05 February 2009
Karen Foy takes a look at the fascinating life and work of Charles Darwin confirming why his achievements have been recalled on such an array of stamps, first day covers and other philatelic souvenirs ...
Karen Foy takes a look at Charles Darwin stamps
From medicine to natural history
Darwin planned to follow his father into medicine so he enrolled at Edinburgh University. From an early age, he enjoyed nothing more than studying wildlife, jotting down his observations in detailed notebooks and developing his love of natural history. It was this passion that put a stop to his medical career as he realised his heart lay elsewhere.
When Darwin was offered a student place on a natural history trip to the Madeira Islands he jumped at the chance. To prepare for the epic trip he joined a course mapping the strata of Wales with the Reverend Professor Adam Sedgwick. It was thanks to this excursion and his botany lectures that he was given the opportunity of becoming an unpaid naturalist and gentleman’s companion on board an ex-Royal Navy ship refurbished as a survey vessel.
Named after Darwin
Led by Captain Robert FitzRoy, the HMS Beagle was to spend five years surveying the Galapagos Islands and the South American coast. Between 1831 and 1836 – despite suffering sea sickness – Darwin collected numerous fossils and made studies of plants and wildlife to aid his investigations.
On one occasion his prompt action saved members of the party from being marooned when a collapsing glacier nearly swept away their boats. In honour of his courage Robert FitzRoy christened this stretch of water the ‘Darwin Sound’ leading to a whole host of geographical features named in the same vein, including Mount Darwin in the Andes and the settlement of Palmerston, Australia, which was renamed Darwin in 1911.
Developing a theory
Upon his return, Darwin used his research notes and samples to prove that evolution in the plant and animal kingdoms did occur by natural selection and that this development took place over millions of years. He wrote many papers on the subject and gave numerous talks, but by 1837, due to the stresses of his commitments to the Geological Society of London, Darwin became unwell and was ordered by his doctor to take a month’s recuperation.
On January 24, 1839, he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge. Despite his discoveries from the Beagle Expedition, which led him to speculate that life forms were descended from a single species, Darwin was reluctant to reveal his theory to family and friends thanks to their strong religious convictions.
The Origin of Species
The ethical dilemma led to a recurrence of Darwin’s illness until fellow naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace came to his aid and publicly agreed with his findings. With a colleague to back up his claims, Darwin revealed his assumptions that would form the basis of his book, The Origin of Species.
In 1859, at the aged 51, the book for which he became universally known was published. Darwin used his examples of the giant tortoises analysed on the Galapagos and surrounding islands to illustrate the evidence that animals would adapt to their environments and that often only the strongest and most suitably equipped animals would survive.
Darwin's final years
In later life Darwin repeatedly suffered from ill health and it is thought that he may have caught a disease from a possible insect bite on his journeys in South America. Sadly his struggle for life ended on the April 19, 1882 at his home in Downe, Kent.
Britain recognised his great contributions to science and the natural world and gave him a state funeral in London. Although agnostic, his body is buried in the north aisle of the nave in Westminster Abbey near to the grave of fellow scientist, Sir Isaac Newton.
Due for issue on February 12, to coincide with the 200th Anniversary of Darwin’s birth, the Royal Mail have excelled themselves with a wonderfully diverse set of six stamps featuring various aspects of the scientist’s life.
Not only is each image bold, bright and highly detailed, they have also been produced in an unusual format. Each stamp is self adhesive and has been perforated so they slot together like the pieces of a jigsaw – this alone is likely to attract collectors who enjoy something a little different.
Not surprisingly in these times of prolific philatelic product, this issue does not end there, with four additional stamps forming part of the litho-printed miniature sheet. A First Day Cover featuring this minisheet with a stylised cachet and accompanying handstamp is also available and also on offer is the new Prestige Stamp Book entitled 'Charles Darwin 1809-1882.'
Feature first published in Stamp and Coin Mart