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Darwin, Erasmus

Darwin, Erasmus

(b. Elston Hall, near Nottingham, England, 12 December 1731; d, Breadsall Priory, near Derby, England, 18 April 1802)

medicine, scientific poetry, botany, technology.

Erasmus Darwin was the seventh child and fourth and youngest son of Robert Darwin, a retired barrister of independent means. He was educated at Chesterfield School from the age of nine, and from there, at the age of eighteen, he was awarded a Lord Exeter scholarship to St. John’s College, Cambridge. At Cambridge Darwin studied classics, mathematics, and medicine, taking the M. B. in 1755. (Although his grandson, Charles Darwin, claimed that Erasmus Darwin took the B. A. at Cambridge in 1754, there is no record of this; nor is there record of his having taken the M. D., although it appears on the title pages of his books, his numerous Royal Society papers, and in many notices, but not on the monument erected by his widow.) He did, however, attend William Hunter’s anatomy lectures in London while he was still at Cambridge, and then spent two years, 1754 and 1755, at the Edinburgh Medical School, returning to Cambridge to take the M. B.; later he spent several months in further study at Edinburgh.

In 1756 Darwin started medical practice at Nottingham, but attracted few patients and moved after two months to Lichfield. Shortly after his arrival there, Darwin was called to see a Mr. Inge, who had been pronounced incurable by another physician of the town. Under his care, the patient recovered, and from then on Darwin’s fame spread.

As a physician, Darwin dealt with each case upon its merits; he reflected on the symptoms and then individualized treatment. He argued, like Hippocrates, by analogy, which led him to the notion of inoculation for measles, an experiment he tried upon two of his children with singular lack of success. He devised new treatments for illness and disability; recognized the importance of heredity in disease; held enlightened views on the treatment of the mentally afflicted; and, like many of his contemporaries, was interested in public health and urged better ventilation, better sewage disposal, and advised that graveyards be built outside the limits of the town. He was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1761.

In 1757 Darwin married Mary Howard, with whom he lived happily until her death in 1770. There were three sons of this marriage—Charles, a brilliant medical student at Edinburgh, who died in 1778 at the age of twenty; Erasmus, a lawyer who committed suicide by drowning at the age of forty; and Robert Waring, who practiced medicine at Shrewsbury and was the father of Charles Robert Darwin. Following his wife’s death, Darwin fathered two illegitimate daughters, known as the Misses Parker, who remained in his household. (In the 1790’s Darwin set up a school for these daughters in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, and in 1797 he wrote for them A Plan for the Conduct of Female Education in Boarding Schools, which deals with many topics, not all of them strictly relevant to female education.)

In 1766 Darwin, with Matthew Boulton and Dr. William Small, founded the Lunar Society, which met in Birmingham for scientific discussion, and in the early 1770’s founded the Lichfield Botanical Society. The work of the latter led to a bitter quarrel between Darwin and William Withering, a fellow physician and member of the Lunar Society whom Darwin had persuaded to settle in Birmingham. In 1787 the Lich-field Botanical Society’s translation, in two volumes, of Linnaeus’ Ganera and Mantissae Plantarum appeared. Withering had published his A Botanical Arrangement of all the Vegetables naturally growing in Great Britain in 1775, and the Lichfield Linnaeus is filled with sly allusions to Withering (although never naming him) and his work, especially its English nomenclature, such as, “All the uncouth examples of names and terms above mentioned, amongst a multitude of others, equally objectionable… are taken from that compilation.” It must be recorded that Withering’s work has become more important with the passage of time, while the Lichfield text is no longer of any value.

It may be further noted that this was not Darwin’s first quarrel with Withering; in 1780 Darwin had translated and published the dissertation and Gold Medal essay of the Aesculapian Society of his dead son Charles, appending a series of case notes on treatment of dropsy by digitalis and there by apparently claiming priority for this treatment for himself and his son. Withering’s classic work An Account of the Foxglove was published in 1785, and the preface is dated July of that year. Darwin had already read a paper on the subject to the Royal Society; Withering does not refer to Darwin’s work in his book. Nor does Darwin refer to Withering in his appendix of 1780, although the first case reported was seen in consultation with him. Even if priority of publication is granted Darwin, there seems to be little doubt that it was Withering who demonstrated the value of digitalis and inaugurated systematic use of the drug; in many respects, Darwin seems to have behaved reprehensibly in the course of the wrangle.

In 1777, Darwin bought eight acres of swamp one mile from Lichfield and with great mechanical and botanical skill turned it into a beautiful pleasure garden, comprising lakes and the herboretum that was to serve as his laboratory for the study of plant life. In 1779 he began the first of his major works, The Botanic Garden, a science poem with extensive notes.

In 1778, the year in which his son Charles died, Darwin first met Mrs. Elizabeth Chandos Pole, the wife of Colonel Chandos Pole of Radburn Hall, Derbyshire, and the illegitimate daughter of the second Earl of Portmore. Mrs. Pole brought her two sick children to Darwin’s house, and remained with them there for a few weeks; Darwin cured them, became enamored of her, and sent her verses and gifts. Shortly there after, Mrs. Pole herself became ill; Darwin attended her, and upon her recovery addressed an “Ode to the River Derwent” to her. In 1780 Colonel Pole, many years his wife’s senior, died; in 1781 Darwin and Mrs. Pole were married. They had seven children.

Elizabeth Darwin disliked Lichfield, so the Darwins moved to her earlier home, Radburn Hall, and Erasmus Darwin practiced medicine from Derby, four miles away. In 1783 they moved into Derby itself.

Since Derby was thirty-five miles from Birmingham, Darwin rarely attended meetings of the Lunar Society. In 1783, however, he founded the Derby Philosophical Society, a popular center for the discussion of science and applied technology. The Philosophical Society amassed a library for the use of its members, of which part is preserved in the Derby Museum and Library. Darwin further sought to establish a dispensary, and the manuscript relating to this project is preserved in his Commonplace Book, which also contains discussions of a variety of topics of current interest, some of his case notes—including a description of his own gout—and his ideas for and the sketches of his inventions. (Many of these inventions and plans are noteworthy in that they illustrate the protean character of Darwin’s imagination; among them are plans for canal locks, a horizontal windmill which was used by Wedgwood to grind colors and flints until the advent of Watt’s steam engine, a speaking machine, a telescopic candlestick a stocking frame, a plan for a water closet of a modern type, a rocket motor that used hydrogen and oxygen as propellants, a mechanical bird that flapped its wings, copying machines, and many other ingenious devices.)

The first of Darwin’s four major works, The Botanic Garden, an annotated scientific poem in Augustan couplets, appeared in two parts, of which the second, The Loves of the Plants (1789), was published before the first, The Economy of Vegetation (1791). Darwin decided to publish the second part of the work first because it was better suited “to entertain and charm.” The first part of the work is more ambitious than the second, covering all natural philosophy, and embodying many of the researches and inventions of Wedgwood, Watt, Boulton, and others. The design of the totality was, Darwin wrote, “To enlist Imagination under the banner of Science… to induce the ingenious to cultivate the knowledge of botany… and recommending to their attention the immortal works of the celebrated Swedish naturalist—Linnaeus.”

Darwin believed that prose was suited to abstract ideas, but chose to write poetry for its ability to conjure up visual images; he drew upon the Rosicrucian doctrine of Gnomes, Sylphs, Nymphs, and Salamanders, presiding over the four elements, in his personifications of all scientific, technological, and natural phenomena. Although William Cowper and other early critics greeted The Botanic Garden with praise, the instinct that led Darwin to anonymous publication was justified; in 1798 Canning (then Foreign Under-Secretary in Pitt’s government), in collaboration with Hookham Frere and George Ellis, published a devastating parody of Darwin’s work, entitled The Loves of the Triangles, and Darwin’s reputation as a poet was ruined. One may speculate that Canning’s attack was aimed not only at Darwin, but at his fellow members of the Lunar Society who were radical in thought, supporters of the French and American revolutions, and enemies of slavery—in fact, reviled as democrats and atheists.

Darwin published Zoonomia, in two large volumes in 1794 and 1796. This, his major treatise on medicine and natural science, embodies the work of twenty years. In it, Darwin sets himself a primary task of definition and explanation of the physiological and indeed psychological bases of, for example, the laws of animal causation, and of the four types—irritative, sensitive, voluntary, and associate—of fibrous motions on which he bases his classification of diseases. He follows Plato in the general concept of disease, but substitutes fibrous motions for the four humors, and regards all diseases as originating in “the exuberance, deficiency, or retrograde action of the faculties of the sensorium, as their proximate cause; and consist in the disordered motions of the fibres of the body, as the proximate effect of the exertions of those disordered faculties.” Like his predecessors, Darwin’s nomenclatures of “diseases” are, by and large, the Latin translations of signs and symptoms. His classification is indebted to Sauvages de la Croix and William Cullen; he makes no reference to Morgagni.

The Zoonomia also contains a defense of the spontaneous generation of life from the scum of decomposing matter, and gives even clearer expression to the theory of biological evolution that Darwin had begun to develop in The Botanic Garden. In his recurrent discussions of evolution and natural selection Darwin rejects the theory of special creation as enunciated by Linnaeus and holds that species are variable and constantly changing. He believes the earth to be millions of years old; in Zoonomia he describes the changes occurring in warm-blooded animals in various conditions and asks:

Would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament… 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 those improvements to its posterity, world without end!

He extends the argument to include cold-blooded animals and vegetables and concludes, “Shall we conjecture that one and the same kind of living filament is and has been the cause of all organic life,” and that “the whole is one family and one parent.” As we have seen, Darwin further drew upon the notion of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, as did Lamarck. Both may have been inspired by Buffon; both emphasized evolution as an unconscious striving of the organism for survival and adjustment to environmental conditions, resulting in physical change or modification through the use or disuse of organs. Darwin may be credited, however, with the creation of the first consistent, all-embracing hypothesis of evolution. (It is interesting to note that although Charles Darwin wrote that while he had read Zoonomia as a young man, it had had no effect on him; the first draft of On the Origin of Species was, however, entitled Zoonomia.)

Darwin’s third major work, Phytologia (1800), is primarily an agricultural treatise. Subtitled The Philosophy of Agriculture and Gardening, it illustrates the wide variety of his interests. It was published at the bequest of Sir John Sinclair, President of the London Board of Agriculture. Although the book deals with such practical matters as manures, draining and watering of land, plant diseases and how to cure them, and reform of the Linnaean system of classification, Darwin considered it to be essentially a continuation and application to plants of the discussion of biological evolution that he had begun in Zoonomia. Darwin here (as in The Botanic Garden) treats plants as inferior animals, endowed with lungs (leaves) and lacteals (because the roots absorb liquids which pass up the stems). Sinclair, who inspired the book, called it, “A most valuable performance… but on the whole, it is too philosophical a treatise to be calculated for general use.” Nevertheless, a good deal of the less philosophical matter of Phytologia is of particular interest; in it Darwin not only recommended a lime-sulfur mixture as an insecticide, but also proposed ecological controls, suggesting that insect pests might be limited by increasing the numbers of their enemies—for example, the larvae of the aphidophorus (ichneumon) fly might be kept down by encouraging the breeding of the hedge birds, larks, and rooks which feed on them.

Darwin’s last book, The Temple of Nature (published posthumously in 1803), is another long nature poem with copious notes. In it, Darwin clearly affirms his belief that the ancient myths—the Egyptian mysteries, the Greek Eleusinian mysteries, and the old pagan stories—embrace basic natural truths and can thus be united with the world of science. Darwin’s extravagant theorizing does not mask his views as an enthusiastic apostle of progress and evolution, however. Indeed, The Temple of Nature may be taken as evidence of Darwin’s wish to write another Essay on Man.

Darwin’s enthusiasm for pagan myths and mysteries, his views on evolution, his liberal outlook, and his humanistic principles all led to his being labeled an atheist; the accusation lacks support, however. He is shown by The Temple of Nature to be a radical deist who believed no creed superior to another but who did not doubt the divine wisdom of creation or the moral wisdom of the Bible. Perhaps Irwin Primer’s comment on Darwin’s last book may sum it up: “As a scientific world view, his poem abounds prophetically and forebodingly with the difficulty of reconciling traditional faith in a rational cosmos with the empirical evidence of an expanding and evolving organic nature, a nature that aims at plenitude and seems remarkably careless of individuals.”

In 1801, Darwin suffered a serious illness, the symptoms of which were consistent with myocardial infarction, after which he never recovered his energy and zest for life. Early in 1802 he moved to Breadsall Priory, a house bought by his son Erasmus shortly before his suicide, and there had a fatal seizure.


I. Original Works. Darwin’s papers include “Remarks on the Opinion of Henry Eeles, Esq.; Concerning the Ascent of Vapour,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 50 (1757), 240–254; “An Uncommon Case of Haemopysis,” ibid., 64 (1774), 344–349; “A New Case of Squinting,” ibid., 68 (1778), 86–96; “An Account of an Artificial Spring of Water,” ibid., 75 (1785), 1–7; “An Account of the successful use of Foxglove, in some Dropsies, and in Pulmonary Consumption,” in Medical Transactions of the College of Physicians, 3 (1785), 255–286; and “Frigorific Experiments on the Mechanical Expansion of Air, explaining the Cause of the great Degree of Cold on the Summits of high Mountains, the sudden Condensation of aerial vapour, and the perpetual Mutability of atmospheric Heat,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 78 (1788), 43–52.

Darwin’s major works are The Botanic Garden, Part II, containing The Loves of the Plants, a Poem with Philosophical Notes (London, 1789); The Botanic Garden, Part I, containing the Economy of Vegetation, a Poem with Philosophical Notes (London, 1791); Zoonomia; or the Laws of Organic Life, 2 vols. (London, 1794–1796); Phytologia, or the Philosophy of Agriculture and Gardening, with the theory of draining morasses, and with an improved construction of the drill plough (London, 1800); and The Temple of Nature; or the Origin of Society; A Poem with Philosophical Notes (London, 1803), of which all except Phytologia appeared in several editions and were translated into several languages.

In addition Darwin edited his son Charles’ Experiments establishing a Criterion between Mucaginous and Purulent Matter. An account of the Retrograde Motions of the Absorbent Vessels of Animal Bodies in some Diseases (Lichfield, 1780) and the Lichfield Botanical Society’s The System of Vegetables (trans. from Linnaeus’ Systema Vegetabilium; London, 1783) and The Families of Plants (trans. from Linnaeus’ Genera Plantarum; London, 1787). His miscellaneous works include “The Natural History of Buxton and Matlock Waters,” in James Pilkington, A View of the Present State of Derbyshire (Derby, 1789); A Plan for the Conduct of Female Education of Boarding Schools (London, 1797); Private Families and Public Seminaries, to which is added, “Rudiments of Taste” in a Series of Letters from a Mother to her Daughter (Philadelphia, 1798); and Poetical Works (London, 1806).

Darwin’s Commonplace Book is kept in the Erasmus Darwin Room in Down House, Kent, which is now a Charles Darwin museum. Several portraits of Darwin are extant, of which the most notable are the earliest known portrait (ca. 1770) by Joseph Wright of Derby, now in the National Portrait Gallery, London; a later portrait by Wright in the Public Art Gallery in Derby; and the last portrait (ca. 1802) by James Rawlinson, in the Collection of the Derby Corporation but on loan to the Erasmus Darwin County Secondary School at Chaddersden.

II. Secondary Literature. Works on Darwin include Lord Cohen of Birkenhead, “Erasmus Darwin,” in University of Birmingham Historical Journal, 11 (1967), 17–40; John Dowson, Erasmus Darwin, Philosopher, Poet and Physician (London, 1861); Desmond King-Hele, Erasmus Darwin, which has extensive bibliographies (London, 1963); Ernst Krause, Erasmus Darwin, trans. from the German by W. S. Dallas, and including a “Life of Dr. Darwin” by Charles Darwin (London, 1879); Hesketh Pearson, Doctor Darwin (London, 1930); and Anna Seward, Memoirs of the Life of Dr. Darwin, Chiefly During his Residence at Lichfield (London, 1804).

Cohen of Birkenhead

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Erasmus Darwin

Erasmus Darwin

The grandfather of evolutionist Charles Darwin, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) was a prominent English physician and poet whose interests included biology, botany, and technology.

Darwin was born December 12, 1731, at Elston Hall, near Newark, in the county of Nottingham. The son of Robert, a retired lawyer, and Elizabeth Hill Darwin, he was educated at Chesterfield School from 1741 to 1750 and studied at Cambridge University from 1750 to 1754. Darwin attended medical school at Edinburgh University from 1750 to 1756 and afterward opened a medical practice in Lichfield, near Birmingham. His medical skills quickly earned him a wide reputation that extended even to London, where King George III is reported to have sought his services as a personal physician. Throughout his career Darwin maintained a thriving medical practice and treated impoverished patients at no charge.

Darwin married Mary Howard in December of 1757. Together they had five children, three of whom survived into adulthood. Their third son, Robert, became the father of the naturalist Charles Darwin. Erasmus Darwin's wife died in 1770, and he continued to live in Lichfield, where he fathered two illegitimate children by a woman named Mary Parker. The two daughters were raised in Darwin's household, and he later helped them establish a school for girls in Ashbourne. In the late 1770s Darwin began cultivating a botanical garden in Lichfield and formed a local botanical society to pursue his interests in that discipline. He moved from Lichfield to Derby following his marriage to a young military widow, Elizabeth Pole, in 1781.

An avid inventor, Darwin often pursued proof of current scientific theories and as a result of his efforts made notable contributions to such areas of study as physics, meteorology, and geology. According to his biographer Desmond King-Hele, Darwin's achievements as a mechanical inventor included a "speaking machine that astonished everyone … [and] a superb copying machine." In addition, his sketches reveal unrealized designs for such advancements as "canal lifts, an 'artificial bird,' and multimirror telescopes." On the strength of his research into the physical properties of gases and steam, Darwin was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1761.

By the mid-1760s Darwin was at the center of a circle of eminent philosophers and inventors that formed in Birmingham. Among the members of the coterie were the inventor James Watt, the manufacturer Matthew Boulton, and the potter Josiah Wedgwood. One of the original members of the society, William Small, whom Darwin had met through his acquaintance with Benjamin Franklin, had formerly been a teacher to Thomas Jefferson. The group formalized their meetings under the title the "Lunar Society," a name derived from their habit of meeting on the evening of a full moon so as to be assured of light for the way home. The "Lunaticks," as they became known, were credited with initiating or advancing many technological developments of the Industrial Revolution. Members of the society discussed scientific and technological issues, inventions, and theories. Chemist Joseph Priestly joined the group in 1780, and his experiments, according to King-Hele, "gave the meetings a chemical focus." In the Dictionary of Literary Biography King-Hele asserted, "The Lunar group was perhaps the strongest intellectual driving force of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, and Darwin did much to keep up their enthusiasm for improving technology."

Combines Science and Poetry

Active in the Cathedral Close literary circle in Lichfield, Darwin later gained considerable literary fame as a poet during the early 1790s. At the height of his fame he was ranked with such significant literary figures as poet John Milton, and in 1797 Samuel Taylor Coleridge called Darwin "the first literary character in Europe, and the most original-minded Man." Darwin's best-known works treat scientific subjects within the formal conventions of verse. Among his most recognizable works is The Botanic Garden, which was inspired by his translations of the botanical writings of Swedish botanist Linnaeus into English. The work, which began as a rendering of Linnaeus's botanical catalog in rhyming couplets, reveals Darwin's early acceptance of Continental developments in chemistry that had not yet gained approval among leading English intellectuals. Published in two parts as The Loves of the Plants in 1789 and The Economy of Vegetation in 1792, the poem is also notable for introducing such terms as "oxygen," "hydrogen," "convoluted," "iridescent," and "frenzied" into the English language. While King-Hele himself has described Darwin's verse as "smooth and skillful," in the Dictionary of Literary Biography he quoted the contemporary opinions of such notable commentators as William Cowper and Horace Walpole. Cowper, in the Analytical Review of May 1789, assessed Darwin's couplets as having "a boldness of projection … unattainable by any hand but that of a master," while Walpole, in private correspondence dated April 1789, hailed Darwin's work as "the most delicious poem upon earth."

In a similar fashion, Darwin's The Temple of Nature traces the development of life and offers his views on evolutionary theory. Posthumously published in 1803, the work had originally been called The Origin of Society, a title the publisher considered too inflammatory as it could be construed as antireligious. In the work Darwin held that all life originated in the sea and can be traced back to a single common ancestor. He also outlined how species diversified in response to environmental factors. The Temple of Nature reads, in part, "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."

Many of Darwin's ideas on evolutionary theory were earlier discussed in the treatise Zoomania, or, the Laws of Organic Life, published in two volumes in 1794 and 1796. Containing an outline of Darwin's extensive medical knowledge, the first volume considers a number of biological and medical subjects, including sleep and instinct, and offers a discussion of evolutionary principles. Darwin investigated such aspects of the problem as how organisms pass through transitional stages, how sexual competition impacts the development of species, and how one species can give rise to another. In the second volume of Zoomania Darwin classified diseases and recommended methods of treatment for each.

Reputation and Legacy

Darwin's chief contributions to the development of life science are perhaps found in his relationship to the advancement of evolutionary theory, in particular to that of his grandson Charles Darwin, and in his participation in the Lunar Society, a group which fostered many of the leading scientific minds of the era. According to King-Hele, "Darwin celebrated the idea of progress via the march of science and technology. He was the laureate of the Industrial Revolution, glorifying the entrepreneurs and engineers … [a]nd ignoring the grief and grime of the factories." In addition, in From Soul to Mind: The Emergence of Psychology from Erasmus Darwin to William James, Edward S. Read has credited Darwin with repositioning psychology in the sciences, driven in part by his view that all mental states derive from the motion of particles in the brain.

As a poet, too, Darwin's influence was significant. His presentation of a humanity integrated with nature influenced the Romantic poets William Blake, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, among others. Darwin was also the author of the social reform treatise A Plan for the Conduct of Female Education in Boarding Schools, 1797, and Phytologia, or the Philosophy of Agriculture and Gardening, 1800. He died following a heart attack in Derby on April 17, 1802.

Further Reading

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 93: British Romantic Poets, 1789-1832, Gale, 1990.

Dictionary of National Biography, Volume V, Oxford University Press, pp. 534-36.

Hassler, Donald M., Erasmus Darwin, Twayne Publishers, 1973.

Read, Edward S., From Soul to Mind: The Emergence of Psychology, from Erasmus Darwin to William James, Yale University Press, 1997.

Los Angeles Times, July 14, 1997.

New Republic, June 12, 1995, p. 42.

"Erasmus Darwin-Champion of Oxygen," (March 24, 1998).

"Prairie Pen: Reflections in Natural History," (March 29, 1998).

"Wilkins Lecture-Erasmus Darwin, the Lunaticks and Evolution," The Royal Society Online, (March 29, 1998).

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Darwin, Erasmus

Erasmus Darwin, 1731–1802, English physician and poet. During most of his life he practiced medicine in Lichfield and cultivated a botanical garden. He was a prominent member of the Lichfield literary group, which included Anna Seward and Thomas Day. In a long poem, The Botanic Garden (1789–91), Darwin expounded the botanical system of Linnaeus. His Zoonomia (1794–96), explaining organic life according to evolutionary principles, anticipates later theories. He was the grandfather of Charles Darwin and of Francis Galton.

See biographies by D. King-Hele (1964) and P. Fara (2012).

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"Darwin, Erasmus." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 25 Apr. 2017 <>.

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