Charles Darwin is one of the most famous scientists in human history. His theories on natural selection and evolution literally changed the way we see humanity. But who was the man behind this great mind? Darwin’s personal life was full of drama, scandal, and despair. From his tragic losses to his twisted relationships, Darwin proved that even the greatest intellect can’t insure against heartache.
Charles Darwin Facts
1. His Family was Famous
Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809 in his family’s home in Shrewsbury, England. He was the fifth of sixth children. Darwin’s father was a respected doctor and financier, while both his grandfathers were abolitionists who bravely fought to end the slave trade. If Darwin was going to make his mark in this family, he’d have to do something truly earth-shattering. Spoiler: He did.
2. He Faced Tragedy Early
Little Charles Darwin did not have a happy childhood. In 1817, when he was only eight years old, his mother Susannah suddenly passed away, throwing the entire family into a tailspin. For some, this kind of tragedy could strengthen family ties, but not the Darwins. The family patriarch Robert was judgmental, cold, and like many men of his generation, disinterested in parenting. Barely a year after Charles lost his mother, Robert sent his grieving son to a boarding school.
3. He Was Destined to be a Scientist
Even as a child, Darwin was fascinated by natural history. While at school, he would collect rocks and pieces of bark and in college, he took up beetle collecting. It was immediately clear that little Charles was meant to be a biologist. Unfortunately, his strict father had other plans.
4. He Followed in his Father’s Footsteps
As a 17 year old, Darwin spent his summer working as his father’s medical assistant. Robert Darwin was a doctor and he was determined to see his son join the profession. And so, after cutting his teeth in his dad’s lab, Charles attended the prestigious University of Edinburgh Medical School. Even though you’d think Darwin would be a natural nerd…you’d be wrong. His time at university was an absolute mess.
5. He Wasn’t a Model Student
Like many university students, Darwin found lectures to be unbearably dull but the final straw was a lot more upsetting than mere boredom. After witnessing a terrified child undergo surgery without anaesthesia, he was so disturbed by the spectacle that he basically gave up his dad’s med school dreams then and there. He was haunted by the memory of the screaming boy for years.
And so, with Darwin unhappy in his field, it didn’t take long for him to start coasting through school. On the one hand, Darwin now had time to explore his love of natural history. But then again, some of his biology-related hobbies were, well, just plain disturbing.
6. He Had a Twisted Hobby
While Darwin studied in Edinburgh, he developed some, shall we say, strange fascinations. He was part of “The Glutton Club,” an association where he ate weird animals like owls, hawks, and bitterns. Young Darwin also fell head over heels for taxidermy. He learned the “art” from a freed slave named John Edmonstone. Darwin’s abolitionist grandpas would be proud, but Darwin’s dad Robert? He wasn’t so impressed with his son’s extra-curricular activities.
7. Life Unravelled His Plans
Despite Darwin’s enthusiasm for natural history, his father was furious when he found out that his son was coasting through medical school. In a rage, Robert put his foot down and forced Charles to leave Edinburgh. Instead, he sent his son to Cambridge’s divinity school so that he could become a country parson. Yeah, that didn’t work out.
8. He Was Too Cool for School
Surprise, surprise: Forcing your kid to do a degree they don’t care about doesn’t actually work. When Charles, shocker, didn’t even bother trying to do well at Cambridge, his dad sent him an angry letter saying that his son was spending all his time partying, drinking, and going on hunting trips. The furious note ended with this mic drop: “You will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.” Ouch.
9. He Proved his Dad Wrong
Perhaps as a way to show his dad that he wasn’t a failure, Darwin found time to dominate his exams in his busy schedule of staying out late, drinking too much, and breaking school rules. He placed 10th out of almost 200 students—and thank goodness he did so. With this success, Darwin’s dad finally started to think that his son was more than a slacker. This was crucial, because Robert’s permission was the one thing standing in between young Darwin and what is arguably the most important voyage of all time.
10. Destiny Came Knocking
After Darwin left Cambridge, he got the opportunity of a lifetime: an invitation to board the HMS Beagle and sail around the globe. This voyage would change everything, but few people realize that Darwin very nearly didn’t go. His father thought the two-year voyage was both pointless and expensive. Thankfully, he changed his mind and financed Darwin’s passage. But Robert wasn’t the only one who was ticked about Charles leaving…
11. He Was Unlucky in Love
Fun fact: Darwin was a bit of a player. Before settling down with his scandalous wife (more on her later), he had a college girlfriend named Fanny Owen. They were getting pretty serious when Darwin took off for his voyage on the HMS Beagle. While Fanny wasn’t happy that her boyfriend was going away for two long years, she made peace with it—until she dealt Darwin a cold betrayal.
12. His Girlfriend Betrayed Him
Look, two years is a long time to go without seeing your boyfriend, so I can’t judge Fanny too harshly for being impatient for Darwin’s return. But here’s the thing: She didn’t wait for her man—at all. The very first set of letters that Darwin received on his voyage included some unwelcome news. Not only had Fanny dumped him from afar, she was set to marry someone else. Ouch.
13. His Heart Was Broken
Here’s the thing about Darwin’s relationship with Fanny: It wasn’t just a college fling. Fanny and Darwin grew up together, with Fanny consoling Charles after the traumatic loss of his mother. They were childhood sweethearts and even in his old age, Darwin kept Fanny’s letters and spoke of her fondly. Her long-distance break-up was utterly devastating to him.
14. He Stood Up for his Beliefs
Among the many things which Darwin inherited from his family was his disgust for the practice of slavery. Even when he sailed to Brazil on the HMS Beagle and got to explore the deep rainforests to his heart’s content, he still noted with loathing that slavery was being practiced there. Darwin even got into fights with people on the ship (even the captain!) over his hatred of slavery.
15. He Was Horribly Ill
Darwin was obsessed with all aspects of life. While on board the Beagle, he tirelessly examined marine animals and invertebrates—despite the fact that doing so was making him miserable. Darwin fell victim to a serious case of sea sickness, and his health issues didn’t end when he got on dry land. As we’ll see, he experienced years of discomfort and pain, and while to this day, the cause is mysterious, some scholars blame the Beagle Expedition for Darwin’s woes.
16. He Ate Everything He Discovered
While Darwin was on the Galapagos Islands, he didn’t just study the region’s giant tortoises. He ate them too…along with pumas, armadillos, ostriches, and more. And in case you think Darwin was just being weird, he wasn’t alone. The rest of the sailors joined in. In fact, even though the crew brought multiple tortoises back to England for scientific investigation, none of them actually made it. The crew ate them all because they were so tasty.
17. He Took His Time
No doubt Darwin’s father would have been a bit miffed to know that the voyage of the HMS Beagle, originally meant to last two years, ultimately lasted five. Hey, monumental contributions to science take time.
18. He Wasn’t Photogenic
The most famous pictures of Charles Darwin were taken when he was an old man with an enormous bushy beard, but in his youth he was a handsome gent. Darwin had light eyes, rosy skin, and some fantastic mutton chops. However, that, um, didn’t mean he was photogenic. After an unflattering picture, Darwin told a friend that if he looked as bad as the picture suggested, he was shocked to “have one single friend.” Well, when Darwin’s long voyage ended, at least one woman thought he looked good…
19. He Became Famous
Even without his evolutionary writings, Darwin would have been a famous Victorian. After he got back on English soil, Darwin published an incredibly popular book about his voyage aboard the HMS Beagle–only to find out that success was a double-edged sword. By 1837, Darwin had done so many book tours, lectures, and studies that he was exhausted. He decided to take a break and live in the country. Little did he know, that one stay-cation would introduce Darwin to the love of his life.
20. He Made a Scandalous Match
Seeking rest and relaxation, the now-famous Darwin stayed with the Wedgwood family in rural Staffordshire. It was there that he became reacquainted with a beautiful young woman named Emma, who was looking after an ill relative at the time. There was just one problem with the attraction between Emma and Darwin: Uh, they were related. She was the famous biologist’s cousin. And that’s not even the worst of it.
21. His Family Tree Was Twisted
Emma Wedgwood already had experience dating one of the Darwin boys. While Darwin was off exploring the Galapagos Island, Emma was busy romancing Charles’ bad boy brother Erasmus. That already sounds awkward enough, but the real story is even stranger. It turns out that the Darwin family had forced Emma to date Erasmus to distract everyone from that fact that Erasmus had just had an affair with, of all people, Emma’s brother’s wife. This family…they have problems.
22. His Marriage was Controversial
Here’s another scandalous dimension of Emma and Darwin’s relationship. Emma was a bit of a cradle-robber. At 30, she was past the Victorian Era’s idea of her prime, and even more controversial, she was actually a year older than her husband.
23. He Found True Love
Despite their shared ancestry, Darwin and Emma struck up a relationship, with Darwin falling hard and fast. A year after meeting Emma, he proposed marriage to her on November 11, 1838. Even though the whole cousin love issue is questionable, no one could deny that Emma and Darwin were a good match. They remained married for the rest of their lives and had ten children together. They shared decades of joy, but sadly, many years of pain too.
24. Opposites Attracted
Emma had doubts about marrying Darwin. She was a woman of faith—he was a man of science. In a remarkably honest letter from Emma to her fiancée, she frankly addresses their incompatibility. One line features Emma writing that their differences of opinion could create a “painful void between us.” Sadly, they had many other tragedies to distract them from the science/religion split.
25. He Was Too Honest
While most of us keep the marriage debate internal, Darwin put his thoughts down on paper. Before getting hitched, Darwin made a list of pros and cons. The negative aspects of marriage included “less money for books” and “terrible loss of time.” The positive points, which ultimately won out, included “constant companion and a friend in old age…better than a dog anyhow.” Given how he worded that particular point, I hope Emma never came across this list.
26. He Had a Suspicious Sickness
Remember Darwin’s strange life-long illness? Well, to this day, his affliction remains a mystery. Throughout his life, Darwin suffered from severe stomach pain, vomiting, heart palpitations, painful rashes, boils, and more. While we still don’t know what was really wrong with Darwin, we do have plenty of theories—and some are utterly heartbreaking.
27. His Mental Health Plummeted
Many scholars believe that while Darwin suffered from physical maladies, a lot of his struggles were psychological—and as we’ll see, Darwin had plenty of tragedies to fuel his anxiety and depression. One especially difficult loss occurred in 1842, when his beloved baby daughter Mary passed away. Sadly, this was the first of Darwin’s many losses.
28. He Endured Tragedies
Darwin managed to recover from the devastating loss of Mary, only to face another tragedy in 1848. This was the year that Darwin’s father passed on. Even though Darwin and his dad didn’t have a great relationship, Darwin always hoped that they’d patch things up. They didn’t—and when Robert Darwin passed, his son Charles had a nervous breakdown.
29. His Illness Worsened
In 1849, Darwin was at his wit’s end. He had lost his father and his son, and had been vomiting non-stop for nearly half a year . In short, he was exhausted. In desperation, he turned to new treatment called hydrotherapy. To Darwin’s surprise, the intense regimen of saunas, cold baths, and vigorous walks actually helped him. That’s why, when his beloved daughter Annie became ill in 1851, he hoped that similar treatment would cure her. Sadly, it did not.
30. He Lost His Daughter
Anne, whom Darwin considered to be his favorite child, tragically died at the tender age of ten in 1851. Her death devastated her parents, but soon, their grief transformed into a profound sense of paranoia and guilt. Darwin and his wife were first cousins, and they worried that their shared genetics meant their children were more vulnerable to disease. It was a horrible burden to bear in an already tragic time.
31. His Heart Broke
Mary and Anne weren’t the only children that Darwin lost. In 1858, Darwin endured every parent’s nightmare for the third time. He buried his son Charles. The little boy had perished before he even reached second birthday.
32. His Children Suffered
Unfortunately, even the Darwin children who survived didn’t have trouble-free lives. Many of Darwin’s other progeny suffered from terrible health. For years, Darwin felt anguish over the role he may have played in his own children’s pain. After all, as someone interested in genetics, he knew that in-breeding could have terrible consequences on a couple’s children.
33. He Had a Crisis of Faith
Somehow, losing his father and three of his children wasn’t quite enough suffering for Darwin. As he wrote Origin, he also grappled with a crisis of faith. Though raised in a Christian household, Darwin simply couldn’t wrap his head around evolution and biblical creation. As his Christian faith turned to doubt, Darwin became agnostic. And this wasn’t a private crisis—it was extremely upsetting to Darwin’s religious wife Emma.
34. His Book Shook England
Darwin published his infamous book On the Origin of Species on November 24, 1859. It made an immediate splash, despite the fact that Darwin only hinted at his most scandalous idea: that humans descended from apes. Of course, readers figured out Darwin’s implications, and the ensuing furor made the book a wild success. All 1,250 copies sold out on the first day. Despite this success, the release was anything but smooth.
35. His Greatest Work Was Utter Turmoil
Darwin knew that publishing Origin wasn’t going to be easy. He understood that being descended from animals wasn’t a comforting idea, especially for a country full of Christians. Because of this, Darwin described his experiences while writing Origin with an utterly chilling phrase. The biologist wrote that as he composed the book and anticipated the public’s horror, he was “living in hell.”
36. His Friends Turned on Him
Even some of Darwin’s old friends turned on him after he went public with Origin. At a debate, Darwin’s old Beagle Captain, Robert Fitzroy came running into a lecture hall while waving a Bible over his head. He ferociously denounced his old friend’s work. Sadly, Darwin understood his friend’s anger. In his own words, publishing Origin felt like “confessing to a murder”—and the victim was God himself.
37. He Had a Hilarious Nickname
On a lighter note, Darwin’s childhood nickname was, and I quote, “Gas.” Iconic.
38. He Delayed Publication
Back to Origin: Due to the sensitive subject matter of his research, Darwin was hesitant about publishing it. In fact, he waited nearly twenty long years after his voyages before he went public with his controversial theory of evolution. In later books, he wouldn’t be so timid…
39. He Was a Rebel
In 1871, Darwin published The Descent of Man. His new book’s controversial content made Origin look like a nursery rhyme. In Descent, Darwin used evidence to explicitly argue that humans are animals. Then, as though that wasn’t controversial enough, Darwin insisted that all people, no matter their race, belonged to the same species. In the discriminatory Victorian Era, this was a bold claim to make—but Darwin wouldn’t back down from his principles.
40. He Had Some Controversial Ideas
Darwin gets props for being anti-racist. However, we should probably note that, like many men of his time, regrettably, Darwin believed that sexual selection placed men above women. Welp, no one’s perfect.
41. He Had Mommy Issues
Despite Darwin’s belief that women were inherently weaker than men, he held his wife on an odd pedestal. Darwin called Emma maternal nicknames like “Mammy” and often wrote to her the way a young boy would write to his mother. At 39, Darwin sent Emma a letter that read “Oh Mammy, I do long to be with you and under your protection for then I feel safe.” Maybe losing his mother at such a young age left Darwin with some mommy issues?
42. His Faith was Shaken
All over the world, people argued about how evolution contradicted religious faith. Of course, Darwin thought about this subject a lot. While he didn’t go to church with his family, Darwin also never identified as an atheist. In his opinion, you could believe in evolution and believe in a higher power. When forced to label himself in 1879, he settled on the term “agnostic.”
43. He Passed On
By 1882, after a lifetime of bad health, Darwin’s heart began to fail. On April 12, Darwin breathed his last in his family home. He passed surrounded by his loved ones, including his dear wife Emma and his surviving children.
44. His Last Words Were Heartbreaking
Among Darwin’s last words was an assurance to Emma that he was “not the least afraid of death.” Fitting words for a man so devoted to the study of life. But even after his peaceful death, Darwin couldn’t get away from scandal.
45. Rumors Swirled
When he perished, rumors swirled that on his deathbed, the scientist had suddenly seen the light and converted back to Christianity. Was it true? Of course not. The rumors were spread by a woman named Lady Hope who generously interpreted Darwin’s remarks when she visited him. Darwin’s children vehemently denied Hope’s claims.
46. His Wife Had Doubts
Throughout their decades-long marriage, Emma was a fervent Christian. Darwin, on the other hand, proved that the Bible’s creation story wasn’t true. While they managed to set aside their profound differences in life, Emma had terrible worries that they would tear them apart in death. According to Christian doctrine, non-believers couldn’t get into heaven. In her later years, Emma probably wondered if she would see her agnostic husband in the afterlife.
47. His Burial Was Powerful
Originally, Darwin was set to be buried in his home village. However, many of his friends and colleagues felt this wasn’t a fitting send-off for such an influential figure. They roused the English public to sign a heart-rending petition for Darwin to be buried in the prestigious Westminster Abbey. A week after his death, Darwin was laid to rest alongside scientists like John Herschel and the eccentric, though brilliant, Isaac Newton. This part of Darwin’s legacy was fitting—other aspects of his afterlife were utterly chilling.
48. His Work Has a Shameful Association
One of the darker aspects of Darwin’s legacy (over which he had no control) was the eugenics movement of the 1880s. Elements of Darwin’s theories were taken out of context to provide justification for weeding out those deemed biologically unfit to reproduce. Compulsory sterilization laws targeting LGBTQ people, disabled people, and women of color were issued in the United States, while eugenics also enjoyed popularity in Canada and Australia.
The eugenics movement was only abandoned by respectable society when the Nazis took it into an even more terrifying direction than it had already gone. No doubt Darwin would have been ashamed of that connection.
49. His Legacy is Different Than You’d Expect
While “Darwinism” has become a by-word for evolution, the first five editions of On the Origin of Species only used the word “evolved” once. And here’s a bonus fact: Darwin didn’t come up with the term “survival of the fittest.” He put it in Origin after seeing it in a book by a rival scientist named Herbert Spenser. Now you know!
50. He Got the Hollywood Treatment
Despite his historical significance, only one major fiction film has been made about Darwin. Creation, released in 2009, starred real-life couple Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly as Charles and Emma Darwin. The film focuses on the publishing of On the Origin of Species as well as the tragic death of Darwin’s daughter and its impact on her parents.