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Darwin’s Afterlives: Recollection and the Making of Biography

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Academy discourse by Janet Browne Hon. MRIA exploring the construction and reconstruction of Darwin's retrospective account of his life.

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This talk explores the construction –and reconstruction—of Charles Darwin’s retrospective account of his life. I aim to discuss some of the ways in which his personal recollections (usually called his autobiography) have been filtered, edited, and consolidated by family members for decades after his death. The published text subsequently carried enormous cultural power as a representation of what many readers valued as the ideal characteristics of a scientist. In the larger sense, I hope to contribute metabiographical reflections on the way Victorian science was perceived as a creative and individualized enterprise.

Janet Browne is Aramont Professor in the History of Science at Harvard University. Her interests range widely over the history of the life and earth sciences and natural history. After a first degree in zoology at TCD she took a PhD in the history of science at Imperial College London, subsequently published as The Secular Ark: Studies in the History of Biogeography (1983). She went on to work as associate editor of the early volumes of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, followed by several years producing a biography of Darwin that integrated his science with his life and times. The biography was received generously and awarded the James Tait Black award for non-fiction in 2004, the W. H. Heinemann Prize from the Royal Literary Society, and the Pfizer Prize from the History of Science Society. She was based at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London until 2006 when she moved to Harvard University. She has an Honorary degree from her alma mater, Trinity College Dublin, 2009. She was elected to Honorary Membership of the RIA in 2019.

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The Royal Irish Academy, the academy for the sciences, humanities and social sciences for the whole of Ireland will vigorously promote excellence in scholarship, recognise achievements in learning, direct research programmes and undertake its own research projects, particularly in areas relating to Ireland and its heritage.

 

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