Skip to navigationSkip to content

Lessons from Charles Darwin on working from home

Reuters/Tal Cohen
Shrine to science.
  • Elizabeth Yale
By Elizabeth Yale

Science historian, University of Iowa

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

In 1842, Charles Darwin and his wife Emma moved their young family to Down (now Downe), a village about 15 miles south of central London. They were seeking a country retreat, a place to raise their children away from the city, where the air was filled with coal smoke and the streets with sewage. But Charles also sought a sanctuary for his scientific work: a place far off enough from London to deter casual visitors.

Darwin was serious about privacy: soon after the family moved in, he had the lane outside his front door moved away from the house and lowered two feet, using the excavated dirt to build up the wall fronting his property. He fitted out his study with a mirror angled to the front door of the house, which allowed him to identify visitors with a discreet glance. (Making himself obtrusive would have required the common politeness of introductions and visiting—an interruption to his work.)

For Darwin, Down House was a scientific and domestic country retreat. Today, maintained as a museum by English Heritage, a foundation dedicated to the preservation of English historic sites, it is a site of scientific pilgrimage, still a two to three hour hike by bus and train from London.

Since Darwin’s day, the relationship between money, science, and family has flipped.

Many people go, including myself, to penetrate the privacy Darwin once held dear. Down House is now a bustling place, from the gravel car park, to the tea room into which the kitchen and servants quarters have been converted, to the gift shop through which visitors enter the home. On the day I visited, school children raced through the rooms and over the grounds with their parents, completing worksheets that the staff stamped on their way out, while visitors like me lingered over every exhibit. But to what end?

In medieval England, pilgrims traveled to holy places: cathedrals, shrines that held the body of a saint or a great religious relic, and springs and wells, many of which were associated with saints (or local gods and goddesses, before the coming of Christianity). Pilgrims believed that prayer to a saint, coupled with physical proximity to his or her relics, cured physical and spiritual ailments.

Many made the journey, for example, to Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury Cathedral because they believed in the healing power of the saint’s “blood,” sold for centuries in small lead vials by the Canterbury monks. Medieval Christians also told stories about their saints, aspiring to live with the faith and piety that they displayed. Today, with science and reason the dominant ideologies in contemporary culture, perhaps Down House now serves as a place of pilgrimage—with Darwin as a scientific saint.

But if Down House is a site of scientific pilgrimage, what revelations can the scientific pilgrim draw from it? What exemplary lessons does the life of St. Charles teach?

With the Darwins growing to a family of nine by 1850, Down House was a busy place. The displays in Down House, cluttered with the Darwin children’s toys, remind the visitor that this groundbreaking naturalist conducted his scientific labors in the midst of a rambunctious family life. Yet Darwin’s family was—and was not—a part of his work. According to Darwin biographer Janet Browne, Darwin turned almost everything into fodder for the development of evolutionary theory: He observed his newborn son’s reaction to stimuli (such as his father startling him with grunting and snoring noises) in an effort to discern instinctive, inherited behaviors from learned ones.

Darwin’s family was—and was not—a part of his work.

But Darwin also quite regularly shut himself off from the family, spending most of his day in his study, absorbed in scientific work. Through the 1840s, this meant close attention to the anatomy of barnacles. He immersed himself in their study, Browne writes, as a distraction from his anxiety over the controversial nature of his as yet unpublished evolutionary theory. 

It’s fitting that Darwin’s study is the most carefully reconstructed room in Down House: this is where he did the work that earned him his scientific sainthood. Using historical photographs as a guide, it has been populated with books, specimens, and instruments, many of them original—gifts from Darwin’s descendants. The table is scattered with notes and correspondence.

Darwin’s study is an immersive experience, the depth of material detail inviting the scientific pilgrim to imagine the naturalist as he shuttled around on his desk chair, to which he had wheels specially attached.

In the alcove by the front window, where the light was best, he observed barnacles through his microscope. At his desk, or sitting in his chair with a board across his lap, he read and responded to correspondence and read the many books from which he culled further data points for his theories. He installed a hip bath and a toilet in the study so that he wouldn’t have to leave the room to take care of necessary business (which included frequent vomiting induced by the mysterious chronic illness he suffered for most of his life).

According to legend, one of Darwin’s sons—taking his father’s working habits for granted—once asked a playmate, referring to the boy’s father: “Then where does he do his barnacles?”

Working out of their homes, often dependent on family fortunes to fund their research, naturalists of the time often had family members swirling around them. Families were also often involved in the process of scientific discovery, either as sources of data—as Darwin’s children were, at times—or as assistants and fellow researchers.

And although their work received relatively little public credit, countless wives, daughters, and sisters participated in the creation of scientific knowledge, by collecting natural specimens, such as insects, fossils, and plants; by drawing the illustrations for books to be published; and by conducting observations of their own, as did the eighteenth-century astronomer Caroline Herschel, noted in her day for the many comets she discovered.

He fitted out his study with a mirror angled to the front door of the house, which allowed him to identify visitors with a discreet glance.

However, in a process that intensified during Darwin’s lifetime, science increasingly moved out of the home and into universities and commercial laboratories. Instead of relying on family fortunes, scientists increasingly sought opportunities to engage in scientific work as a paid career. And when science was no longer the family business, women, especially, were excluded from even minimal participation in scientific research.

Since Darwin’s day, the relationship between money, science, and family has flipped. We expect scientific labor to generate the money that supports a family, rather than the other way around. Both women and men now engage in scientific work as a career, one pursued outside the home that they hope will support them and their families. But few young scientists today enjoy the privacy, the home life and the family support that Darwin did in the years leading up to his publication of the theory of evolution.

Most now struggle to make a scientific career pay the bills, for a host of reasons: because they’re trapped in a series of low-paying postdoctoral fellowships, unable to secure one of a small number of tenure track positions; because government grant funding for research has flatlined; because they can’t reconcile the hours a scientific career seems to demand with their obligations to their families.

Walking away from Down House, heading to the village pub for a pint before catching the bus back to London, the scientific pilgrim might remember that Darwin was not just a lone voice, challenging the scientific and religious establishments with his theories of biological evolution, but that he was comfortably supported by his family, with a secure position in his society.

The scientific pilgrim might ask, slightly amending the words of Darwin’s son: where does a young scientist do her barnacles, these days?

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.