Wagner Free Institute of Science, Philadelphia

Wagner Free Institute of Science, from 'Manufacturer and Builder' (1874)

Wagner Free Institute of Science, from 'Manufacturer and Builder' (1874). Image available in the public domain.

The Wagner Free Institute of Science has its origins in the adult education movement which had started in 1821 in Great Britain with the foundation of the Edinburgh School of Arts, a similar movement developing only very slightly later in the United States. Philadelphia was a thriving commercial city by the first half of the nineteenth century; culturally some institutions, including the Library Company (1721), the University of Pennsylvania (1740) and the American Philosophical Society (1743) had been established pre-Independence. These catered for the middle, educated classes. The Franklin Institute for the Promotion of the Mechanic Arts, founded 1824, was more in the nature of a British mechanics institute. William Wagner (1796-1885), a Philadelphian of German descent, felt that there was a need to provide more educational opportunities for working people. He had become wealthy as a merchant in the lumber trade and he had a passion for natural history. In 1840 he sold his business, which provided him with sufficient capital to live the remainder of his life as a gentleman and philanthropist.

In 1843, Wagner purchased an estate to the north-west of Philadelphia and his embryo institute and museum were initially to develop there for “the free dispersion of scientific knowledge among the citizens of his native city.” In 1847 he offered a “Course of Lectures on Mineralogy, treated Chemically & Metallurgically… Illustrated by Specimens” and he later developed further courses on geology, mineralogy, and conchology. All the while, he was creating large collections. In 1855 he handed these over to trustees, teaching resources which by this stage also included “a library, philosophical apparatus, extensive assortments of diagrams illustrating geological phenomena, maps and cabinet cases.”

From 1859 to 1865, a fine purpose-built institute was constructed in neo-classical style, and it survives to this day. It originally included a library, classrooms, a lecture theatre and a large museum hall for natural history on the upper level. Following Wagner’s death in 1885, the building was somewhat remodelled and the museum was revised under the supervision of Joseph Leidy (1823-1891), professor of anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania. It is this reorganised display which is the basis of today’s museum and it is a remarkable survival: very few of today’s museum presentations can be seen to follow the organisation of a nineteenth-century display so closely. Most specimens are presented in cherry wood cases constructed in the 1880s and many retain the original handwritten curators’ labels. A particular strength is the collection of fossils from American sites, many of them collected by Wagner himself (see Earle E Spamer and Catherine A Forster A Collection of Type Fossils in the Wagner Free Institute… with a History of Paleontology at the Institute (Philadelphia 1988)). Sadly, the philosophical instrument collection, used for teaching by demonstration, is much diminished. The ground floor of the building, which includes the library and lecture theatre, has a splendid varnished-wood, Victorian quality about it. Lecture courses on scientific subjects continue to the present day, though they are now organised at a number of sites around the city as well as in the original building. The serial Transactions of the Wagner Free Institute of Science commenced publication in 1887, though it appeared irregularly.

The Wagner Free Institute survives in a somewhat run-down part of the city and is best visited by taxi.

Address: The Wagner Free Institute of Science, 1700 West Montgomery Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19121, USA
Website: http://www.wagnerfreeinstitute.org
Tel: (001) 215-763-6529

Booth Museum of Natural History, Brighton

The Booth Museum of Natural History on Dyke Road

The Booth Museum of Natural History on Dyke Road, by The Voice of Hassocks. Image available in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In many ways Edward Booth (1840-1890) fits almost too well into a stereotypical image of an eccentric Victorian naturalist. In the brief biography on the Royal Pavilion, Museums and Libraries website (link in further reading) the accompanying photo shows a distinguished man, dressed smartly in waistcoat and jacket topped off with a top hat and fine full beard – someone seemingly comfortable with the high social class he was born into. Booth’s diaries record the names of his hunting dogs, yet there is no mention of the name of his no-doubt long-suffering wife. It would be difficult for him to more epitomise the standard perception of a Victorian gentleman; what he collected was dependent primarily on his aim, and his goal in life was to shoot, stuff and display every life stage of every bird native to Britain. In his older years he began to grow increasingly erratic, to the point where he would fire his shotgun at the passing postmen. Not a fellow to be trifled with.

Edward Booth lived on Dyke Road in Brighton up until his death in 1890, and it is here that he founded his museum in 1874, though initially not for the public viewing. ‘The Booth Museum’ is in fact a bit of a misnomer; included amongst the exhibits are the collections of Alderman Griffith, Dr Herbert Langston, J Gordon Dalgliesh and Major Blackiston, all added to the museum in the years between Booth’s death and the 1930s. A name that referenced all of these would, however, be a struggle to fit on the sign. Thanks to this selection of collections the museum covers a surprisingly wide array of subjects, housing an extensive insect collection, a varied skeletal selection and a geology section, all nestled within the spacious main hall. The museum also has an emphasis on interactivity, possessing an area where you can touch and feel some of the exhibits. There and elsewhere one can explore the links between ancient items and their modern day equivalents, and there is an area aimed at engaging a younger audience.

Killer Whale skeleton

Killer Whale skeleton, by Leslie Chatfield. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

The modern acquisition of display specimens can be a tricky lawful and moral issue for museums. This means that the majority of stuffed animals hail from a rather simpler time where if you killed it before it killed you, almost anything was fair game. The inevitable outcome for these now antiquated animals is that they tend to become slightly worn and scruffy, sadly evident even the displays of the Natural History Museum in London. The animals in the Booth Museum remain in excellent condition, however, and the number, quantity and quality of the specimens is astonishing, all the more surprising considering the free entry. Some stand out in particular; the magnificent Golden Eagles near the entrance hall, the questionable curio of the toad in the stone and the eerie skeleton of a Killer Whale that stands guard over the skeleton hall.

The ‘Toad in the Hole’

The ‘Toad in the Hole’. Author's own work.

What marked Booth out as a collector and displayer of nature was his use of dioramas, the display of specimens within detailed sculpted environments that attempt to convey the world they inhabit. It is hard not to be impressed by the stacked dioramas that form the walls of museum, displaying from the smallest Robin to the noblest Golden Eagle. Almost all of these are perched within an approximation of their surroundings, finished with intricate details – the bodies of recently caught prey, verdant vegetation and fake bird poo. Arguably, these may only represent a snapshot of what the curators believed the birds’ habitats were like. However, they certainly serve to contextualise the birds, creating a plausible impression of life rather than simply being presented in a stark, bare environment, stripped of meaning.

It is important in the modern study of the history of science to remember that specimens in museums do not simply materialise themselves, named and annotated. Walking through the main hall of Booth’s museum, overlooked by the multitude of dioramas that line the walls, I can’t help but feel that Booth was just as fascinating a specimen as those that he collected. Placed amongst the specimens of the museum are some of the artefacts of Booth himself, including an assortment of the guns he used on his specimen hunts. Where Booth sought context in his displays, in this museum you can feel a sense of the zeitgeist, and the social world Booth inhabited. There is a section in centre of the museum that recreates the sense of a typical room in the Booth household, resplendent in aged oak furniture, a leopard skin by the fire and gloriously faded red leather backed chairs.

Diorama - Robins in an artificial ‘natural’ environment

Diorama - Robins in an artificial ‘natural’ environment. Author's own work.

The Booth Museum is funded by the Brighton Council, and thus is free to enter (though to leave a donation would no doubt be appreciated). The museum is a 20 minute walk away from Brighton and Hove station, or you can hop on one of the many buses that head in that direction. If you are in Brighton for any reason – and there are plenty of reasons to be there – then a visit for anyone with an interest in history and nature, or the simply curious and inquisitive, is very worthwhile.

Further information



Samuel J. M. M. Alberti (ed.), The Afterlives of Animals: A Museum Menagerie (University of Virginia Press, 2011)

The Enlightenment Gallery, British Museum, London

The Enlightenment Gallery, British Museum

The Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum in London (founded in 1753), represents an eighteenth-century cabinet of curiosity. It is home to a large collection of curious objects, thanks to the Museum’s founder, Sir Hans Sloane (an Irish physician, natural philosopher and collector), whose bust stands proudly just inside one of the entrances of the Gallery. By the time of his death, he had collected 71,000 objects that were donated to the State and left for the public to enjoy, many of which can be found in The King’s Library.

As you walk through the permanent exhibition in the oldest room of the Museum, The King’s Library (constructed during 1823-1827, and formed by King George III), it is possible to imagine British explorers returning from far off lands with curious treasures to stimulate and titillate scientific minds. The time period it reflects is the Age of Reason (also known as the Enlightenment), a period of learning around 1680 to 1820, within which intellectuals sought to promote reason and advance knowledge in society. Philosophers such as Isaac Newton, Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin were just a few of the big proponents of this cultural movement. This room demonstrates how British and European collectors, antiquaries and explorers, attempted to make sense of and classify their world at this time, using objects rather than texts. This was an important change in the way scholars investigated the natural world. The reliability of the written word was questioned during this period and so the study of objects and the collection and classification of specimens, along with the use of experimentation in science, became paramount to obtaining the truth about nature.

The British Museum, Room 1 - The King's Library

The British Museum, Room 1 - The King's Library, by Mujtaba Chohan. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

The Enlightenment Gallery boasts a variety of weird and wonderful objects to be admired, from natural to artificial rarities, from the beautiful to the bizarre. Several pointed flint hand axes, a wooden shoe, birds of paradise, fish skin gauntlets and the skull and crown of the Deal warrior, are just a few of the items that can be found amongst the thousands of objects on display. The collection also includes Sir Hans Sloane’s very own specimen tray: small compartments that contain botanical remedies ranging from a ground mummy’s finger (believed to cure bruises), a rhinoceros horn (used as an antidote for poison), and even hot chocolate (believed to help stomach problems). The King’s Library also possesses around sixty-thousand royal books. The broad spectrum of objects signifies Sloane’s and other collectors growing interest with natural philosophy in the eighteenth-century, and their growing desire to visualise and present their findings in an attempt to make knowledge about the natural world.

The Gallery is presented in seven sections, depicting the different aspects of eighteenth-century disciplines: religion and ritual, trade and discovery, the birth of archaeology, art history, classification, the decipherment of ancient scripts and natural history.

Bust in the Enlightenment Gallery, British Museum

Bust in the Enlightenment Gallery, British Museum, by Barbara Rich. Image licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 license.

The beautiful archaic setting and architecture of the room creates a sense of time-travel: The King’s Library provides a dramatic contrast to the modern feel of the rest of the building, with its rich oak and mahogany floors and classical architectural features. Unlike modern museums there are no small, neat, tidy descriptions provided next to the objects in question, this adds to the charm and mystery of the Enlightenment Gallery. You can let your curiosity and imagination create explanations behind these wonders, which at a glance, appear to have no rhyme or reason; try to experience how collectors would have viewed objects that they had never observed before, and attempt to classify them.

Here, within the British Museum, it is possible to catch a small glimpse of the eighteenth-century scientific process of making knowledge; which involved observation and classification, elements of society that are arguably often taken for granted today. As a historian, I am wary to say that it is an absolute replica of a cabinet of curiosity, as this would be a hard challenge to achieve. However, to explore the objects that eighteenth-century contemporaries deemed worthy of study, and the way the Gallery deviates from modern expectations of a museum, creates the nearest possible experience to a cabinet of curiosity (the only other option is to create your own time machine!). As a result the Gallery has managed to capture a sense of mystery, imagination, knowledge and charm in a compact yet extra-ordinary room. Highly recommended.

Further information

Kim Sloan (ed.), Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century (British Museum, 2004)


Natural History Museum, London

Natural History Museum, London.

Natural History Museum, London by Alistair Knock. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

The Natural History Museum and the Geological Museum used to be separate entities but are now combined. The main building is a fantastic architectural structure, well worth viewing for its own sake. The principal exhibits in the Natural History Museum include dinosaurs and their living relatives, man’s place in evolution, human biology, and living and fossil mammals. The museum has recently undergone a major administrative reorganization and now leans toward “trendy” presentations, ostensibly to lure an otherwise uninterested public.

The formerly separate Geological Museum has a good exhibit called Story of the Earth, but without names of people or any reference to the titanic struggles that often took place to establish individual chapters of the story. This is a pity because many of the controversies make fascinating stories. The exhibit does, however, accurately present the current views on the origin of sun, earth, and moon, describes the inner core of the earth, the surrounding mantle and the outer crust; it has up-to-date accounts of very modern topics, such as reversal of magnetic field and plate tectonics.

A fascinating organization in the museum’s “back rooms” is the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, the body responsible for keeping track of the scientific names of all species of the animal kingdom (fossils as well as alive) and for assigning names to new species – 15,000 new species names are added to the zoological literature each year! The commission’s quarters are not open to the public, but visitors with any legitimate interest are warmly received. (The “back rooms” of the museum have recently been subjected to controversial administrative changes with the objective of diminishing scholarly activities. The future is somewhat uncertain.)

A statue commemorating Richard Owen, founder of the museum but also resolute opponent of Darwinism, stands impressively on the staircase.

Geological Society of London

Geological Society of London

Geological Society of London by Matt From London. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

The creation of this society in 1807 was controversial, perceived by many as unwarranted intrusion on traditional turf of the Royal Society. It has an intriguing meeting room with opposing benches, as in the House of Commons, rather than the standard auditorium structure – quite appropriate in view of the many huge professional arguments that have taken place here. There is a bust of Charles Lyell in the library and pictures of other famous geologists hang on the walls. One painting on the staircase is a depiction of some of the principal figures in the Piltdown case in the process of examining the famous skull. This building is not open to the general public, but anyone with even a remote professional interest can walk in and at least see the library.

Website: http://www.geolsoc.org.uk

Following in the footsteps of James Smithson

This article was originally published on “O Say Can You See?”, the blog of the National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian Institution, and has been reproduced here with the generous permission of the author, Steven Turner.

Somewhat late in the summer of 1784, James Smithson embarked on his first scientific expedition. This “expedition” might have seemed a bit odd to a modern viewer—as it consisted of four gentlemen, with their servants, driving north from London in carriages—but in the 18th century science was often a gentleman’s pursuit and this was how gentlemen traveled.

Their goal was to explore the remote island of Staffa, off the Northwest coast of Scotland. Staffa had recently been visited by Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society in London, and his description of the island’s distinctive basalt columns and remarkable marine caves had captured both the popular and scientific imaginations of the time. In the 19th century Staffa would become a major tourist destination, but in 1784 Smithson’s party would have been one of the first scientific groups – and certainly the first mineralogists – to attempt the rigorous overland journey to see it.

The island of Staffa

The island of Staffa. In Smithson's time there was great disagreement about how an island like this could have been formed. Staffa has also inspired a range of artistic works over the years.

Smithson would later become famous for leaving his fortune to found the Smithsonian Institution in the United States. But at this time he was only 19 years old and fresh from his studies at Oxford. The driving force behind the expedition was Barthelemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, a French geologist and mineralogist who planned to use the trip as field-work for a book on Scottish volcanoes. Smithson only learned about the expedition at the last minute from one of his professors, who urged him to join and provided letters of introduction. Smithson dropped everything and rushed to London, arriving just a few days before it departed.

Smithson's group's route to Staffa

The route Smithson’s group took to Staffa. Today's highways take essentially the same path.

The events he witnessed, the places he visited and the ideas he encountered propelled Smithson’s early scientific career and influenced much of his later scientific work. As a Smithsonian curator researching the science of James Smithson, I’ve spent much of the last year trying to unravel the story of what Smithson saw on this trip and what it would have meant to him. So much of the story is connected to the specific geology of Scotland and to Enlightenment-era Edinburgh that I came to realize the importance of seeing these places in person. And when I mentioned this idea to my intrepid volunteers Jeff Gorman and Frank Cole, it was not long before we all found ourselves on a unique vacation: following in the footsteps of James Smithson.


Averaging less than 20 miles a day, it took the expedition several weeks to reach Edinburgh (more than 300 miles from London), and for me this was their first important destination. This is where Smithson encountered the remarkable intellectual flowering now known as the Scottish Enlightenment.

We know that Smithson carried letters of introduction and that he met and later corresponded with the famous chemist Joseph Black. Black was noted for his use of the chemical balance and at the National Museum of Scotland we were able to see some of his actual instruments. Smithson wrote about carrying a balance “of Black’s design” when he traveled in Europe.

Scottish National Museum

The Scottish National Museum's galleries about 18th century life provided a glimpse into the world Smithson explored.

Smithson arrived in Edinburgh at a very interesting time. The city was home to some of the most brilliant men in Europe and they all seem to have been close friends. Smithson was able to meet many of them and although the expedition could not linger more than a few days, he seems to have been strongly affected by the experience and returned for a second visit on his way back to London.

In particular he seems to have been impressed by James Hutton, now known as the father of geology. At the time of Smithson’s visit Hutton would have been just developing his revolutionary theories about underground heat and pressure, and we know that he was recruiting visiting scientists to send him rock samples. Hutton seems to have recruited our hero as well, as Smithson later tried to send him fossils. If Hutton spent any time with Smithson, one of the places he would have taken him was “Salisbury Crags” – an ancient lava flow that literally loomed over the back yard of his house.

The Salisbury Crags

The Salisbury Crags, near Hutton's home

This image was taken just a short distance from where Hutton lived, and it’s easy to see why his attention was drawn to this formation. In his time the hard basaltic stone at the top was being excavated for use as paving stones. As new material was exposed Hutton would study it for evidence of structures that could only have been formed by underground lava. To help us understand the unique geology of Edinburgh we arranged a geologic tour of the city, and this turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. The Edinburgh area was shaped by ancient volcanoes and in Holyrood Park, in the center of the city, we were able to see some of the same formations that Hutton would have studied—and presumably shown Smithson.

On Salisbury Crags, in Holyrood Park

On Salisbury Crags, in Holyrood Park, our geology guide Angus Miller points out what Hutton would have called an "unconformity" - a layer of sedimentary rock that has been injected with unground lava.


Edinburgh was the intellectual center of 18th century Scotland, but the expedition encountered a different side of the Enlightenment at the next place it lingered – Inveraray Castle. This was, and still is, the home of the Duke of Argyll, and Smithson’s group reached it only after a long, difficult journey up the west side of Loch Lomand and then overland to Loch Fyne. A modern highway now follows this same route and as we drove we were able to enjoy the rugged beauty of mountains and lochs. But we could imagine the challenge of getting carriages over muddy mountain roads and of finding food and lodging in the rain and dark. We could also imagine the joy of Smithson’s group when they finally reached the Castle.

Inveraray Castle

With large windows and a decorative moat, this castle was never intended for military use, but served as an example of enlightened ideals and manners for this part of Scotland.

Located on the shore of Loch Fyne and situated at the base of a low mountain, the Castle remains today much as Smithson would have seen it. Much more a home than a fortress, the Castle was just being finished when they arrived. The Duke and Duchess were famous for their hospitality and refinement, and Faujas later reported that French was spoken at dinner and that French wines, tableware and manners were at all times employed.

The Duke of Argyll, his family, and guests outside Inveraray Castle

Continuing the tradition of hospitality that Smithson experienced, the Duke of Argyll graciously welcomed us to his home.

For me, Inveraray Castle presents the romantic side of the Enlightenment. The artwork and tapestries, the elaborate gardens and hothouses, even the design of the Castle itself all express something of the idealization of nature and reason that characterized Smithson’s time. And there is also an underlying belief in progress and human improvement, which is an interesting connection to Smithson’s later founding of the Smithsonian.

Sculpture of Perseus and Andromeda by the Flemish sculptor Michael Van Der Voort, 1713.

Sculpture of Perseus and Andromeda by the Flemish sculptor Michael Van Der Voort, 1713.

Smithson almost certainly saw this work and one wonders how he would have understood it. Did he see, as many in his time would have, a metaphor of nature and the power of reason?

The expedition could only linger three days at Inveraray, although the Duke urged them to stay longer. They must have looked back fondly to this time during the subsequent days, because they now began the most difficult part of their journey.


The expedition now headed northwest to the fishing village of Oban, from which they would sail to the island of Mull and, from there, to Staffa. The road was the worst they had yet encountered and they were exhausted by the time they reached Oban.

Our own drive to Oban was much more pleasant and took only a few hours. We arrived in time to visit the local historical society and learn a bit about its’ history. Oban would have been a small fishing village when Smithson saw it, with a population of only about 600. It began to grow in the 1790s – partly due to interest in Staffa – and today is a pleasant community of about 8,500.

The launching point on Mull to Staffa

The launching point on Mull to Staffa

Today it’s an easy ferry ride from Oban to Mull, although for Smithson the 33 mile trip could have been daunting – it was the beginning of the stormy season. Once on Mull, Smithson’s group crossed to the west side of the island and the embarkation point for Staffa. They stayed at Torloisk, an estate the Duke had recommended, and from which (on a clear day) they could see Staffa. It took several days before the seas were calm enough to attempt to reach Staffa and even then Smithson reported a harrowing trip. He spent the night on the island, returning the next day with a cache of mineral samples and a genuine sense of accomplishment.

Our own expedition to Staffa was less successful. Modern tour boats leave Mull from the same spot that Smithson used, but on the days we were there the seas were too rough to venture out. The seas around Staffa are notoriously unpredictable—Smithson had to wait almost a week for good weather—but having gotten so close made me determined to come back and try again during another trip.


The Museum of Lead Mining in Wanlockhead

The Museum of Lead Mining in Wanlockhead. The mine Smithson visited is now closed, but this one is in the same area and dates from the same period.

At the museum in Wanlockhead we were able go a short way into one of the original lead mines, which was an interesting experience. I was intrigued to learn that this area had both lead and zinc mines. Smithson wrote about the chemistry of both minerals and the zinc ore Smithsonite is named after him. Did his interest in these ores begin during this visit?


Smithson’s last stop before returning to London was to visit a salt mine in the Northwich area, southwest of Manchester. The underground salt deposits in Northwich have been worked since Roman times and the extraction of salt has led to a series of subsidences (or “fells”) throughout the area. Many of the lakes in Northwich are actually old salt mines that collapsed after the salt was removed.

The Trent and Mersey Canal

The Trent and Mersey Canal. Finished in 1777, the canal was one of the first in England.

This was also our last stop, although the mine Smithson visited no longer exists. Instead we visited the Lion Salt Works in Marston which is one of the few remaining 19th century salt mines. It closed in the 1970s and is now in the process of being restored as an industrial museum. It used a “brine” method of extraction, which is different than the mine Smithson visited, but the site is adjacent to the Trent and Mersey Canal, which was completed just a few years before Smithson’s visit. The canal was built to facilitate shipping salt and, like so much of what Smithson saw on his trip, was what we now think of as the beginning of the British industrial revolution.


Smithson returned to London just over three months after he had left. His newfound reputation as an explorer opened doors for him, as did the large cache of mineral samples he brought back. Just 3 years later, in 1787, he was elected to the prestigious Royal Society, becoming its’ youngest member. Smithson’s scientific career had started.

Washington DC

Historians are more commonly found in libraries and archives than on road-trips, and I must admit to being a bit uncertain about how useful this trip would actually be. But having seen the places Smithson visited and having, in some ways, shared his experiences has proved immensely helpful as I try to piece his story together. In particular, the depth of his interest in geology has been a revelation and my research since returning has been largely devoted to exploring that topic.

Steven Turner is a curator in the Division of Medicine and Science. He’d like to express his appreciation for his “support group” on this trip: Jeff Gorman, Ginni Gorman, Frank Cole and Mary Lou Cole; with a special thanks to Frank, who took on the daunting task of planning this trip and without whom it certainly wouldn’t have happened.

Charles Darwin in Cambridge, England

Darwin's Room, Christ's College, University of Cambridge

Darwin’s Room, Christ’s College, University of Cambridge

It was probably not too difficult to come across something having to do with Charles Darwin when visiting Cambridge, England before 2009. Following that year’s celebrations (of Darwin’s birth in 1809 and publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859), I can imagine it is guaranteed Darwin will cross your path. I visited Cambridge in the summer of 2009 to attend a conference about, well, Darwin. I spent two days beyond the conference exploring the town and visiting sites related to Darwin with Richard Carter, whom we can thank for Darwin’s portrait gracing the ten pound note.

It was at Cambridge that Darwin took up a increased interest in natural history, and thanks to his cousin William Darwin Fox, also at Christ’s College, a fondness for beetles. Darwin would later reminisce on several occasions about his beetle collecting adventures. For example, in his Autobiography:

“I am surprised what an indelible impression many of the beetles which I caught at Cambridge have left on my mind. I can remember the exact appearance of certain posts, old trees and banks where I made a good capture. The pretty Panagaus crux-major was a treasure in those days”
p. 63.

Christ's College, University of Cambridge

Christ’s College, University of Cambridge

Cambridge is also where he met two of his mentors, botanist John Stevens Henslow (who recommended Darwin for naturalist on HMS Beagle) and geologist Adam Sedgwick, who would both take issue with his transmutation theory years later. His older brother Erasmus was also at Cambridge, and Darwin sent three of his sons there as well. Some of the museums in Cambridge now hold specimens Darwin collected around the world. The Cambridge University Library holds many of his documents, including letters, and Cambridge University Press has published much about Darwin, including the correspondence series.

Darwin’s life in Cambridge began in January 1828, and since he started at Christ’s College, University of Cambridge, well into the academic year, he had to find lodging away from the college. Luckily for him, he found one just a minute’s walk from the college. Darwin stayed in a room above a tobacconist on Sidney Street, which is now marked with a plaque outside a Boots pharmacy store:

Site of Darwin Lodgings (1828), Cambridge

Site of Darwin Lodgings (1828), Boots the Chemist, Cambridge, England

Darwin’s college rooms at Christ’s, which he took up in October 1828, have been restored by historian of science John van Wyhe (director of The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online). According to van Wyhe:

“[c]learly a wide variety of activities took place in Darwin’s rooms. He read for his College curriculum, wrote letters, compared his captured beetles with published descriptions in his copy of Stephens Systematic catalogue of British insects and carefully pinned the beetles to cork boards. He had friends to coffee, and in the evenings they sometimes dined there and would then drink wine and play cards”
p. 6

Darwin Stained Glass, College Hall, Christ's College, University of Cambridge

Darwin Stained Glass, College Hall, Christ’s College, University of Cambridge

While the Tutor of the College thought Darwin was practicing with a horse-whip in his rooms, he was in fact blowing out a candle with the puff of air from a still-capped shotgun. That shooting practice surely went toward Darwin’s collecting practices in the field.

There is an old Cambridge rumor that Darwin’s Christ’s College rooms were once those of theologian William Paley, whose Natural Theology Darwin read while at Cambridge. In the College Hall, a stained-glass portrait of Darwin rests next to that of Paley.

In December 1831, Darwin left England aboard HMS Beagle, and returned in October 1836. Darwin went back to Cambridge in December following a visit home to Shrewsbury. He took lodgings at 22 Fitzwilliam Street, and here Darwin organized his specimen collection from the voyage. Only a few months passed before Darwin decided he needed to move to London, to enter into the scientific community and farm out his specimens to zoologists, botanists, and geologists of repute. Janet Browne described this lodging as Darwin’s “temporary centre for a storm of industry” (p. 346). Today, the Fitzwilliam lodging is marked by a stone plaque.

While Cambridge took little of Darwin’s more than seventy years of life, this place had profound influence on the creation of a young naturalist. Today, the city marks with plaques, sculpture, and exhibits one of its most famous students, who deemed his three years at Cambridge, as he wrote in his Autobiography, “the most joyful in my happy life; for I was then in excellent health, and almost always in high spirits” (p. 68).

Young Darwin Statue by Anthony Smith, Christ's College, University of Cambridge

Young Darwin Statue by Anthony Smith, Christ’s College, University of Cambridge

All photos by Michael D. Barton, July 2009.
» View more Cambridge photos by Michael Barton.

More images

Further reading

Barlow, Nora, ed., The autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882. With the original omissions restored. Edited and with appendix and notes by his grand-daughter Nora Barlow, London: Collins.

Browne, Janet, Charles Darwin: Voyaging: A Biography, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. Specifically, chapters 4-6 and 15.

John van Wyhe, “Charles Darwin’s Cambridge Life 1828-1831,” Journal of Cambridge Studies 4 (2009), 2-13. [PDF, based on book listed below]

John van Wyhe, Darwin in Cambridge, Cambridge: Christ’s College, 2009.

Further information

Darwin’s college rooms

Darwin at Christ’s College (1, 2)

Darwin & Christ’s College

Replica of Darwin bust by William Couper (info on original)

Replica of portrait by Walter Ouless in the College Hall

Stained glass portrait in the College Hall

“Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts” at the Fitzwilliam

“Darwin the Geologist” at The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences

“Beetles, Finches and Barnacles: the Zoological Collections of Charles Darwin” at the Zoology Museum

Darwin’s microscopes at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science

Cambridge University Botanic Garden, frequented by Darwin and holding some of his specimens

Darwin Papers at the Cambridge University Library

“A voyage round the world,” 2009 exhibit at CUL

Darwin Correspondence Project (offices at CUL)

Darwin books from Cambridge University Press

Bust of Darwin at Darwin College

Insect souvenirs in Provence, France

Jardin de l'Harmas de Fabre à Sérignan

Jardin de l'Harmas de Fabre à Sérignan, by Yodie. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

In the heat of the Provençal summer, the countryside whirs and buzzes with the sounds of uncountable insects. Bees cruise around the lavender, and cicadas chirrup in the dry grass.

Just over one hundred years ago, a skinny, bearded man in a big hat, together with his several children, trailed after these insects all around his garden. This man was Jean-Henri Fabre (1823-1915), a phenomenally popular and prolific author of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Fabre studied and taught many areas of science, but it was his colourful accounts of insects – the Souvenirs Entomologiques (1879-1907) – that won him fans in many countries and languages.

Fabre enjoyed the bizarre and outrageous aspects of insect life. His description of the praying mantis related with breathless faux-horror the fate of mantis ‘husbands’ after their ‘nuptials’. Strictly in the interests of science, Fabre introduced male after male to his female, to see when she might be satisfied.

The result of my inquiry was scandalous. The Mantis in only too many cases is never sated with embraces and conjugal feasts … in the course of two weeks I have seen the same Mantis treat seven husbands in this fashion. She admitted all to her embraces, and all paid for the nuptial ecstasy with their lives … insects can hardly be accused of sentimentality; but to devour [the husband] during the act surpasses anything that the most morbid mind could imagine. I have seen the thing with my own eyes, and I have not yet recovered from the surprise.

It was the instincts of insects that most fascinated Fabre. How did these tiny creatures ‘know’ how to act so perfectly, without either brain-power or teaching? In one classic series of observations and experiments, he showed how the female bee-hunter Philanthus apivorus ‘knew’ how to sting her prey at a specific location so that it would not be paralysed. Thus, she was able to empty its stomach of honey, which she ‘knew’ was poisonous to her offspring, before leaving it in the hatching-cell for her young to eat.

Jean Henri Fabre, as photographed by Nadar aka Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (1820–1910).

Jean Henri Fabre, as photographed by Nadar aka Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (1820–1910), uploaded by AIMare. Image available in Public Domain.

Fabre’s reputation suffered at the hands of academic entomologists after his death. His resistance to the evolution of instinct was often highlighted, and he was written off as a theistic bigot despite the fact that he was not a believer in any formal sense. Fabre’s observations were patronisingly lauded for their patience even as they were put down as suitable only for children. In fact, Fabre’s treatment of insects as primarily creatures of instinct continued to drive the research agenda of entomology for a long while. But like so many other amateur entomologists, Fabre was dismissed as ‘eccentric’.

Many aspects of Fabre’s life and work actually come out as remarkably admirable by contemporary standards. He was firmly committed to education, and girls’ education in particular; he respected children’s participation in science; he had a strong affinity for nature; a respect for the living world and a humility about the place of Homo sapiens within it. In anachronistic terms, we might say he managed to achieve a genuine public scientific dialogue.

Fabre’s loving attention to insects was and is contagious. Most recently, the film Microcosmos (1996) was a humorous but fond homage to his art and science. There are two places to follow in Fabre’s footsteps in Aveyron: the edutainment centre Micropolis, and the Harmas de Fabre, his final home and all-important garden.

Further information

Charlotte Sleigh, Six Legs Better: A Cultural History of Entomology (Johns Hopkins, 2007)

Micropolis (12780 Saint Léons) http://www.micropolis-insectworld.com/micropolis_uk/index_uk.html

Musée Harmas Jean-Henri Fabre (84830 Sérignan-du-Comtat) http://www.museum-paca.org/harmas-collections.htm

Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, London, England

Iguanodon sculptures by mugley. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

You don’t have to venture far out of central London to find your own Jurassic Park. In fact, the Victorians were over 100 years ahead of Hollywood. Today, in Crystal Palace Park you can come face-to-face with a nineteenth-century vision of the dinosaurs. On top of a small mound, complete with prehistoric foliage, sit two life-size Iguanodon, whilst in the murky depths of the lake you’ll need to be on the lookout for a family of Ichthyosaurus.

These sculptures are a lasting monument to the exhibitions of the Victorian and Edwardian era. Although small exhibitions existed before, it was the Great Exhibition of 1851 which really set the trend. Located in Hyde Park in London, this mammoth event attracted over six million visitors and included exhibits from both Britain and the Empire. Inside the gargantuan steel and glass structure, visitors could see the world’s biggest diamond, the Koh-i-Noor, before heading off to learn about the mechanics of industry. (The Victorian public with an apparent interest in steam engines found only today amongst railway anoraks).

Ichthyosaurus by red hand records. Image licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 license.

In 1854, the Great Exhibition, then run by a commercial company, was looking to go one better. The newly revamped spectacle was relocated to Sydenham in south London to the grounds of what is now Crystal Palace Park.

As part of a meandering complex of outdoor exhibits, the Crystal Palace Company commissioned sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins to build a set of life-size models of various extinct animals, including the dinosaurs. Hawkins was paired with comparative anatomist Richard Owen (the man who coined the term “dinosaur”, meaning “terrible lizard”). Today, you can see the fruits of their discussions and disagreements.

One particularly famous inaccuracy is the Iguanodon’s horn. Hawkins’ sculpture is of an animal with a large horn standing on all-fours, much like a reptilian rhinoceros. Today, we know that the horn was in fact a thumb spike and that the Iguanodon was much less chunky. However, not all inaccuracies were down to a lack of knowledge. In some cases Hawkins indulged in a bit of artistic licence. (And why not? The results are certainly a sight to behold). For instance, he added a great hump to the Megalosaurus, one that Owen and other natural historians disputed. In fact, at the time, the Curator of Natural History Specimens at the British Museum went as far as to describe the sculptures as “gross delusions” appealing to the “curiosity of the less informed”.

Perhaps to dampen some of the academic criticism, the Crystal Palace Company organised a stunt most PR companies would be envious of even today. On New Year’s Eve 1853, a group of prominent natural historians were invited to enjoy fine dining inside one of the Iguanodon sculptures. The only way to really do justice to this is to turn to the London Illustrated News with its iconic depiction of William Buckland and Richard Owen crammed in the back of an Iguanodon. You just can’t make this stuff up.

Dining in the Dinosaurs

Dining in the Iguanodon by The London Illustrated News. Image in the Public Domain.

When you visit the dinosaurs today, you might not be able to eat your packed lunch inside an Iguanodon, but do take the time to consider their strange place in the history of science. On the one hand the product of a commercial venture (think a nineteenth-century version of Thorpe Park), yet on the other hand a serious educational tool (hence the academic criticism). All this is encapsulated in that concept which parents fear the most: the gift shop. Yes, in 1854, you could buy your very own miniature Megalosaurus. Maybe to learn from, but more likely to run around the kitchen screeching “ROAR!”


Campus Arboretum, Exeter, England

View from Devonshire House over Streatham Farm, Streatham Campus, University of Exeter

View from Devonshire House over Streatham Farm, Streatham Campus, University of Exeter, by Pierre Terre. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

The University of Exeter Streatham Campus can boast to be one of the most beautiful of the country, set as it is within an arboretum, ponds and gardens. Twenty five sculptures are situated in this unique background, both in the open and in university buildings. They include sculptures by Barbara Hepworth and Paul Mount, amongst other well-known and lesser known artists and students. It is possible to take a self-guided walk through the campus and the sculpture trail.

The arboretum has its origins in the 1860s, when the grounds surrounding Reed (then called Streatham) Hall was laid out by the Veicht family, famous for running plant nurseries in Europe in the 19th century. Their business was split between two places, Chelsea and Exeter, which became the main bases for this family of plant hunters, collectors and nurserymen. They employed plant hunters such as Lobb brothers and E.H. Wilson to collect and plant an ambitious arboretum on the Streatham estate.

Autumn colour, Streatham Campus

Autumn colour, Streatham Campus, by Derek Harper. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

The University of Exeter traces its origins to schools and colleges established in the middle of the 19th century, but it is only in 1955 that it was officially founded. Gradually, through a period of fifty years, the University transferred its city centre sites to the Streatham campus, which had remained until then a farm and an estate.

The 1960’s and 1970’s saw a major re-landscaping of the main campus, but always with the aim of maintaining the diversity and exotic plants which had initially been brought in by the Veichtes. In the 1980s and 1990s, the botanical collection was extended.

Today, a great effort is made in terms of biodiversity throughout the campus grounds. Birds and bat boxes are being installed, and a ‘bioblitz’, or quick census of species, was conducted in 2010 by staff and students in the area between the Laver Building and the Business School.

Tiananmen Square Sculpture, University of Exeter

Tiananmen Square Sculpture, University of Exeter, by Pierre Terre. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. A striking sculpture commemorating the events of June 1989, erected overnight by anonymous students. Now part of a sculpture trail including works by Hepworth, Moore and others.

Species such as a kingfisher, a snipe and bumblebees were spotted, an indication of the potential rich biodiversity of the campus, and an incitement to further develop plans to enhance and protect this natural and man-made environment. In order to do so, staff working on the grounds and gardens cater for wildlife by leaving log piles, creating wild flower meadows and leaving areas of grass uncut to allow animals to move around safely.


The University grounds are open to staff, students and visitors all year around and can be visited freely. Fixed date seasonal tours are available, which last an hour and a half. If the dates are not suitable, bespoke tours can also be arranged for a minimum of 10 guests. To find out more and to make a booking please consult www.exeter.ac.uk/eventexeter/garden-tours.php, email eventsteam@exeter.ac.uk or phone 01392 215566.

Virtual tours are also available online and leaflets on request.