A slave, he was probably born on a wood plantation in Demerara, British Guiana (present-day Guyana, South America). As was common, he was given the surname of his master, Charles Edmonstone, who owned the plantation and also owned the Cardross Park estate at Cardross, near Dumbarton in Scotland. Around 1812 the plantation was visited by the naturalist Charles Waterton, who spent considerable time teaching John Edmonstone taxidermy.
In 1817 Edmonstone came to Scotland with his master, possibly to become a servant to the Edmonstone family at Cardross Park. The move meant that he became free, and he took employment in Glasgow, then moved to Edinburgh where in 1823 he set up shop as a "bird-stuffer" at 37 Lothian Street. From this shop, he taught taxidermy to students attending the nearby University of Edinburgh, including Charles Darwin in 1826. Edmonstone also undertook work for the Royal Museum of the University. He moved his taxidermy shop to Edinburgh's main shopping thoroughfare, opening at 29 and then later 66 Princes Street. In the 1840s he moved shop again to 10 South St David's Street.
Edmonstone gave Darwin inspiring accounts of tropical rain forests in South America and may have encouraged him to explore there. The taxidermy Darwin learnt from Edmonstone helped him greatly during the voyage of HMS Beagle. However, Darwin does not mention him by name, so the identification of Edmonstone as Darwin's teacher is not completely certain and is based on the research of R. B. Freeman. Edmonstone provided tuition to students,
In 2009, a plaque to commemorate Edmonstone was commissioned by the London arts venue, Kings Place, to be made by Wedgwood porcelain firm. The plaque was put up at Negociants Bar, in Lothian Street, Edinburgh, but has since been lost.
- BBC. "BBC - Radio 4 Making History - Latest programme". www.bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 2 January 2018.
- McNish, James (16 October 2020). "John Edmonstone: the man who taught Darwin taxidermy". Natural History Museum. Retrieved 24 April 2021.
- "John Edmonstone: Enslaved Man to (free as a) Bird-Stuffer". National Records of Scotland. 31 May 2013. Retrieved 30 June 2021.
- "Toespraak Mcewen (eng)". 23 December 2005. Archived from the original on 23 December 2005. Retrieved 2 January 2018.
- Post Office Directories, Edinburgh, 1823–1843.
- Freeman, R. B. (1978). "Darwin's negro bird-stuffer". Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London. 33: 83–86. doi:10.1098/rsnr.1978.0006. S2CID 145699083.
- "Memorial for Darwin slave mentor". 9 March 2009. Retrieved 9 October 2020.
- Mitchell, Hilary (8 October 2019). "The amazing tale of John Edmonstone: the freed slave who taught Charles Darwin in Edinburgh". Edinburgh Live. Retrieved 9 October 2020.
- "100 Great Black Britons - John Edmonstone". www.100greatblackbritons.com. Retrieved 6 December 2018.
- Peretz, Jeremy Jacob (Winter 2019). "Golden Shovel #2: John Edmonston(e), or 'Darwin's negro bird-stuffer'". African American Review. 52 (4): 394–395. doi:10.1353/afa.2019.0059 – via Project Muse.