A Day in the Life of Dr John van Wyhe

This interview series seeks to introduce Fellows and students of Tembusu College to the wider community on a more personal level, and to create dialogue between these groups of people. This week, Dr John van Wyhe shares with us his varied interests, opinions on finding one’s passion for work, as well as how he makes full use of each and every day.


Dr John van Wyhe is a historian of science, a Fellow of Tembusu College and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Biological Sciences. He specialises on the evolutionists Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. He has a PhD in history from the University of Cambridge where he was later a Bye Fellow of Christ’s College, which was also Darwin’s College. A prolific author and broadcaster, Dr John has lectured all over the world.

What would be your typical day?

In a typical day I wake up early and feed my cat. Many people in Tembusu know him; his name is Clau Clau, a nickname for the Roman emperor Claudius. And a pun on claws of course.

I then head off on my mountain bike. I usually ride in the morning. It is my main hobby and I enjoy racing and setting records on the trails throughout Singapore. I often ride to Woodlands along the Rail Corridor, or perhaps Bukit Timah, Kent Ridge Park, or a combination of these. Today I did five laps, around two hours, the whole ride was 57km, and I set two records on the GPS app that riders use. I usually leave around 8.30am as I cannot go before daylight, and then on my way back I usually come back on Dover Road from the Rail Corridor, and then cut through UTown, because I do not want to cross the Clementi Road bridge, and maybe have a little ‘warm down’ ride around NUS. If I still have some energy, I will maybe climb Kent Ridge. If I run out of time or start to get tired, I will go home, wash the bike, get changed, and then I will head to NUS where I teach a big General Education Module (GEM) on Darwin and Evolution with 500 students every alternate semester when I’m not teaching at Tembusu.

Lunch will probably be in the canteen here, then I might head to my office in biology, where I have an assistant, and I am Director of the Darwin Online project. I will probably work on my project there, which is a very varied array of tasks.

It is an ever growing project. It is the largest scholarly website in the history of science field and also the deepest in terms of the materials we have – Darwin’s complete publications, papers, large amounts of other publications like interviews, complete bibliography, union manuscript catalogue and large amounts of scholarly works about Darwin from years later. Everything is in searchable text form and image form. The site is the most widely used and visited in the field.

When we launched the website in 2006, the international media coverage was so massive that we had millions of hits in the first hours and the server in Cambridge crashed from the overload.

The project work is usually done by my assistant and me. In the past, we had other members, and volunteers do help as well. Recently, a library in Italy contacted me because they noticed I did not have a translation of Darwin in Italian, and they offered to scan it and send it over. We do not just have Darwin in English, we have him in over a dozen languages as well. I spend a lot of time answering email as I get requests for help or information from individuals and institutions around the world.

I will then probably head off to a cosy café somewhere and open up my laptop, get a café latte, plug in my headphones, and work on my research and get some writing done. Usually I finish by 10pm, the café’s closing time, but if I am still going strong, and the creative juices are still flowing, I usually go around the corner, I think it is called Hong Kong cafe, because they are open till late and cosy as well, and there’s free wifi.


Apart from this project, what do you usually work on?

At the moment I am finishing my new book, which is about the first woman to travel around the world alone in the 1840s-1850s. It is a historical biography, but not an academic book, it is a ‘popular’ book,. I have had a lot of fun writing it. Her story is amazing, and I think it would make a great movie as well!  Her adventures and exploits are simply incredible. She became a best-selling author and one of the most famous women in the world. But now she is forgotten. Right now I am looking for a new agent to help with publication. This is my 11th book.

I have started another book on the evolving biographies of Darwin and Wallace.

What drives you?

My passion for my subject is the fuel that drives my work. Passion is either there, or not, you can’t make it. If you feel passionate and enthusiastic about what you are working on, long hours, endless reading and research are not a burden, but something that you enjoy.

I dislike having to write about something that I am not interested in, as when I am invited to write an article on a topic I have not chosen. In my experience, you cannot write something really good if you are not interested in it, if you are not passionate about it. So I fully sympathise with students who so often have to write essays on topics that do not really interest them.

What would you recommend for people who have yet to find their passion, how would they go about doing so? Most people may have this impression that passion is something that you develop over time.

I am not just talking about me or you; I am talking about something in a subject or topic that awakens your passion. If you are doing something that does not awaken your passion, and I am not sure how to awaken it. In my teaching, I try to awaken an interest in the subject by sharing my own enthusiasm. Again, this is not something you can fake. I think in my last feedback from the GEM, the word ‘passion’ was used 87 times.

A common problem in education  is students who are bored to death because the lecture is boring and the lecturer is boring. The lecturer and topic may not necessarily be boring, but the lecturer might have been forced to teach something that they are not interested in. Universities like ours go on and on about how they care about teaching and want to improve it. But if passion is one of the most important factors, forcing junior teaching staff to teach things they don’t like is the best way to guarantee mediocre teaching.

So I wish universities would take that into consideration. It would be better if they let people teach the things they are really passionate about.

We hear a lot about ‘learning’ and so forth, but it seems largely useless. Talking about it is different from doing it. There are lots of people in this university who are passionate about what they do and they love to talk share it. It would be better if more people were allowed to choose what they teach.


When did you start to be an adventurer, to supplement your research?

Historians tend to be bookish and to spend their time in archives and libraries. And of course that is necessary. But if you work on scientific travellers as I do, another source of insights is to travel to the same locations. In the case of the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), there are a lot of places to visit in this region. You might think, when studying a period 150 years ago, you will go to the place in Singapore or anywhere else, and find that everything is gone; you will not find a single thing that Wallace ever saw. That is usually the case. But sometimes amazing things really can turn up.

S0 for example, in early 2010, I flew to Tahiti, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where Darwin and HMS Beagle landed during his voyage around the world. I was filming a documentary for a Dutch TV network. I got a crew and a native guide to go up a mountain river valley where Darwin had gone for a little trek, and that place was unchanged. There were little references in Darwin’s notebook that didn’t seem to mean anything, but once you were there you realised what he meant. There was something about banana trees, for example, banana purple diameter. While we were walking along, the Tahitian guide, who was very knowledgeable about the natural history of the area, pointed out some banana trees as being the native species, they were purple and the truck had a huge diameter, and that is what Darwin had noticed, or maybe his guide said the same thing! When reading a description of a place, the picture you make in your mind can only get you so far. But when you actually stand there, you understand it so much more clearly. There is a lot of value you get doing something like that. I also ascended the volcano on Tahiti and looked down on the neighbouring island. From that height you can see the island’s barrier reef. It was apparently this view that inspired Darwin to conceive of his theory of the formation of coral atolls.
So similarly for Wallace, I’ve traced his footsteps on many islands and I have actually discovered quite a few things. I was the first person to trace several of the spots he went to, like the interior of East Timor. So we went up the mountains and the ravines to a small village, with local cattle, ponies, and trees and so forth, just as he had seen them during his voyage. I got a lot out of that.

Besides mountain biking, are there any activities that you do for leisure?

I used to do a lot of DIY, building things. All kinds of things: chairs, tables, book rests, little boxes, anything I needed really. So if you ever come to one of my soirées, you will see some of the things I’ve made. Most people think they are antiques, because of the style and dark wood. I made them in Cambridge, and all from discarded wood and other materials I used to collect and bring home.

I built things usually because I needed something, or when I found some nice material that inspired me to make something. For example, I once found a nice piece of oak that used to be the front of a drawer. I used a router to hollow it out leaving only a narrow wall around the edge and so I made a rectangular tray with bevelled edges, which was just the right size for a sandwich and a cup of tea. I could carry that to wherever I was working, so it was something I could use. I only make practical things.

Another thing that you might want to include is still a little unconventional. I take books or articles that I want to read for my research or personal interest, and I scan them (if necessary) and then OCR the text and run it through a text-to-speech programme (that turns the text into mp3 files of a computer voice) and load them up onto my phone. This is why I always have headphones on; I do not listen to music, I listen to audio books. If I was a student, I would do this, because the amount I read is far beyond what I could do otherwise. Last year I read 98 complete books, not counting the ones I just read chunks of, or articles etc. which I do not count. That is thousands of hours which are reclaimed. I even listen when I am mountain biking, I have gotten used to it, so all those hours are not wasted. Yesterday, I went mountain biking, and I am listening to the latest volume of the correspondences of Charles Darwin, so I get every word this way. That is my secret weapon.

Most people are just not ready for it, or it is not to their taste. A lot of people ask me how I can stand listening to an electronic voice, as if it sounded like Stephen Hawking. (It is much better than that.) But I do not hear the voice anymore; I hear the words, I follow the meaning, I do not care about the voice. If I could download the book into my head, I would, but this is as close as I can get to that. I started out with real audio books, read by human beings, but you can only get popular books in that form. Almost everything I need to read is not available that way, but with the technology we have nowadays, you can make your own for free.

There are so many hours where your brain is not doing anything, when you are doing minor tasks, riding the bus, walking here and there. All those hours add up to a lot of time you could be reading.


One concluding question that would help with the continuity of this series: if we were to do a version of the Day in the Life series for students next semester, what would be one question that you’d like to ask them?

How much time do you waste on an average day? That would be a different answer for everyone. When you’re a student, that’s a precious time in your life, so you should get all you can out of it.

Have you ever had a day off?

That question does not work for me; you might say that almost all my time is free time. I have quite a modest teaching portfolio because of my research projects, and my research is also my hobby. So my research and writing during late evenings and weekends does not feel like work. I could say I am working, but it is pursuing my hobby.

This interview was conducted by Ong Kah Jing, with photography by Gary Chia. Other images are from Dr John’s personal collection.