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Erasmus Darwin

Erasmus Darwin
Erasmus Darwin c. 1792–1793, oil painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, Derby Museum and Art Gallery
Born (1731-12-12)12 December 1731
Elston Hall, Elston, Nottinghamshire
near Newark-on-Trent
Died 18 April 1802(1802-04-18) (aged 70)
Breadsall, Derby
Resting place All Saints Church, Breadsall
Residence Lichfield

Erasmus Darwin (12 December 1731 – 18 April 1802) was an English physician. One of the key thinkers of the physician to the King.

Erasmus Darwin House, his home in Lichfield, is now a museum dedicated to Erasmus Darwin and his life's work. A school in nearby Chasetown recently converted to Academy status and is now known as Erasmus Darwin Academy.


  • Early life and education 1
  • Personal life 2
  • Death 3
  • Writings 4
    • Botanical works and the Lichfield Botanical Society 4.1
    • Zoonomia 4.2
    • Poem on evolution 4.3
    • Education of women 4.4
  • Lunar Society 5
  • Other activities 6
    • Cosmological speculation 6.1
    • Inventions 6.2
    • Rocket engine 6.3
  • Major publications 7
  • Family tree 8
  • Appearances 9
  • See also 10
  • Notes 11
  • References 12
  • Bibliography 13
    • Works 13.1
    • Biographies and criticism 13.2
  • External links 14

Early life and education

Stone-cast bust of Erasmus Darwin, by W. J. Coffee, c. 1795
Darwin's House in Lichfield, now a museum dedicated to his life and work.

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 (1702–97). The name Erasmus had been used by a number of his family and derives from his ancestor Erasmus Earle, Common Sergent of England under Oliver Cromwell.[2] 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)
  • Charles Darwin, rector of Elston (28 September 1730 – 24 May 1805)

He was educated at Royal Physician, but Darwin declined. In Lichfield, Darwin wrote "didactic poetry, developed his system of evolution, and invented amongst other things, a carriage steering mechanism, a manuscript copier and a speaking machine.

Personal life

Darwin 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:

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.[4] Lucy Jr. married John Hardcastle in Derby 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 Hall, four miles (6 km) west of Derby. The hall and village are these days known as Radbourne. 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 18 April 1802, weeks after having moved to Breadsall Priory, just north of Derby. His body is buried in All Saints Church, Breadsall. Erasmus Darwin is commemorated on one of the Moonstones, a series of monuments in Birmingham.


Botanical works and the Lichfield Botanical Society

Darwin formed the Lichfield Botanical Society (despite the name, composed of only three men, Erasmus Darwin, [7]

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. Among other writers he influenced were Anna Seward and Maria Jacson.


Darwin's most important scientific work, Zoonomia (1794–1796), contains a system of pathology and a chapter on 'Generation'. In the latter, he anticipated some of the views of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, which foreshadowed the modern theory of evolution. Erasmus Darwin's works were read and commented on by his grandson Charles Darwin the naturalist. Erasmus Darwin based his theories on David Hartley's psychological theory of associationism.[8] 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 those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end![9]

Erasmus Darwin also anticipated natural selection in Zoönomia mainly when writing about the "three great objects of desire" for every organism: "lust, hunger, and security."[9] Another remarkable foresight written in Zoönomia that relates to natural selection is Erasmus' thoughts on how a species propagated itself. Erasmus' idea that "the strongest and most active animal should propagate the species, which should thence become improved"[9] was almost identical to the future theory of survival of the fittest.

Erasmus Darwin was familiar with the earlier proto-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

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.

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 centres on his own conception of evolution. The poem traces the progression of life from micro-organisms to civilised society.

His poetry was admired by Wordsworth, although Coleridge was intensely critical, writing, "I absolutely nauseate Darwin's poem".[6] 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, Derbyshire 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 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.[10] 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 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.

Mary Shelley in her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein notes that some unspecified "experiments of Dr. Darwin" were part of the evening discussion topics leading up to her inspiration and creation of her novel.[11]

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.[12]

  • A horizontal windmill, which he designed for Josiah Wedgwood (who would be Charles Darwin's other grandfather, see family tree below).
  • A carriage that would not tip over (1766).
  • A steering mechanism for his carriage, known today as the Ackermann linkage, that would be adopted by cars 130 years later (1759).[12]
  • A speaking machine (at Clifton in 1799).[13]
  • A canal lift for barges.
  • A minute artificial bird.[12]
  • A copying machine (1778).
  • A variety of weather monitoring machines.
  • An artesian well (1783).

Rocket engine

In notes dating to 1779, Darwin made a sketch of a simple hydrogen-oxygen rocket engine, with gas 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.
  • (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. 1803, London, J. Johnson.

Family tree


  • 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).
  • A building on the Nottingham Trent University Clifton Campus is named after him. It is the centre for science teaching, academic offices and study space.
  • Erasmus Darwin appears as a character in Sergey Lukyanenko's novel New Watch as a Dark Other and a prophet living in Regent's Park Estate.

See also


  1. ^ fl. 1740s–1790s. Also Bookseller and Printer in Lichfield. When Darwin left Lichfield in 1781, Jackson took over his botanical garden. (Desmond 1994, Jackson, John p. 377) (Seward 1804, p. 70) His daughter, Miss Mary A(nn) Jackson of Lichfield (Britten & Boulger 1889, p. 180) (fl. 1830s–1840s), was a botanical illustrator, (Desmond 1994, Jackson, Mary Ann p. 377) and author of Botanical Terms illustrated (1842) and Pictorial Flora (1840)


  1. ^
  2. ^ Burke's Landed Gentry, Darwin formerly of Downe, 1966
  3. ^
  4. ^ Lucy Hardcastle, 1771-c1835
  5. ^ Uglow 2002a.
  6. ^ a b Uglow 2002b.
  7. ^ George 2014.
  8. ^ Allen, Richard C. 1999. David Hartley on human nature. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press. ISBN 0-7914-4233-0
  9. ^ a b c : Project Gutenberg text XXIX.4.8ZoonomiaErasmus Darwin,
  10. ^ DNB entry for Erasmus Darwin. Oxford.
  11. ^ Shelley, Mary. (1831 edition)Frankenstein"Introduction" Gutenberg
    "Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. ... They talked of the experiments of Dr. Darwin, (I speak not of what the Doctor really did, or said that he did, but, as more to my purpose, of what was then spoken of as having been done by him,) who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion." [underlining added]
  12. ^ a b c Smith 2005.
  13. ^



Biographies and criticism

  • 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. 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.

External links

  • Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield
  • Works by Erasmus Darwin at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about Erasmus Darwin at Internet Archive
  • Revolutionary Players website
  • "Preface and 'a preliminary notice'" by Charles Darwin in Ernst Krause, Erasmus Darwin (1879)
  • Letter from Erasmus Darwin to Dr. William Withering at Mount Holyoke College
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