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Erasmus Darwin

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Erasmus Darwin (12 December 1731 – 18 April 1802), was an English physician, natural philosopher, physiologist, inventor and poet. 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, which most famously included his grandson, Charles Darwin.

1731 Darwin was born at Elston Hall, Nottinghamshire near Newark-on-Trent, England, the youngest of seven children of Robert Darwin of Elston (12 August 1682 - 20 November 1754), a lawyer, and his wife Elizabeth Hill (1702-1797). His siblings were:

  • Robert Waring Darwin (17 October 1724-4 November 1816)
  • Elizabeth Darwin (15 September 1725- 8 April 1800
  • William Alvey Darwin (3 October 1726-7 October 1783)
  • Anne Darwin (12 November 1727 - 3 August 1813
  • Susannah Darwin (10 April 1729 - 29 September 1789
  • John Darwin, rector of Elston (28 September 1730 - 24 May 1805

He was educated at Chesterfield Grammar School, then at St John's College, Cambridge. He obtained his medical education at Edinburgh Medical School. Whether Darwin ever obtained the formal degree of MD is not known.

1756 Settled in Nottingham as a physician but met with little success and so moved the following year to Lichfield to try to establish a practice there. A few weeks after his arrival, using a novel course of treatment, he restored the health of a young man whose death seemed inevitable. This ensured his success in the new locale. Darwin was a highly successful physician for more than fifty years in the Midlands. George III invited him to be Royal Physician, but Darwin declined.

Married twice and had 14 children, including 2 illegitimate daughters by a mistress, and, possibly, at least one further illegitimate daughter.

1757 married Mary (Polly) Howard (1740-1770). They had four sons and one daughter, two of whom (a son and a daughter) died in infancy:

  • Charles Darwin (1758-1778)
  • Erasmus Darwin II (1759-1799)
  • Elizabeth Darwin (1763), survived 4 months.
  • Robert Waring Darwin (1766-1848), father of the naturalist Charles Darwin
  • William Alvey Darwin (1767), survived 19 days.

1770 Mrs Darwin died. A governess, Mary Parker, was hired to look after Robert.

By late 1771, Darwin and Parker had become intimately involved and together they had two illegitimate daughters:

  • Susanna Parker (1772-1856)
  • Mary Parker Jr (1774–1859)

Susanna and Mary Jr later established a school boarding school for girls. In 1782, Mary Sr married Joseph Day (1745–1811), a Birmingham merchant, and moved away.

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, Darwin could only make his feelings known for her through poetry. Edward Pole died in 1780.

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.)

1782 they moved to Full Street, Derby. They had four sons, one of whom died in infancy, and three daughters:

  • Edward Darwin (1782-1829)
  • Frances Ann Violetta Darwin (1783-1874), married Samuel Tertius Galton, was the mother of Francis Galton
  • Emma Georgina Elizabeth Darwin (1784-1818)
  • Sir Francis Sacheverel Darwin (1786-1859)
  • John Darwin (1787-1818)
  • Henry Darwin (1789-1790), died in infancy.
  • Harriet Darwin (1790-1825), married Admiral Thomas James Malling

1802 Darwin died suddenly on the 18 April, 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.

Darwin formed the Lichfield Botanical Society in order to translate the works of the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus from Latin into English. This took seven years. The result was two publications - "A System of Vegetables" between 1783 and 1785 and "The Families of Plants" in 1787. In these volumes, Darwin coined many of the English names of plants in use today.

Darwin then wrote The Loves of the Plants, a long poem, which was a popular rendering of Linnaeus' works. Darwin also wrote Economy of Vegetation, and together the two were published as The Botanic Garden.

Darwin's most important scientific work is "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. Darwin based his theories on David Hartley's psychological theory of "associationism". 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:

Erasmus Darwin was familiar with the earlier evolutionary thinking of James Burnett, Lord Monboddo, and cited him in his 1803 work "Temple of Nature".

In addition to the Lunar Society, Erasmus Darwin belonged to the influential Derby Philosophical Society, as did his brother-in-law Samuel Fox. He experimented with the use of air and gases to alleviate infections and cancers in patients. A Pneumatic Institute 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".

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:

  • A horizontal windmill, which he designed for Josiah Wedgwood (who would be Charles Darwin's other grandfather).
  • A carriage that would not tip over (1766).
  • A speaking machine (at Clifton in 1799).
  • A canal lift for barges.
  • A minute artificial bird.
  • A copying machine (1778).
  • A variety of weather monitoring machines.
  • An artesian well (1783).

In notes dating to 1779, Darwin made a sketch of a simple liquid-fuel rocket engine, 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.

Darwin, along with other members of the Lunar Society, opposed the slave trade, and attacked it in The Botanic Garden (1789 - 1791), in both The Loves of Plants (1789) and The Economy of Vegetation (1791).

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