Darwin could have been University of Aberdeen Rector

One of science’s greatest figures who shaped our understanding of how life evolved, could have been a Rector at the University of Aberdeen, it has been revealed.

Charles Darwin was offered the prestigious position, which would have seen him represent and support the University’s students, in 1872.


The eminent scientist declined the post in a letter sent to the University citing the “status of my health” as the reason he could not take on the role.


Scientist and philosopher Thomas Huxley, who was a friend of Darwin’s and a strong supporter of his theory of evolution, accepted the position after Darwin declined.


The little known Aberdeen connection has come to the fore as the University launches a series of events to commemorate Darwin’s life and work, beginning with celebrations to mark his 200th birthday on Thursday (12 February).


Dr Stuart Piertney, Senior Lecturer in Evolutionary Biology at the University of Aberdeen said: “Darwin was invited to take on the post of Rector by John Smith Craig, an undergraduate student studying medicine in 1872 – the same year the sixth edition of his most significant work The Origin of Species was published.  


“Darwin replied by letter to say that whilst he was very honoured to be asked, his ill health would make it impossible for him to accept.  Dr Craig’s daughter Anne donated the letter to the University in 1957 and it is now held in the institution’s Special Libraries and Archives collections.


“At this time, Darwin was still extremely active as a scientist and author, and in that year had just published his book the “Expression of the Emotions of Man and Animals”. It was, along with his 1871 book "The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex", part of Darwin's attempt to address questions of human origins and human psychology using his theory of evolution by natural selection.  All that said the health problems that had plagued Darwin for much of his adult life meant he was finding it harder and harder to spend more than a limited time away from his family home in Kent.”


The University’s celebration of Darwin’s life begins on Wednesday (11 February) when author and poet Kelley Swain will be reading from her book Darwin's Microscope inspired by the scientist’s travels, at the Union Bridge branch of Waterstone’s Bookshop, Aberdeen.


Admission is free to the event, which is the second in the University’s new Cafe Scientifique series, which aims to engage the public with the latest topics in science and technology. 


On Thursday Kelley Swain will read a selection of her poems to Primary 7 pupils from Kittybrewster, Riverbank and Woodside schools in Aberdeen as they hop on board the Reading Bus which will be parked outside the University’s Zoology building. 


The children will be asked to produce their own creative writing, taking inspiration from the range of real life specimens and samples within the institution’s Natural History Centre including platypus, turtle skulls and shells.


The pupils will also examine up close a species of animal which was key to Darwin’s work – the pigeon. 


The children will have the chance to handle live species of bird – that was bred by Darwin as part of his study into his theory of evolution by natural selection – under the watchful eye of Ian McKay, President of the Aberdeen Federation of Racing Pigeon Societies.


The pupils will also toast Darwin’s birthday with specially made birthday cake prepared in honour of the occasion.


On Thursday evening the commemoration day will continue with a public lecture by Dr Lyall Anderson from Cambridge University’s Department of Earth Sciences, and formerly of the University of Aberdeen’s Geology department. 


In his lecture I, a Geologist, Dr Anderson will provide an insight into his current work on rock samples collected by Darwin himself during his famous voyage on the survey ship HMS Beagle in 1831.


Dr Anderson’s lecture will take place in the Meston Building Lecture Theatre 1, on the University’s King's Campus beginning at 6.30pm.  Birthday cake and beverages will be on offer before the lecture from 6pm.


Admission to the lecture is free and pre-registration is not required.


The events to mark Darwin's birthday begin a series of public and schools activities inspired by Darwin's work and coinciding with the National celebration DARWIN200.


Dr Ken Skeldon of University's Public Engagement with Science Unit said: "Darwin's natural curiosity in the world around him makes for a great story. His own explorations combined with his enthusiasm to report and popularise his findings, made him not only a great scientist, but one of the great communicators of science.  


"Our programme of events continues throughout 2009 culminating on November 24 which marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's seminal work On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection."


For more information about the Darwin events visit http://www.abdn.ac.uk/darwin/ or contact Dr Ken Skeldon on 01224 272410 or by email k.skeldon@abdn.ac.uk .