Posted by: Rob Viens | February 20, 2013

Of Rock, Chemists and Darwin’s Uncle Charles

It is amazing how much the Beagle moved around over the course of a couple of weeks. By the middle of the week, the hearty surveyors had gone back south to the archipelago of islands just north of Cape Horn.  Darwin writes:

“The Ship moved to Woollaston Island & during these days, the Northern part has been surveyed.” (Feb 18/19)

Note the location of Woollaston Island north of Cape Horn (modified from Google Maps with inset from Wikipedia Commons)

Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn

Woolaston Island was surely known by the Yahgans for thousands of years – they called it Yachkusin, which means “place of islands”.  But it was a British expedition to the South Atlantic just a few years earlier that had given the island its “English name”. For no particular reason, it is named after William Hyde Wollaston – an English chemist.  Interestingly, and purely by coincidence, he actually has a small connection with Darwin.

William Hyde Wollaston (painted by John Jackson (1778–1831))

William Hyde Wollaston

Wollaston is probably best known for discovering two chemical elements – palladium and rhodium – and for coming up with a practical way to extract platinum from ore rock.  However, he was a true renaissance scientist  – involved in experiments around batteries and electricity, optics and spectroscopy, and (my favorite) mineralogy.  In fact, I first heard of him because of the mineral wollastonite (a calcium silicate), which also bears his name. (I remember collecting samples at a wollastonite mine in New York State during a college field trip. At the time, I don’t think I thought twice about the origin of the name.)

Wollaston was also interested in medicine and researched the relationship between blood sugar and diabetes.  It was in this work, that he referenced Darwin’s uncle (Robert Darwin’s older brother named Charles, i.e., the man young Charles Darwin was named after).

Wollaston died in 1828, and it is probably this recent death that led to the island being graced with his name.

By Wednesday the weather started getting rough again.  Darwin noted:

“It blew very hard, & in consequence the Captain has run across the bay to our old quiet place in Goree Road.— The thermometer was only 38° with much rain & hail.” (Feb 20)

Just in time to start heading to sea again…(RJV)


  1. Looks like Darwin was blessed with his relatives, doesn’t it? He certainly was privileged having the opportunity to talk to such interesting persons! by the way-I did not forget my promise, I am writing a post for you, I only had a……..week, so this weekend My Botanical Garden is serving tea for other Darwin relative,
    Have a great weekend,

    • Thanks Tamara – No rush – just let me know and I’ll post it. Looking forward to what you have to say. – Rob

  2. […] Island located near Cape Horn.  (This was an area discussed almost exactly one year ago (see Of Rock, Chemists and Darwin’s Uncle Charles).)  By the end of the month the crew had retraced their route and moved east to the Beagle Channel […]

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