After decades of mysterious ailments, and a short, final illness, Charles Darwin died at 4 o’clock in the afternoon on Wednesday 19th April 1882, at Down House, Downe, in Kent. His devoted wife, Emma, and some of their grown-up children were with him at the end. He was 73 years old.
Darwin’s life must surely be the most well-documented of any scientist, thanks to his notebooks, Beagle diary, and phenomenally copious correspondence. But the shortest, saddest entry in his life’s unofficial journal was recorded by Emma:
(The final, ultimately fatal, heart attack occurred the day before Darwin’s death, which explains the apparently erroneous dating of Emma’s diary entry.)
It is not for us to allude to the sacred sorrows of the bereaved home at Down; but it is no secret that, outside that domestic group, there are many to whom Mr. Darwin’s death is a wholly irreparable loss. And this not merely because of his wonderfully genial, simple, and generous nature; his cheerful and animated conversation, and the infinite variety and accuracy of his information; but because the more one knew of him, the more he seemed the incorporated ideal of a man of science. Acute as were his reasoning powers, vast as was his knowledge, marvellous as was his tenacious industry, under physical difficulties which would have converted nine men out of ten into aimless invalids; it was not these qualities, great as they were, which impressed those who were admitted to his intimacy with involuntary veneration, but a certain intense and almost passionate honesty by which all his thoughts and actions were irradiated, as by a central fire.
Three years later, in his capacity as one of the trustees of the British Museum, the Prince of Wales was presented with a statue of Darwin to be placed in the National Museum of Natural History (nowadays known simply as the Natural History Museum). Huxley, now President of the Royal Society, and chairman of its Darwin Memorial Fund Committee, gave the formal address at the handing-over ceremony, stating:
We had lost one of these rare ministers and interpreters of Nature whose names mark epochs in the advance of natural knowledge. For, whatever be the ultimate verdict of posterity upon this or that opinion which Mr. Darwin has propounded; whatever adumbrations or anticipations of his doctrines may be found in the writings of his predecessors; the broad fact remains that, since the publication and by reason of the publication, of “The Origin of Species” the fundamental conceptions and the aims of the students of living Nature have been completely changed. From that work has sprung a great renewal, a true “instauratio magna” of the zoological and botanical sciences.
It has become fashionable these days amongst historians of science to decry (or even deny) the existence of scientific heroes: science is a collaborative effort; its practitioners do not work in isolation; their work is based on that of their predecessors and peers. Anyone who has studied Darwin knows this to be the case: he simply could not have achieved what he did without literally hundreds of predecessors, peers, friends, enemies, and correspondents.
Anyone who makes—or even attempts to make—a contribution to our understanding of the natural world is a hero in my book. They all deserve statues. But the broad fact remains, some heroes are bigger than others. It took a Charles Darwin to achieve what he did. Others, no doubt, could and would have got there, but it was Darwin who did. So why try to deny him the ultimate verdict of posterity?
Huxley was right, the late Charles Darwin was the incorporated ideal of a man of science. A hero in anyone’s book.