Erasmus Darwin

Erasmus Darwin

Darwin, Erasmus, 1731-1802, English physician and poet. During most of his life he practiced medicine in Lichfield and cultivated a botanical garden. He was a prominent member of the Lichfield literary group, which included Anna Seward and Thomas Day. In a long poem, The Botanic Garden (1789-91), Darwin expounded the botanical system of Linnaeus. His Zoonomia (1794-96), explaining organic life according to evolutionary principles, anticipates later theories. He was the grandfather of Charles Darwin and of Francis Galton.

See biography by D. King-Hele (1964).

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 includes his grandson, Charles Darwin.


Early life

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 later 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.

Darwin settled in 1756 as a physician at Nottingham, but met with little success and so moved the following year to Lichfield to try to establish a practise 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. In Lichfield, 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 married twice and had 14 children, including 2 illegitimate daughters by a mistress, 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 (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).

The first Mrs. Darwin died in 1770. 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.

Meanwhile, Lucy, daughter of Lucy Swift (was born in 1771, and was christened a daughter of William and Lucy Swift; but she may have been Erasmus Darwin's daughter. 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. Edward Pole died in 1780. So, in 1781, Darwin married Elizabeth Pole 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 the 18 April 1802, 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.

Scientific writings

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, 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:

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.

Another of his grandsons was Francis Galton (see family tree below).

Poem on evolution

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 Darwin's 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. His most famous work of poetry was The Botanic Garden.

Lunar Society

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

Prior to 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.

Other achievements

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.

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.

Anti-slavery campaigner

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).

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, 1792, Part I. London, J. Johnson,
  • Part I-III. 1796, London, J. Johnson.
  • Erasmus Darwin, A Plan for the Conduct of Female Education in Boarding Schools, 1797, Derby, for J. Johnson.
  • 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 style quite similar to Sherlock Holmes. These stories were collected in a single 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 of a rocket is a major plot point in Stephan Baxter's tale alternate universes Manifold: Origin.

Referred to as an influence on Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Phrases from Darwin's poem The Botanic Garden are used as chapter headings in The Pornographer of Vienna by Lewis Crofts.


  • Desmond King-Hele, Erasmus Darwin: A Life of Unequalled Achievement 1999, Giles de la Mare Publishers
  • Desmond G. King-Hele (ed.), Charles Darwin's 'The Life of Erasmus Darwin 2002, Cambridge University Press
  • Desmond G. King-Hele, The Letters of Erasmus Darwin 1981, Cambridge University Press
  • Jennifer Uglow, Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future 2003, Faber and Faber

External links

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