Darwin came to the city as a 16-year-old who had enrolled to study medicine. He lived in a house on Lothian Street, behind the new Robert Adam-designed university buildings, now known as Old College. The hospital where he was to study was on Infirmary Street, just yards away.
In Edinburgh he discovered a medical faculty whose lustre was dimming, though the subject still accounted for almost half the students of the university roll. The department was held to be corrupt (posts were often inherited) and lessons were regarded, certainly by Darwin, as boring. In 1828, the university was rocked by the scandal of Burke and Hare, whose murderous exploits were found to have been supplied corpses for anatomy classes.
Darwin soon gave up his medical studies. He disliked his lecturers and was squeamish about blood and bodily fluids. Instead, he turned to the city's astonishing array of clubs and societies for intellectual sustenance. Most importantly, Darwin fell in with Robert Edmond Grant, 16 years his senior, an eminent naturalist and freethinker who was to have a profound influence on his life.
Darwin's new mentor, taking his cue from French revolutionary scientists, believed that the origin and evolution of life were the result of chemical and physical forces, obeying natural laws. Grant was fascinated by sponges and other marine life, and took Darwin as his companion to Leith and Newhaven. The two befriended fishermen: they sailed out into the Firth of Forth to collect specimens, explored the Isle of May, even sheltered from a storm under Inchkeith Lighthouse.
Back on dry land, Grant rented a house close to the rocky shore at Prestonpans where, with Darwin, he collected and studied sea-pens, sea-mats and sponges, primitive creatures he believed held clues to the origins of all life. All this research prompted the young Darwin to make original observations, and he gave his first paper to the Plinian Society on the subject of sea-mat larvae and oyster shells.
Darwin spent much of his free time in the College Museum of Natural History, which was run by Robert Jamieson, an eminent natural historian. It was here that Darwin learnt taxidermy, taught by a freed slave, John Edmonstone. The relationship between a man of Darwin's class and a former slave was unconventional, yet Darwin's theories on natural selection owe much to this friendship. His consideration of all races being equal was a starting point for his theories on evolution.
Jamieson's keen interest in geology encouraged Darwin to explore around the city. Along Salisbury Crags, the extraordinary outcrop which dominates the skyline to the east of the city centre, he studied the formations which had fascinated James Hutton, the 18th-century geologist. These volcanic extrusions through sedimentary rocks undermined the prevailing "Neptunist" view that the Earth's rocks had been deposited in a great flood, and the world created in 4004 BC.