Charles Darwin in Cambridge: The Most Joyful Years by John van Wyhe
(World Scientific, 2014, 193 pages)
There are so many books on Charles Darwin that you would think that we know everything about him. However, Charles Darwin’s years as a student at the University of Cambridge were not well known until this book was published in 2014. Author John van Wyhe is a biologist and a historian of science. He did a wonderful job on giving new insight into Darwin’s life. This book was based on newly discovered primary sources and recollections of those who knew Darwin as a student.
Darwin’s Cambridge friend and cousin William Darwin Fox kept a series of diaries that recorded details of his life as a Cambridge undergraduate. Darwin’s letters to Fox were also the primary source that helped the author envision Darwin’s student life at Cambridge.
Darwin was an average student. It was at Cambridge that he started to be interested in natural science. He began to be obsessed with collecting insects. On pages 83-86, the author told an interesting story accompanied by several pictures. He was visiting with a friend Dr. Milo Keynes, a great-grandson of Darwin. Dr. Keynes mentioned a small wooden cabinet that had been used as a TV stand in his house that he inherited from his parents. The author opened the cabinet which turned out to be an insect collecting cabinet with six drawers – the same number that Darwin wrote in his letter to Fox. The author also measured the cabinet and the measurements matched the ones described by Darwin so he took pictures of the cabinet and contacted experts. It turns out that the TV stand is possibly one of Darwin’s Cambridge beetle cabinets. It was on loan to Cambridge for display for several years until a replica cabinet was constructed.
I found the book informative and fascinating. I’d recommended it for those interested in history or science.