Charles Darwin & ZSL London Zoo

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Ask a member of ZSL staff ‘who was the person that inspired you to work in your particular field?’, and regardless of whether their field is zoo keeping, conservation, or scientific research, you will often get one of two responses. The first is no surprise - David Attenborough; we’ve all grown up watching his documentaries, and dreamed of travelling the world. But there’s one other name that frequently crops up, and is perhaps a little more surprising because this individual died more than 100 years ago; Charles Darwin.

Charles Darwin as a young man
Charles Darwin as a young man - Ipswich portraits / by T.H. Maguire.

To honour the man who has influenced so many of us at ZSL and celebrate his birthday on 12 February (1809) we're highlight the close relationship that Darwin had with the society during his lifetime.

After returning from his five year expedition aboard the HMS Beagle, Darwin had gathered a great number of natural history specimens, and he sought out the leading naturalists of the time to offer him additional insight. One of the eminent ornithologists of the time was John Gould; an ambitious, and brilliant man, who worked here at ZSL as Curator of Birds. When Darwin gave his bird specimens to Gould to examine, it was Gould who drew attention to the ‘Galapagos finches’, and the variations in their beaks. It was these finches which formed a large basis of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and evolution; that one species could evolve in to many, to fill a variety of ecological niches. Their beaks were adapted to the type of food they ate. 

'Darwin's finches' -  The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, under the command of Captain Fitzroy, R.N., during the years 1832 to 1836 ....
'Darwin's finches' - The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, under the command of Captain Fitzroy, R.N.

Despite Darwin’s brilliant contributions to our understanding of science, he was also the first to admit that he had his weaknesses; one in particular was his spelling of scientific names. Another ornithologist, who offered Darwin some assistance with his spelling, was ZSL’s Secretary Philip Lutley Sclater (Secretary from 1859-1902). In one letter to Sclater, Darwin admits “I have a most unfortunate weakness, though I strive against it, to copy proper names incorrectly". Below is a portion of one of the original letters from Darwin to Sclater, which are housed in ZSL’s Archives.

Letter from Charles Darwin to P. L. Sclater
Letter from Charles Darwin to P. L. Sclater

Initially, before his voyage aboard the Beagle, Darwin had been elected as a Corresponding Member of ZSL (in 1831); but this was soon amended on his move to London following the voyage. In 1839 Darwin became a Fellow of ZSL, and went on be a member ZSL’s Council from 1839 until 1841, using his time at ZSL London Zoo to study the behaviour of animals and develop his theories. One notable animal from ZSL London Zoo that made a strong impression on Darwin was Jenny the orangutan

Portrait of Jenny, the first orangutan at London Zoo.
Portrait of Jenny, the first orangutan at London Zoo. Printed by W Clerk, High Holborn, in December 1837.

We hope you can understand why so many ZSL staff members are excited to work here when they realise they are quite literally following in the footsteps of one of their heroes. And just to show how happy some of them are, take a look at some of our colleagues proudly holding ZSL Library’s 1st edition of ‘On the Origin of Species’! 

ZSL staff member with origin of species
ZSL staff member with Origin of Species

If you wish to view any mentioned in this blog, or consult any of our special collections, please email to make an appointment.

Find out more about ZSL Library and archive collection and explore and discover our collections online using our online catalogue.

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