John Edmonstone was born into slavery on a plantation belonging to Scottish politician Charles Edmonstone in Demerara (what is now Guyana, South America), in the late 1700s. The politician often played host to his friend and famed naturalist Charles Waterton, who would often have John accompany him on trips into the rainforest to observe the jungle and collect bird specimens. On, these trips John learnt to skin and stuff creatures on the spot to stop them decaying in the humid conditions.
John gained his freedom when Charles Edmonstone travelled to Scotland, as it was illegal to own a slave in the UK. John took up residence at 37 Lothian Street which was very close to Edinburgh University, where he worked teaching students taxidermy.
One of his many students was a certain 17-year-old Charles Darwin, who had gone to the university to study medicine, but his interest in ornithology led him to study under John every day for two months. In Darwin’s memoirs, he cites his mentor as “a very pleasant and intelligent man” recalling their many hours spent in conversation.
Not much is known about John’s personal life, and much of the academic writings about John are steeped in racist language. His contribution to the scientific community has largely been reduced to a footnote in Darwin’s biography, and he should undoubtedly be a figure included in any teaching about evolutionary biology.