The Story of John Edmonstone, Darwin’s Teacher

The Story of John Edmonstone, Darwin’s Teacher

Author: Padraig Murphy – Dublin City University, Ireland


  • Rodrigo Costas – Leiden University, Centre for Science and Technology Studies, Netherlands
  • Jonathan Dudek – Leiden University, Centre for Science and Technology Studies, Netherlands
  • Marina Joubert – Stellenbosch University, Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology, South Africa
  • Daniela Mahl – University of Hamburg, Institute for Journalism and Communication Studies, Germany

There is little information uncovered so far about John Edmonstone. Our main source is Charles Darwin. He wrote in his Glasgow memoirs from his time as medical student about this “kind and intelligent man”, his paid teacher. Darwin learned from John how to trap, kill and stuff wild birds. And much more besides. All pivotal to Darwin’s field studies many years later in the Galapagos.

There is increasing academic interest in this freed Guyanan slave who inspired Darwin. There is a book here and this is one possible output. But historians are looking for missing pieces of the jigsaw of his life.

Could we develop a screenplay to fill in the gaps? Much of the action takes place down the road around the University of Edinburgh, where Edmonstone was employed as lecturer. The characters are there. Was the central character, John, stoic, deflecting British racial prejudice of the time, using objective reason and ordering of ornithology and botany to de-politicise, with science the Great Leveller? Darwin was then a young medical student who rebelled against the “horrors” of medical training and became inspired not just by stories of the natural world but of John’s own story, igniting his reported interest in emancipation. And the most interesting of all: the woman that historical records called ‘Princess Minda’, of Guyanan royalty, wife of Edmonstone’s former master, but an independent woman residing in Glasgow. What stories had these immigrants?

The themes: the conflict of naturalists both in love with its pastoral beauty yet killing birds for scientific understanding: the human preoccupation of “taming nature;” people of colour’s exclusion from the story of science; immigrants shorn of identity, enriching a nation.

The plot writes itself. Or perhaps a few people can join my talk as we continue the story of John Edmonstone and discuss science, history and screen storytelling.

The author has not yet submitted a copy of the full paper.

Presentation type: Insight talk
Theme: Transformation