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December 9, 2009

In the Footsteps of Charles Darwin

Tom McLaughlin

Cambridge, England – My mouth dropped open when I visited Charles Darwin’s dorm room at Christ College at Cambridge University. The area was about 25 feet wide and 40 feet long. A huge fire place occupied one side of the end of the room with arms holding implements to boil coffee, tea and cook foods, much like the colonial fireplaces we have seen in pictures. There was no way that room would get cold in the mild English winters.


In the center, a large dining room table, set with fine china, could comfortably seat 12 people, allowing Darwin to have company while he dined. A roll top desk provided a writing surface for his theology studies and enclosed glass book cases held his library.


Floor to ceiling windows provided sun light at the other end. His small 10-by-10 sleeping room held a single bed, end table and chamber pot. To make matters more opulent, servants brought food, cleaned his suite and catered to his needs. This was 1827-1830. I would gladly have exchanged his quarters for the tiny roommate occupied dorm room I occupied in the early 1970’s with the showers and toilets down the hall.


I was in Cambridge for the opening of the Alfred Wallace exhibit at the Zoology Museum at the University. I had been a part of the research team assembling photographs and items while living in Kuching, Malaysia. To be truthful, the researchers stayed in my condo but allowed me to become a part of their endeavors. Strong friendships developed after we tromped through the forest, scurried around frog ponds and dodged huge snakes together.


Cambridge University accepts only the best and brightest student from around the world. It costs a fortune, not a small one, to attend, but scholarships are available for the most Hawkinesque scholars. It also has the dubious distinction of educating some of the most violent, repressive and corrupt dictators ever to rule nations.


The town and the university seem to blend as one. The architecture reflects evolution from the early 1200’s to the present. Both students and professors ride bicycles as there are hundreds everywhere. Posted signs regulate the two-wheel machines informing where they can park and the use of hand signals. The only fashions are jeans and the back pack.


Colleges are areas where the students live and study, and they support Cambridge University through tuition payments. The center displays a large grassy area, while three sides are dedicated to large ancient buildings for living and study. The fourth side of this rectangle allows entrance through a massive gate. Students must sign in and out of this area through a small office.


Any of these colleges could be the setting for a Harry Potter film. I fully expected to see people flying around on brooms, ghosts appearing and strange animals arising from behind ancient trees. The tables in the dining halls are set with china, wine glasses with linen napkins. At the front, a podium holds a long table for the faculty and other members.


One of the bragging competitions among the colleges is the wine cellars. Over the years, cases of wine are purchased to serve to the few hundred students with the dinners. Often there are several bottles left over and are stored below the dormitories. They date back further than the 1800’s. I was informed the value probably exceeds several hundred thousand pounds.


In my ignorance I asked if a male student would take a girlfriend to the cellar and open a few bottles to eventually have his way with her. The docent looked at me, muttered “typical American” and stated the areas were well guarded. I think she finally sensed I was being humorous but didn’t find me particularly funny speaking about the revered students and the wine in that manner.


In sharp contrast, I slept in a rooming house with a bed, small television with a tiny bath and shower down the hall. I felt right at home from about 35 years ago at my college. At night, I heard the jocularity and drinking songs typical of every university as this nerd herd blew off steam from their demanding studies and acted like students everywhere. I was thankful for that, having been worried about their social development.


My quest through Cambridge, and following Charles Darwin in a further attempt to understand Alfred Wallace, proved to be an enlightening experience. The many displays helped me to gain entrance into the mind of this great scientist while the University atmosphere demonstrated the culture of the time.


…Life is good…


[Editors Note: For further information on Alfred Wallace, “The Forgotten Evolutionist”, see Tom’s earlier three part series. It can be found in The Archives of It was published last May 6th, 13th and 20th.]


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