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Erasmus Darwin (12 December 1731 – 18 April 1802) was an Englishmarker physician who turned down George III's invitation to be a physician to the King. He was also a natural philosopher, physiologist, abolitionist, inventor and poet. His poems included much natural history, including a statement of evolution and the relatedness of all forms of life. He was a member of the Darwin–Wedgwood family, which includes his grandsons Charles Darwin and Francis Galton. Darwin was also a founding member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, a discussion group of pioneering industrialists and natural philosophers.

Erasmus Darwin Housemarker, his home in Lichfieldmarker, is now a museum dedicated to Erasmus Darwin and his life's work.


Early life

Born at Elstonmarker Hall, Nottinghamshiremarker near Newark-on-Trentmarker, Englandmarker, 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 parents' choice of name, Erasmus, is an unusual one; the most historically significant person of that name was Desiderius Erasmus, the great humanist. His siblings were:
  • Robert 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 Chesterfieldmarker Grammar School, then later at St John's Collegemarker, Cambridgemarker. He obtained his medical education at Edinburgh Medical School. Whether Darwin ever obtained the formal degree of MD is not known.

Darwin settled in 1756 as a physician at Nottingham, but met with little success and so moved the following year to Lichfieldmarker 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 Midlandsmarker. George III invited him to be Royal Physician, but Darwin declined. In Lichfieldmarker, Darwin wrote "didactic poetry, developed his system of evolution, and invented amongst other things, an organ able to recite the Lord's Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments".

Marriages and children

Darwin in 1770
married twice and had 14 children, including two illegitimate daughters by an employee, and, possibly, at least one further illegitimate daughter.

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:

  • Charles Darwin
  • 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)

The first Mrs. Darwin died in 1770. A governess, Mary Parker, was hired to look after Robert. By late 1771, employer and employee 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 boarding school for girls. In 1782, Mary Sr (the governess) married Joseph Day (1745–1811), a Birmingham merchant, and moved away.

Darwin may have fathered another child, this time with a married woman. A Lucy Swift gave birth in 1771 to a baby, also named Lucy, who was christened a daughter of her mother and William Swift, but there is reason to believe the father was really Darwin. Lucy Jr. married John Hardcastle in Derbymarker 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, Darwin could only make his feelings known for her through poetry. When Edward Pole died, Darwin married Elizabeth and moved to her home, Radbourne Hallmarker, four miles (6 km) west of Derby. The hall and village are these days known as Radbournemarker. 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 Priorymarker, just north of Derbymarker. He is buried in All Saints Church, Breadsall.

Erasmus Darwin is commemorated on one of the Moonstonesmarker, a series of monuments in Birminghammarker.


Botanical works

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 that we 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 anticipated the views of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and Lamarckism, which foreshadowed the modern theory of evolution and the modern evolutionary synthesis. 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:

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.

Poem on evolution

Erasmus Darwin offered the first glimpse of his theory of evolution, obliquely, in a question at the end of a long footnote to his popular poem The Loves of the Plants (1789), which was republished throughout the 1790s in several editions as The Botanic Garden. His poetic concept was to anthropomorphize the stamen (male) and pistil (female) sexual organs, as bride and groom. In this stanza on the flower Curcuma (also Flax and Tumeric) the "youths" are infertile, and he devotes the footnote to other examples of neutered organs in flowers, insect castes, and finally associates this more broadly with many popular and well-known cases of vestigal organs (male nipples, the third and fourth wings of flies, etc.)

65 Woo'd with long care, CURCUMA cold and shy

Meets her fond husband with averted eye:

Four beardless youths the obdurate beauty move

With soft attentions of Platonic love.

"Curcuma_. l. 65. Turmeric. One male and one female inhabit thisflower; but there are besides four imperfect males, or filaments withoutanthers upon them, called by Linneus eunuchs. The flax of our countryhas ten filaments, and but five of them are terminated with anthers;the Portugal flax has ten perfect males, or stamens; the Verbena of ourcountry has four males; that of Sweden has but two; the genus Albuca, theBignonia Catalpa, Gratiola, and hemlock-leaved Geranium have only halftheir filaments crowned with anthers. In like manner the florets, whichform the rays of the flowers of the order frustraneous polygamy of theclass syngenesia, or confederate males, as the sun-flower, are furnishedwith a style only, and no stigma: and are thence barren. There is alsoa style without a stigma in the whole order dioecia gynandria; the maleflowers of which are thence barren. The Opulus is another plant, whichcontains some unprolific flowers. In like manner some tribes of insectshave males, females, and neuters among them: as bees, wasps, ants."

"There is a curious circumstance belonging to the class of insects whichhave two wings, or diptera, analogous to the rudiments of stamens abovedescribed; viz. two little knobs are found placed each on a stalk orpeduncle, generally under a little arched scale; which appear to berudiments of hinder wings; and are called by Linneus, halteres, orpoisers, a term of his introduction. A.T. Bladh. Amaen. Acad. V. 7. Otheranimals have marks of having in a long process of time undergonechanges in some parts of their bodies, which may have been effected toaccommodate them to new ways of procuring their food. The existence ofteats on the breasts of male animals, and which are generally replete witha thin kind of milk at their nativity, is a wonderful instance of thiskind. Perhaps all the productions of nature are in their progress togreater perfection! an idea countenanced by the modern discoveries anddeductions concerning the progressive formation of the solid parts of theterraqueous globe, and consonant to the dignity of the Creator of allthings."

Darwin's final long poem, The Temple of Nature, was published posthumously in 1803. The poem was originally titled The Origin of Society. It is considered his best poetic work. It centers on his own newly-conceived theory of evolution. The poem traces the progression of life from microorganisms to civilized society. Darwin largely anticipated most of what his grandson Charles Darwin would later propose, except for the idea of natural selection.

His poetry was admired by Coleridge and Wordsworth. It often made reference to his interests in science; for example botany and steam engines.

Education of women

The last two leaves of Darwin's A plan for the conduct of female education in boarding schools (1797) contain a book list, an apology for the work, and an advert for "Miss Parkers School". The work probably resulted from his liaison with Mary Parker.The school advertised on the last page is the one he set up in Ashbourne, Derbyshiremarker for their two illegitimate children, Susanna and Mary.

Darwin regretted that a good education had not been generally available to women in Britain in his time, and drew on the ideas of Locke, Rousseau, and Genlismarker in organising his thoughts. Addressing the education of middle class girls, Darwin argued that amorous romance novels were inappropriate and that they should seek simplicity in dress. He contends that young women should be educated in schools, rather than privately at home, and learn appropriate subjects. These subjects include physiognomy, physical exercise, botany, chemistry, mineralogy, and experimental philosophy. They should familiarize themselves with arts and manufactures through visits to sites like Coalbrookdale, and Wedgwood's potteries; they should learn how to handle money, and study modern languages. Darwin's educational philosophy took the view that men and women should have different, but complementary capabilities, skills, spheres, and interests. In the context of the times, this program may be read as a modernising influence.

Lunar Society

The Lunar Society: these dates indicate the year in which Darwin became friends with these people, who, in turn, became members of the Lunar Society. The Lunar Society existed from 1765 to 1813.

Before 1765: After 1765:

Darwin also established a lifelong friendship with Benjamin Franklin, who shared Darwin's support for the American and French revolutions. The Lunar Society was instrumental as an intellectual driving force behind England's Industrial Revolution.

The members of the Lunar Society, and especially Darwin, opposed the slave trade. He attacked it in The Botanic Garden (1789–1791), and in The Loves of Plants (1789) and The Economy of Vegetation (1791).

Other activities

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 Cliftonmarker 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.

Cosmological speculation

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.

Rocket engine

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.

Major publications

  • Erasmus Darwin, A Botanical Society at Lichfield. A System of Vegetables, according to their classes, orders... translated from the 13th edition of Linnaeus’ Systema Vegetabiliium. 2 vols., 1783, Lichfield, J. Jackson, for Leigh and Sotheby, London.
  • Erasmus Darwin, A Botanical Society at Lichfield. The Families of Plants with their natural characters...Translated from the last edition of Linnaeus’ Genera Plantarum. 1787, Lichfield, J. Jackson, for J. Johnson, London.
  • Erasmus Darwin, The Botanic Garden, Part I, The Economy of Vegetation. 1791 London, J. Johnson.
  • Part II, The Loves of the Plants. 1789, London, J. Johnson.
  • Erasmus Darwin, Zoonomia; or, The Laws of Organic Life, 1794, Part I. London, J. Johnson,
  • Part I-III. 1796, London, J. Johnson.
  • Darwin, Erasmus 1797. A plan for the conduct of female education in boarding schools. J. Johnson, Derby. 4to, 128 pages; last two leaves contain a book list, an apology for the work, and an advert for "Miss Parkers School".
  • Erasmus Darwin, Phytologia; or, The Philosophy of Agriculture and Gardening. 1800, London, J. Johnson.
  • Erasmus Darwin, The Temple of Nature; or, The Origin of Society. 1806–1807, London, J. Johnson.

Family tree

Appearance in fiction and music

  • Charles Sheffield, an author noted largely for hard science fiction, wrote a number of stories featuring Darwin in a manner quite similar to Sherlock Holmes. These stories were collected in a book, The Amazing Dr. Darwin.
  • Darwin's opposition to slavery in poetry was included by Benjamin Zephaniah in a reading. This inspired the establishment of the Genomic Dub Collective, whose album includes quotations from Erasmus "Ras" Darwin, his grandson Charles Darwin and Haile Selassie.
  • The forgetting of Erasmus' designs for a rocket is a major plot point in Stephan Baxter's tale of alternate universes, Manifold: Origin.
  • Phrases from Darwin's poem The Botanic Garden are used as chapter headings in The Pornographer of Vienna by Lewis Crofts.
  • British poet J.H. Prynne took on the pseudonym Erasmus W. Darwin for his "plant time" bulletins in the pages of Bean News (1972).

See also


  1. Pevsner N. The Buildings of England: Nottinghamshire. Penguin, Harmondsworth 1951. p67
  2. Error 404
  3. Allen, Richard C. 1999. David Hartley on human nature. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press. ISBN 0-7914-4233-0
  4. DNB entry for Erasmus Darwin. Oxford.

Further reading

  • Darwin, Erasmus. (1794-6). Zoonomia. J. Johnson (reissued by Cambridge University Press, 2009; ISBN 9781108005494)
  • King-Hele, Desmond. 1963. Doctor Darwin. Scribner's, N.Y.
  • King-Hele, Desmond. 1977. Doctor of Revolution: the life and genius of Erasmus Darwin. Faber, London.
  • King-Hele, Desmond (ed) 1981. The Letters of Erasmus Darwin Cambridge University Press.
  • King-Hele, Desmond. 1999. Erasmus Darwin: a life of unequalled achievement Giles de la Mare Publishers.
  • King-Hele, Desmond (ed) 2002. Charles Darwin's 'The Life of Erasmus Darwin Cambridge University Press.
  • Krause, Ernst 1879. Erasmus Darwin, with a preliminary notice by Charles Darwin. Murray, London.
  • Pearson, Hesketh. 1930. Doctor Darwin. Dent, London.
  • Porter, Roy, 1989. 'Erasmus Darwin: doctor of evolution?' in 'History, Humanity and Evolution: Essays for John C. Greene, ed. James R. Moore.
  • Seward, Anna 1804. Memoirs of the life of Dr. Darwin.
  • Uglow, Jennifer 2003. Lunar Men: the friends who made the future Faber, London.

External links

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