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.
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."
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, Darwin and Parker had become intimately involved and together they had two illegitimate daughters:
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 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).
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.
Prior to 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.