Charles Robert Darwin, was born in Shrewsbury into a scientific family, being grandson of Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), doctor, naturalist and member of the Lunar Society, and of Josiah Wedgwood (1730-95), potter and industrialist. He studied medicine at Edinburgh 1825-7 with freethinking naturalist Robert Edmond Grant & & & (1793-1874), who imparted the evolutionary theories of Lamarck and St Hilaire.
At Cambridge, where he went to study divinity, his biological studies were encouraged by botanist John Stevens Henslow, who recommended him as naturalist to the aristocratic captain Robert Fitzroy (1805-65) who was fitting out his ship The Beagle for a two-year scientific survey of the coast of South America.
The voyage extended to a circumnavigation lasting 5 years (1831-36). Darwin took with him the first part of the new Principles of Geology by Charles Lyell (1797-1875), and was sent the other parts while travelling. He spent much time ashore and sent back many specimens so that by the time of his return he was well-known in scientific circles in London.
Over the next ten years Darwin published a series of works that established his reputation as a sound scientist in both geology and biology, married his cousin Emma Wedgwood in 1836, and took up official appointments, but in 1842 retired from all this to the quiet of Down House in the Kent countryside.
Here he concentrated on developing his theory of the mechanism of evolution, which was already in outline. But he was only persuaded to publish when Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) sent him a paper that expounded similar ideas. Their papers were read, by colleagues, at the Linnean Society in 1858, but had little immediate effect. Darwin shelved his plan for a multivolume work and condensed his argument into one volume On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection published in November 1859.
This was met with immediate approval in radical circles, stirred controversy among scientists, and consternation among the religious.
An excellent biography is Darwin by Adrian Desmond and James Moore (Michael Joseph, 1991).
See also: James Moore Darwin Day Lecture 2005 (PDF).