, working hard at his medical studies, and attending "with diligence all the sick poor of the parish of Waterleith, and supplying them with the necessary medicines." The Esculapian Society awarded him its first gold medal for an experimental enquiry on pus and mucus. Notices of him appeared in various journals; and all the writers agree about his uncommon energy and abilities. He seems, like his father, to have excited the warm affection of his friends. Professor Andrew Duncan, in whose family vault Charles was buried, cut a lock of hair from the corpse, and took it to a jeweller, whose apprentice, afterwards the famous Sir H. Raeburn, set it in a locket for a memorial.* The venerable professor spoke to me about him with the warmest affection forty-seven years after his death, when I was a young medical student in Edinburgh. The inscription on his tomb, written by his father, says, with more truth than is usual on such occasions: "Possessed of uncommon abilities and activity, he had acquired knowledge in every department of medical and philosophical science, much beyond his years." 'Harveian Discourse,' by Professor A. Duncan, 1824.

Dr. [Erasmus] Darwin was able to reach Edinburgh before Charles died, and had at first hopes of his recovery; but these hopes, as he informed my father, "with anguish, soon disappeared. Two days afterwards he wrote to Wedgwood to the same effect, ending his letter with the words, God bless you, my dear friend, may your children succeed better." Two and a half years afterwards he again wrote to Wedgwood, I am rather in a situation to demand than to administer consolation."
A more detailed description of CD the elder's death strongly supports a diagnosis of meningococcal disease:
"About the end of April, Mr. Darwin had employed the greatest part of a day in accurately dissecting the brain of a child which had died of hydrocephalus, and which he had attended during its life. That very evening he was seized with severe head-ach. This, however, did not prevent him from being present in the Medical Society, where he mentioned to Dr. Duncan the dissection he had made, and promised the next day to furnish him with an account of all the circumstances in writing. But the next day, to his headach there supervened other febrile symptoms. And, in a short time, from the hemorrhagies, petechial eruption, and foetid loose stools which occurred,his disease manifested a very putrescent tendency."
Charles Darwin the elder is also notable because Erasmus Darwin claimed, after his son's death, that Charles had discovered the usefulness of digitalis/foxglove before William Withering, who is usually credited with this discovery (and who used to work here in Birmingham). This led to a longstanding feud between these two members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham.

And now to title of this post.

In a previous post (The evolutionary tourist in Edinburgh), I claimed that Charles Darwin senior was buried in St. Cuthbert’s Church, located in Lothian Road, at the eastern end of Princes Street. Now I have just received an email from veteran Wikipedian Dave Souza, who writes:
"Today an anon editor helpfully pointed out that we'd both got the wrong kirk, the Duncan family vault was in the graveyard of the Chapel of Ease built for St Cuthbert's Church on the South side of Edinburgh, and later renamed the Buccleuch Parish Church Burying Ground. It's sited at 33 Chapel Street, not far from the Old College of the University of Edinburgh."
Click on the two links above to see quite how far apart the two sites are.

So all we need now is for an enthusiastic Darwin fan in Edinburgh to visit the graveyard and capture a photo of CD the elder's tomb and I will post it here!