Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802) was born in Nottinghamshire where his father Robert Darwin was a lawyer. Presumably the family lived well because Erasmus went to university in St John’s College Cambridge, then studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh Medical School.
Erasmus Darwin House Museum, Lichfield
The Cathedral can be seen behind the house.
In 1757 he moved to Lichfield, Staffordshire to establish a medical practice there. Erasmus became a highly successful physician, and practiced for 50+ years. The doctor liked sex himself, with his wives, mistresses and other peoples’ girlfriends, and warmly prescribed sex as a cure for hypochondria in his patients. Perhaps that was why George III invited him to be his Royal Physician. More probably, the king was interested in Erasmus’ ideas on hygiene, mental health, balanced diet and the proper treatment of wounds.
Clearly Erasmus was far from a standard suburban GP. He was an inventor of extraordinary breadth, including a canal lift for barges and some weather monitoring machines, both of which were needed by local industry. Alas Erasmus did not patent any of his inventions, even his very clever flushing toilet. He seemed to believe that invoking patents would damage his reputation as a doctor. However his friend Matthew Boulton, another creative thinker and successful inventor, had no such scruples.
Best of all Erasmus co-founded the Lunar Society of Birmingham in 1765, a discussion group where thinking industrialists and natural philosophers could get together in an exciting environment. In 1776 he formed the Lichfield Botanical Society, translating the works of a Swedish botanist into English. The result was two, well thought out publications: A System of Vegetables (early 1780s) and The Families of Plants in 1787.
Erasmus Darwin House Museum, display
Erasmus Darwin was a very close friend of Josiah Wedgwood (1730–95), the founder of the pottery firm, Josiah Wedgwood and Sons. Josiah Wedgwood was also a prominent abolitionist so perhaps they shared a number of important values. Anyhow, so close were the two families that Josiah’s granddaughter, Emma Wedgwood, married Erasmus’ grandson, Charles Darwin. Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911) grandson of Erasmus and cousin of Charles Darwin, was another extraordinary polymath in that family.
I wonder how many people, even those who have read Charles’ Darwin’s writings, would know of grandpa Erasmus’ work? In Lichfield, Erasmus developed his system of evolution, and presumably influenced the later ideas of his grandson Charles Darwin. Remember it was Erasmus who wrote the Laws of Organic Life in 1794, dealing with with pathology, anatomy, psychology and the functioning of the body, decades before On the Origin of Species 1859!!! And I wonder how many people, who have seen Joseph Wright of Derby’s well known portrait of Erasmus, realise who the sitter was?
Erasmus Darwin by Joseph Wright, 76 x 64cm, c1792. Derby Museum and Art Gallery.
Dr Darwin, as you can see, was a rather large man.
Erasmus lived in, and modified a large medieval house near the cathedral close, converting it into a brick Georgian town house. It was here that his Robert Waring Darwin (1766-1848) was born, later father of the naturalist Charles Darwin. And it was this building that functioned as Erasmus’ medical practice, the laboratory for his scientific experiments and the Lunar Society’s gathering place.
In Apr 1999, the Lichfield house became a museum and visitor centre dedicated to his life’s work. Once the renovations were completed, the Erasmus Darwin House Museum was filled with his furniture, books, medical equipment and inventions.
Late in life, Erasmus moved to Derby where he formed the Derby Philosophical Society, a daughter organisation of his earlier Lunar group.
Erasmus Darwin, Zoonomia, Vol. I Or, the Laws of Organic Life, 1794.
What an amazing polymath and Enlightenment thinker Dr Erasmus Darwin was. He made major contributions to learning in 75 diverse areas which included:
1) abolition of slavery 2) ventilation 3) mental illness 4) microscopy 5) warm and cold fronts 6) afforestation 7) water closets 8) moon's origin 9) treatment of dropsy 10) animal camouflage 11) nerve impulses 12) wind-gauges 13) artesian wells 14) windmills 15) artificial insemination 16) nitrogen cycle 17) manures 18) women's emancipation 19) biological adaptation 20) biological pest control 21) origin of life 22) canal locks 23) outer atmosphere 24) carriage design including steam carriages 25) phosphorous 26) photosynthesis 27) centrifugation 28) cloud formation 29) compressed air 30) rotary pumps 31) copying machines 32) secular morality 33) educational reform 34) sewage farms 35) sexual reproduction 36) evolutionary theory 37) speaking machines 38) exercise for children 39) squinting 40) fertilizers 41) limestone deposits 42) formation of coal 43) steam turbines 44) geological stratification 45) hereditary disease 46) insecticides 47) telescopes 48) language 49) temperance 50) timber production.
Examine Jenny Uglow's book, The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World. It was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2003.
For whom the bell tolls
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