Darwin in Cambridge (and Richard Dawkins too!)

May 14, 2009 • 1:04 pm

by Greg Mayer

John van Wyhe, of Christ’s College, Cambridge, director of the absolutely fabulous website The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online (which I have had occasion to notice previously), has recently published a terrific short book entitled Darwin in Cambridge (Christ’s College, Cambridge).  Darwin in Cambridge, by John van Wyhe It’s not available yet on Amazon UK or Amazon, but you can order it direct from Christ’s. It provides a wealth of detail on Darwin’s life and studies in Cambridge, and is especially useful to someone (like me) less familiar with the organization of English universities. It is also beautifully illustrated, and my one complaint would be that the small octavo size does not do full justice to some of the illustrations.

Included in the book are several photographs of university and college ledgers which record Darwin’s various activities at Cambridge (see John’s analysis of Darwin’s student bills here, which have been widely misinterpreted by the media to say that Darwin spent more on shoes than books!). What struck me immediately was the figure on page 22, showing part of the ‘Books of subscriptions for degrees’ recording Darwin’s formal matriculation on February 20, 1828. It wasn’t just that the name of Adam Sedgwick, Darwin’s geological mentor, appears in the registry as having presided over the ceremony.  It was the name of the student who signed the book just below Darwin: Richard Dawkins!

Five students from Christ’s College have signed the register, Darwin being the last, having signed “Charles Robert Darwin”.  Below the Christ’s students, two students from Catharine Hall (now St. Catharine’s College) have signed the register, and immediately below Darwin’s signature appears the signature of the second Catharine’s student, “Richard Dawkins”.

The 20th and 21st centuries’ Richard Dawkins is, of course, an Oxonian; I don’t know if he’s any relation to the 19th century Cantabrigian who, for at least a little while on the afternoon of 20 February 1828, stood next to Charles Darwin.