Portrait of Erasmus Darwin by Joseph Wright of Derby (1792)
|Born||12 December 1731
Elston Hall, Nottinghamshire near Newark-on-Trent
|Died||18 April 1802|
Erasmus Darwin (12 December 1731 – 18 April 1802) trained as a physician and wrote extensively on the subjects of medicine and botany. In addition, he was known to compose poetry. He lived in Lichfield and Derby, England. He was one of the founder members of the Lunar Society, a discussion group of pioneering industrialists and natural philosophers. He was a member of the Darwin — Wedgwood family, most famously including his grandson, Charles Darwin.
Darwin was born at Elston Hall, Nottinghamshire near Newark-on-Trent, the youngest of four sons of Robert Darwin of Elston (1682-1754), a lawyer, and his wife Elizabeth Hill (1702-1797). His brothers were William Alvey Darwin (1726-1783), Robert Waring Darwin (1724-1816) and John Darwin, rector of Elston.
He was educated at Chesterfield School then later at St John's College, Cambridge. He obtained his degree at Edinburgh Medical School. He settled in 1756 as a physician at Nottingham, but meeting with little success he moved in the following year to Lichfield. He practised medicine in Lichfield in Staffordshire for twenty years; George III invited him to be Royal Physician but he declined.
Darwin married twice and had 14 children, including 2 illegitimate daughters by a mistress, and at least one further illegitimate daughter is suspected.
In 1757 he married Mary (Polly) Howard (1740-1770). They had four sons and one daughter, two of whom (a son and a daughter) died in infancy:
The first Mrs Darwin died in 1770 and a governess, Mary Parker was hired to look after Robert. By late 1771 Darwin and Miss Parker had become involved and they had two illegitimate daughters:
Susanna and Mary Jr later established a school. In 1782 Mary Sr married Joseph Day (1745–1811), a Birmingham merchant and moved away.
Meanwhile, Lucy, daughter of Lucy Swift was born in 1771, and was christened a daughter of William and Lucy Swift, but she may have been Erasmus Darwin's daughter . Lucy jr married John Hardcastle in Derby in 1792 and their daughter Mary married Francis Boott, the physician.
In 1775 Darwin met Elizabeth Pole, daughter of Charles Colyear, 2nd Earl of Portmore, and wife of Colonel Edward Pole (1718-1780), but as she was married could only make his feelings known for her through poetry. Edward Pole died in 1780 however, and so in 1781 Darwin married Elizabeth Pole and moved to her home, Radburn Hall, four miles west of Derby. (The hall and village are these days known as Radbourne.) In 1782 they moved to Full Street, Derby. They had four sons, one of whom died in infancy, and three daughters:
Darwin died suddenly on the 18 April 1802, weeks after having moved to Breadsall Priory just north of Derby. He is buried in All Saints Church, Breadsall.
Erasmus Darwin is commemorated on one of the Moonstones; a series of monuments in Birmingham.
His most important scientific work is his Zoönomia (1794–1796), which contains a system of pathology, and a treatise on "generation", in which he, in the words of his famous grandson, Charles Robert Darwin, anticipated the views of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who in turn is regarded to have foreshadowed the theory of evolution. The essence of his views is contained in the following passage, which he follows up with the conclusion that one and the same kind of living filament is and has been the cause of all organic life:
Would it be too bold to imagine that, in the great length of time since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind would it be too bold to imagine that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which the great First Cause endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions and associations, and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down these improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!
Erasmus Darwin was familiar with the earlier evolutionary thinking of James Burnett, Lord Monboddo and cited him in his 1803 work Temple of Nature.
Another of his grandsons was Francis Galton (see family tree below).
In addition to the Lunar Society, Erasmus Darwin belonged to the influential Derby Philosophical Society, as did his brother-in-law Samuel Fox (see family tree below). He experimented with the use of air and gases to alleviate infections and cancers in patients. A Pneumatic Institution was established at Clifton in 1799 for clinically testing these ideas. He conducted research into the formation of clouds, on which he published in 1788. He also inspired Robert Weldon's Somerset Coal Canal caisson lock.
Darwin's experiments in galvanism were an important source of inspiration for Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein. His poetry was admired by Coleridge and Wordsworth. It often made reference to his interests in science; for example botany and steam engines. His most famous work of poetry was The Botanic Garden.
Contemporary literature dates the cosmological theories of the Big Bang and Big Crunch to the 19th and 20th centuries. However Erasmus Darwin had speculated on these sorts of events in The Botanic Garden, A Poem in Two Parts: Part 1, The Economy of Vegetation, 1791:
Roll on, ye Stars! exult in youthful prime,
Mark with bright curves the printless steps of Time;
Near and more near your beamy cars approach,
And lessening orbs on lessening orbs encroach; —
Flowers of the sky! ye too to age must yield,
Frail as your silken sisters of the field!
Star after star from Heaven's high arch shall rush,
Suns sink on suns, and systems systems crush,
Headlong, extinct, to one dark center fall,
And Death and Night and Chaos mingle all!
— Till o'er the wreck, emerging from the storm,
Immortal Nature lifts her changeful form,
Mounts from her funeral pyre on wings of flame,
And soars and shines, another and the same.
Darwin was the inventor of several devices, though he did not patent any. He believed this would damage his reputation as a doctor, and encouraged his friends to patent their own modifications of his designs.
In notes dating 1779, a sketch of a simple liquid-fuel rocket engine or ramjet can be found, with hydrogen and oxygen tanks connected by plumbing and pumps to an elongated combustion chamber and expansion nozzle, a concept not to be seen again until one century later.
Organic life beneath the shoreless waves
Was born and nurs'd in ocean's pearly caves;
First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
These, as successive generations bloom,
New powers acquire and larger limbs assume;
Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
And breathing realms of fin and feet and wing.
— The Temple of Nature 1802
For if we may compare infinities, it would seem to require a greater infinity of power to cause the causes of effects, than to cause the effects themselves. This idea is analogous to the improving excellence observable in every part of the creation; such as in the progressive increase of the solid or habitable parts of the earth from water; and in the progressive increase of the wisdom and happiness of its inhabitants; and is consonant to the idea of our present situation being a state of probation, which by our exertion we may improve, and are consequently responsible for our actions.
— Zoönomia, vol. 1 1794