Skip to main content

Please note: this event has passed

Charles Darwin is often hailed as one of the leading scientific thinkers in 19th century Britain. While many misconceptions about Darwin and his work prevail, one of the most common is that he was an isolated ‘genius’. In this talk, Dr Laura Brassington will argue that Darwin’s most important scientific instrument was, in fact, his vast correspondence network. Amounting to 15,000 letters exchanged with 2,000 individuals across the British Empire and beyond, Darwin’s letters enable us to examine the class barriers individuals faced in their attempts to pursue science education, and how social status informed judgements about an individual’s claims to scientific knowledge.

Laura will focus on the letters Darwin exchanged with James Croll (1821-90), whose work led Darwin to revise his theory of climate in the Origin of Species (1869, 5th edn.). As Croll refused to attend scientific meetings in person, he was known to Darwin and other leading men of science chiefly through his letters and publications. Croll was, in fact, an autodidact who was given the position of janitor of Anderson’s College, Glasgow, to enable him to use the institution’s scientific library and publish research papers. After years of exchanges with Croll, physicist John Tyndall seemingly remained unaware of Croll’s social position and asked in a postscript, ‘Are you a Fellow of the Royal Society?’.

Croll was eventually elected to the Royal Society but despite being recognised as one of Europe’s leading contributors to climate change research, he was denied a government pension and died in poverty. Croll’s letters enable us to examine how a janitor’s claims to knowledge were accepted as authoritative; the bureaucratisation of science education in the late 19th century; and how claims to truth were established and contested through communication at a distance, lessons from which remain applicable today.

About the speaker

Dr Laura Brassington is a researcher and tutor in the history of science and education. She recently completed her PhD at the University of Cambridge, in which she used Charles Darwin’s letters to examine the class barriers faced by under-represented groups in science education. At Cambridge, she taught across four departments and the Institute of Continuing Education, and created and delivered syllabi for outreach programmes.

As co-founder of STEM for Schools, Laura teaches children about women and working-class participation in science. She is now a researcher for the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), where she is concerned with issues relating to widening access to universities.

For information about joining the seminar, please email