Posted by: Rob Viens | April 24, 2012

“My friend the Doctor is an Ass”

On April 24th, Darwin was thrilled to return to the Beagle:

“To my joy I at last gained the Beagle. I found a days rest so delightful that I determined idly to remain on board.” (Apr 24)

Though he finds that there has been a couple of changes to the crew while he was gone:

“During my absence several political changes have taken place in our little world. — Mr Maccormick has been invalided, & goes to England by the Tyne. Mr Derbyshire by his own request was discharged the service. — In his place Mr Johnstone will be moved into the Beagle from the Warspite.” (Apr 24)

Alexander Derbyshire was the first mate on the Beagle.  Not too much has been written about him, though Darwin notes in a letter to his sister:

“Derbyshire is also discharged the survice, from his own desire not choosing his conduct which has been bad about money matters to be investigated.” (Apr 25)

The real story though, is the loss of the ship’s surgeon, “Mr. McCormick”.  Robert McCormick was a man looking to make a name for himself in the world of science. He was 9 years Darwin’s senior (he was 31 – an “old man” on the Beagle, relatively speaking). After joining the Royal Navy, his first real claim to fame was sailing on the Royal Navy bomb vessel, the HMS Hecla, under arctic explorer Sir William Edward Parry. On this voyage, in 1827, Parry attempted to reach the North Pole via the island of Spitzbergen.  Although he failed to reach the Pole, he did reach the farthest northern latitude recorded – 82° 25′ N – a record that stood for almost 50 years. Alas, poor Robert, did not participate in the shot at the pole – he  stayed on the island, where he collected samples and made notes about the natural history.

Robert McCormick at 25 (from Wellcome Library)

Robert McCormick

In 1831, McCormick was assigned to the Beagle as the ship’s surgeon.  In those days, the Royal Navy expected all ships officers to collect scientific information for the good of England.  Traditionally the ship’s surgeon was considered the  ship’s naturalist. So effectively, when the Beagle sailed, McCormick was the naturalist and Darwin was the captain’s pal (who happened to also know a lot about the natural world). When McCormick signed on, he expected to be the one getting all the glory for new and interesting discoveries in the New World.

Well it never really worked out that way. From the beginning, Captain FitzRoy just seemed to like Darwin better – treating him as the naturalist and giving him all the “plum” assignments.  One of the best examples was when the ship reached the “unexplored” shores of St. Paul’s Rocks (see St. Paul’s Rocks I and St. Paul’s Rocks II). Darwin got to be in the first boat to go ashore and explore.  McCormick got stuck on the second boat which, as Janet Browne put it in her biography of Darwin, “was waved away and told to circle about catching fish for dinner” (Charles Darwin Voyaging).  He was ticked off and never really got over it.

McCormick writes of leaving:

“Having found myself in a false position on board a small and very uncomfortable vessel, and very much disappointed in my expectations of carrying out my natural history pursuits, every obstacle having been placed in the way of my getting on shore and making collections, I got permission from the admiral in command of the station here to be superseded and allowed a passage home in H.M.S. Tyne.” (Voyages of Discovery in the Arctic and Antarctic Seas, McCormick 1884)

FitzRoy does not even seem to acknowledge the doctor’s leaving, though in several correspondence Darwin notes that  “he [McCormick] chose to make himself disagreeable to the Captain & to Wickham”. Yeah – he was probably trying to get Darwin sent home…

After serving on the Beagle, McCormick decided that the higher latitudes were more his style.  He then served as surgeon (and naturalist) with James Clark Ross, who commanded two ships – the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror (also bomb vessels)– on a four-year expedition to Antarctica. Joseph Hooker, the assistant surgeon on the trip, was also considered a naturalist and ended up being better known after the trip than McCormick.  The Ross Sea was named after the commander. McCormick got the shaft.

Robert McCormick by Stephen Pearce (from Wikipedia Commons)

Robert McCormick

Robert McCormick’s greatest claim to fame (outside of his connections with Darwin) was in helping to organize and lead an expedition to the arctic to search for the Franklin expedition. Franklin, his crew and two ships (the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror again) disappeared while looking for the Northwest Passage in 1847. Another great story for a different day. The search was unsuccessful. In the end, McCormick never achieved the fame that he so desperately sought out.

So what did Darin think about Robert McCormick? Well, I think the following three quotes from Darwin’s letters sums it up best:

(1) Upon first meeting McCormick in Plymouth Darwin wrote to his mentor, John Henslow:

“My friend the Doctor is an ass, but we jog on very amicably: at present he is in great tribulation, whether his cabin shall be painted French Grey or a dead white— I hear little excepting this subject from him.” (Correspondence to John Henslow, 30 October 1831)

(2) Darwin considered him to be old-fashioned and a poor scientist.  In a letter to Henslow (written later) describing working with McCormick in Cape Verde he writes:

“He [McCormick] was a philosopher of rather an antient date; at St Jago by his own account he made general remarks during the first fortnight & collected particular facts during the last.” (Correspondence to John Henslow, 18 May1832)

(3) In the end, when all was said and done, Darwin wrote to his sister about McCormick’s departure. He simply states:

“He is no loss.”
(Correspondence to Caroline Darwin, 25 April 1832)

Ouch! (RJV)


  1. Oh my,I am no Darwin, but looks so familiar to me,I guess we all once upon a time, meet some fame seekers………

  2. I’ve been enjoying your blog and have nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award. Cheers!

    • Wow – that is really cool! Congratulations on winning the award yourself and thanks for nominating the Beagle Project – you made my day 🙂 I’ll be sure to do my part and “pay it forward” in the next few days.

  3. […] new ship’s surgeon, Benjamin Bynoe, who took over after Robert McCormick left the Beagle (see “My Friend the Doctor is an Ass”). “Mr. Bynoe consulted with the best medical advisers at Bahia, and afterwards at Rio de […]

  4. […] Robert McCormick (Surgeon) & Alexander Derbishire (Mate) – Departed the Beagle in Rio (April 1832) – see My Friend the Doctor is an Ass […]

  5. Anyone know any more about he midshipman Alexander Derbyshire, I read somewhere that he left the ship returned to England and died 1841. I cannot find any record of his death. Thanks

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