UConn professor talks Darwin in first person

Professor Charles Noll makes a trip as Charles Darwin, Esquire, to UConn's Biology/Physics Building on Saturday, Oct. 28. Noll brings the stories of 19th century Victorian England and his life as a scholar.  (Jon Sammis/The Daily Campus)

Professor Charles Noll makes a trip as Charles Darwin, Esquire, to UConn's Biology/Physics Building on Saturday, Oct. 28. Noll brings the stories of 19th century Victorian England and his life as a scholar.  (Jon Sammis/The Daily Campus)

Sporting a long gray beard and patterned vest, a University of Connecticut professor of molecular and cell biology gave a talk Saturday about Charles Darwin—dressed up as the man himself.

Speaking with a British accent in the character of Darwin, Professor Kenneth Knoll discussed Darwin’s life as a student, from the Reverend George Case’s school in his hometown of Shrewsbury, England, to the University of Edinburgh Medical School and Cambridge University.

Knoll, who said he teaches a class about Charles Darwin and has experience in community theatre, spoke for more than an hour, reflecting on Darwin’s experiences in school and how they shaped his interests and led him to his iconic voyage to the Galapagos.

“By the time I went to day school, my taste in natural history, and in collecting, was well established,” Knoll said as Darwin. “I almost made up my mind to collect all the insects I could find, but upon consulting with my sister I decided it was wrong to kill insects for a collection—which I obviously forgot in later years.”

At the University of Edinburgh, Knoll said, Darwin joined the Plinian society—a group of students interested in the natural sciences. It was here that Darwin presented his early scientific discoveries.

Knoll said Darwin decided that he no longer wanted to be a doctor and instead went to Christ’s College at Cambridge to study and become a clergyman.

But, he said, “during the three years [Darwin] spent on Cambridge, his time was wasted.”

He said Darwin got in with a “sporting bunch” and spent much of his time drinking and hunting. Hid interests in natural history, however, didn’t wane.

“No pursuit at Cambridge gave me nearly as much pleasure as collecting beetles,” Knoll said as Darwin.

Knoll said it was at Cambridge that Darwin met John Henslow, a professor of botany, who introduced Darwin to captain Robert FitzRoy of the HMS Beagle.

Darwin would later sail on the Beagle to the Galapagos where he would do much of the research that would eventually become his groundbreaking book “On the Origin of Species.”

This talk, presented by the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History, was the third in a series of lectures by Knoll covering various aspects of Darwin’s life including his research and family.

The next talk, Knoll said, will focus on the role of religion in Darwin’s life.

Ben Townson, a first-semester geoscience major and student in Knoll’s class on Darwin said he enjoyed the talk and its theatrical nature.

“It’s cool to hear him talk about it first-person,” he said. “It really helped understand things. I think he did a great job.”


Charlie Smart is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via charles.smart@uconn.edu.