John Edmonstone

John Edmonstone was born into slavery in the late 18th century in British Guyana. Charles Waterton, a friend of the plantation owner, began taking Edmonstone on local collecting expeditions as an assistant. It was in this capacity that Edmonstone learned to preserve bird skins. Edmonstone later traveled to Scotland with his enslaver, Charles Edmonstone, in 1817 where slavery was illegal. Now a free man, Edmonstone had to suddenly make a living for himself in an unfamiliar country. At the time, taxidermy was in demand, not only for scientific purposes, but as an art form frequently featured in the parlors of respectable society. By 1823, Edmonstone had made use of his preparatory skills to set up shop as a “birdstuffer” in Edinburgh. He often sold specimens to the Glasgow, and later University of Edinburgh Zoological Museum, in addition to providing taxidermy lessons to the university students.

A painting of the plantation in Guyana where John Edmonstone lived before gaining his freedom. Men are chopping trees in the foreground. There are several buildings and forest in the background. To the right is a body of water with men in a boat.
The plantation in Guyana where John Edmonstone lived before gaining his freedom

In 1826, Charles Darwin became one of Edmonstone’s students while attending medical school. Over the course of two months, the two became acquainted and Darwin describes Edmonstone as “a very pleasant and intelligent man.” Their conversations may have included accounts of Edmonstone’s former home in Guyana, the expeditions and wildlife that he was assuredly knew intimately. It makes some wonder whether it influenced Darwin’s decision to leave medical school and travel to South America. In any case, Edmonstone provided Darwin with the skills he later applied during his collection of specimens that later aided his formulation of evolutionary theory.

The increasing popularity of taxidermy as the fashion for home and clothing prompted Edmonstone to relocate to a busier and more prominent shopping location between 1826 and 1843, suggesting the success of his business. Now, John Edmonstone is mainly remembered for his ties to Darwin. However, he should be celebrated in his own right as a successful businessman and naturalist, one who provided unknown numbers of specimens to natural history collections that enable ongoing biodiversity research.