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 on Erasmus Darwin

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).