Significant Individuals: Charles Darwin

Primary History article

By Sally Stafford, published 2nd March 2017

Exploring the man behind the beard

Charles Darwin: exploring the man behind the beard – studying the lives of significant individuals in the past

Studying the life of Charles Darwin is an exciting way to meet the requirement in Key Stage 1 to teach significant individuals. But what do we actually know about him, beyond the words ‘evolution’, ‘Beagle voyage’ and ‘natural selection’? The letters that Darwin exchanged are a significant primary source to help us understand his personality, family life, friendships and, importantly, the way that he carried out his research. The Darwin Correspondence Project ( is compiling a comprehensive print and online collection of all his correspondence – amounting to about 15,000 letters.

Over the course of his life Darwin wrote to around 2,000 people across the world. He exchanged letters with everyone from the curator of the Botanic Gardens in Calcutta (to ask about the behaviour of  his garden worms) to Prime Minister Gladstone (to seek a pension for his colleague Alfred Wallace). In  the days before internet and easy travel, it was wise to take advantage of an amazing postal system that  made multiple deliveries per day. The world came to him, via letters, giving him access to an enormous scientific network, enabling him to further his research...

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