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Erasmus Darwin

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Erasmus Darwin
Erasmus Darwin c. 1792–1793, oil painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, Derby Museum and Art Gallery
Erasmus Robert Darwin

(1731-12-12)12 December 1731
Elston Hall, Elston, Nottinghamshire
near Newark-on-Trent, England
Died18 April 1802(1802-04-18) (aged 70)
Resting placeAll Saints Church, Breadsall
Alma mater
RelativesSee Darwin–Wedgwood family

Erasmus Robert Darwin FRS[1] (12 December 1731 – 18 April 1802) was an English physician. One of the key thinkers of the Midlands Enlightenment, he was also a natural philosopher, physiologist, slave-trade abolitionist,[2] inventor, and poet.

His poems included much natural history, including a statement of evolution and the relatedness of all forms of life.

He was a member of the Darwin–Wedgwood family, which includes his grandsons Charles Darwin and Francis Galton. Darwin was a founding member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, a discussion group of pioneering industrialists and natural philosophers.

He turned down an invitation from George III to become Physician to the King.

Early life and education[edit]

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 in 1731 at Elston Hall, Nottinghamshire, near Newark-on-Trent, England, the youngest of seven children of Robert Darwin of Elston (1682–1754), a lawyer and physician, 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.[3] His siblings were:

  • Robert Waring Darwin of Elston (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)
  • Rev. 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.[4] He obtained his medical education at the University of Edinburgh Medical School.

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 practice there. A few weeks after his arrival, using a novel course of treatment, he restored the health of a young fisherman 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.[5] In 1761, he was elected to the Royal Society.[6] George III invited him to be Royal Physician, but Darwin declined.[5]

Personal life[edit]

Portrait of Erasmus Darwin, 1770, by Joseph Wright of Derby

Darwin married twice and had 14 children, including two illegitimate daughters by an employee, and, possibly, at least one further illegitimate daughter.

Erasmus Darwin's coat of arms. Escutcheon: Argent, on a bend Gules cottised Vert, three escallop shells, Or. Crest: A demi-griffin segreant, Vert, holding in his claws an escallop, Or. Motto: E conchis omnia (All things out of conches/molluscs).

In 1757 he married Mary (Polly) Howard (1740–1770), the daughter of Charles Howard, a Lichfield solicitor.[7] They had four sons and one daughter, two of whom (a son and a daughter) died in infancy:

  • Charles Darwin (1758–1778), uncle of the naturalist
  • Erasmus Darwin Jr (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, 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.

There was also a rumour that Darwin 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. It has been suggested that the father was really Darwin.[8] However, it is more likely that this child was the legitimate daughter of Lamech Swift, at that time owner of the Derby Silk Mill and his wife Dorothy, who became a friend of the two Parker girls.[9] Lucy Swift, later known as Lucy Hardcastle after her marriage, went on to be known as a botanist and teacher.[10]

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 (6.4 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's personal appearance is described in unflattering detail in his Biographical Memoirs, printed by the Monthly Magazine in 1802. Darwin, the description reads, "was of middle stature, in person gross and corpulent; his features were coarse, and his countenance heavy; if not wholly void of animation, it certainly was by no means expressive. The print of him, from a painting of Mr. Wright, is a good likeness. In his gait and dress he was rather clumsy and slovenly, and frequently walked with his tongue hanging out of his mouth."


Darwin had been a Freemason throughout his life, in the Time Immemorial Lodge of Cannongate Kilwinning, No. 2, of Scotland. Later on, Sir Francis Darwin, one of his sons, was made a Mason in Tyrian Lodge, No. 253, at Derby, in 1807 or 1808. His son Reginald was made a Mason in Tyrian Lodge in 1804. Charles Darwin's name does not appear on the rolls of the Lodge but it is very possible that he, like Francis, was a Mason, as he held many Masonic beliefs such as Deism throughout his life.[11]


Darwin died suddenly on 18 April 1802, weeks after having moved to Breadsall Priory, just north of Derby. The Monthly Magazine of 1802, in its Biographical Memoirs of the Late Dr. Darwin, reports that "during the last few years, Dr. Darwin was much subject to inflammation in his breast and lungs; he had a very serious attack of this disease in the course of the last Spring, from which, after repeated bleedings, by himself and a surgeon, he with great difficulty recovered."

Darwin's death, the Biographical Memoirs continues, "is variously accounted for: it is supposed to have been caused by the cold fit of an inflammatory fever. Dr. Fox, of Derby, considers the disease which occasioned it to have been angina pectoris; but Dr. Garlicke, of the same place, thinks this opinion not sufficiently well founded. Whatever was the disease, it is not improbable, surely, that the fatal event was hastened by the violent fit of passion with which he was seized in the morning."

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[edit]

Erasmus Darwin in stipple engraving by Holl, 1803, after J. Rawlinson

Darwin formed 'A Botanical Society, at Lichfield' almost always incorrectly named as the Lichfield Botanical Society (despite the name, composed of only three men, Erasmus Darwin, Sir Brooke Boothby and Mr John Jackson, proctor of Lichfield Cathedral[notes 1])[12][13] to translate the works of the Swedish botanist Carl 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.[14]

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.[15] 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![16]

Erasmus Darwin also anticipated survival of the fittest in Zoönomia mainly when writing about the "three great objects of desire" for every organism: "lust, hunger, and security."[16] A similar "survival of the fittest" view in Zoönomia is Erasmus' view on how a species "should" propagate itself. Erasmus' idea that "the strongest and most active animal should propagate the species, which should thence become improved".[16] Today, this is called the theory of survival of the fittest. His grandson Charles Darwin posited the different and fuller theory of natural selection. Charles' theory was that natural selection is the inheritance of changed genetic characteristics that are better adaptations to the environment; these are not necessarily based in "strength" and "activity", which themselves ironically can lead to the overpopulation that results in natural selection yielding nonsurvivors of genetic traits.

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[edit]

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 The Botanic Garden. His poetic concept was to anthropomorphise the stamen (male) and pistil (female) sexual organs, as bride and groom. In this stanza on the flower Curcuma (also Flax and Turmeric) the "youths" are infertile, and he devotes the footnote to other examples of neutered organs in flowers, insect castes, and finally associates this more broadly with many popular and well-known cases of vestigial organs (male nipples, the third and fourth wings of flies, etc.)

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. The poem contains a passage that describes the struggle for existence.[17]

His poetry was admired by Wordsworth, while Coleridge was intensely critical, writing, "I absolutely nauseate Darwin's poem".[13] It often made reference to his interests in science; for example botany and steam engines.

Education of women[edit]

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".[18]

The school advertised on the last page is the one he set up in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, for his 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 Locke, Rousseau, and Genlis in organising his thoughts. Addressing the education of middle-class girls, Darwin argued that amorous romance novels were inappropriate and that they should seek simplicity in dress. He contends that young women should be educated in schools, rather than privately at home, and learn appropriate subjects. These subjects include physiognomy, physical exercise, botany, chemistry, mineralogy, and experimental philosophy. They should familiarise themselves with arts and manufactures through visits to sites like 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 capabilities, skills, interests, and spheres of action, where the woman's education was designed to support and serve male accomplishment and financial reward, and to relieve him of daily responsibility for children and the chores of life.[19] In the context of the times, this program may be read as a modernising influence in the sense that the woman was at least to learn about the "man's world", although not be allowed to participate in it. The text was written seven years after A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, which has the central argument that women should be educated in a rational manner to give them the opportunity to contribute to society.

Some women of Darwin's era were receiving more substantial education and participating in the broader world. An example is Susanna Wright, who was raised in Lancashire and became an American colonist associated with the Midlands Enlightenment. It is not known whether Darwin and Wright knew each other, although they definitely knew many people in common. Other women who received substantial education and who participated in the broader world (albeit sometimes anonymously) whom Darwin definitely knew were Maria Jacson and Anna Seward.

Lunar Society[edit]

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), The Economy of Vegetation (1791), and the Phytologia (1800).[20]

Other activities[edit]

In 1761, Darwin was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.[1]

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.

In 1792, Darwin was elected as a member to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.[21]

Percy Bysshe Shelley specifically mentions Darwin in the first sentence of the 1818 Preface to Frankenstein to support his contention that the creation of life is possible. His wife Mary Shelley in her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein wrote that she overheard her husband talk about Darwin's experiments with Lord Byron about unspecified "experiments of Dr. Darwin" that led to the idea for the novel.[22]

Cosmological speculation[edit]

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:[23]

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 centre 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. He encouraged his friends to patent their own modifications of his designs.[24]

  • 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).[24]
  • A speaking machine, which was a mechanical larynx made of wood, silk, and leather and pronounced several sounds so well 'as to deceive all who heard it unseen' (at Clifton in 1799).[25]
  • A canal lift for barges.
  • A minute artificial bird.[24] [26]
  • A copying machine (1778).
  • A variety of weather monitoring machines.

Rocket engine[edit]

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.[27][28]

Major publications[edit]

  • 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.
  • Darwin, Erasmus (1797). A plan for the conduct of female education, in boarding schools, private families, and public seminaries. By Erasmus Darwin, M.D. F.R.S. author of Zoonomia, and of The botanic garden; To which are added, Rudiments of taste, in a series of letters from a mother to her daughters (4to, 128 pages). Derby: J. Johnson. Retrieved 5 March 2015. (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[edit]


Erasmus Darwin House, his home in Lichfield, Staffordshire, is a museum dedicated to him and his life's work. A secondary school at Burntwood, near Lichfield, was renamed Erasmus Darwin Academy in 2011.

A science building on the Clifton campus of Nottingham Trent University is named after him.[29]

In fiction[edit]

See also[edit]


  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. ^ a b Hassler, Donald M. (1963). Erasmus Darwin. p. 164. Retrieved 18 November 2021.
  2. ^ Graves, Joseph L (2003). The Emperor's New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium. Rutgers University Press. p. 57. ISBN 978-0-8135-3302-5. Retrieved 18 September 2011.
  3. ^ Burke's Landed Gentry, Darwin formerly of Downe, 1966
  4. ^ "Darwin, Erasmus (DRWN750E)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  5. ^ a b Duffin, C.J.; Moody, R.T.J.; Gardner-Thorpe, C. (2013). A History of Geology and Medicine. Geological Society London: Geological Society special publication. Geological Society. p. 336. ISBN 978-1-86239-356-1. Retrieved 1 May 2019.
  6. ^ "Erasmus Darwin | British Physician & Natural Philosopher | Britannica". www.britannica.com. Retrieved 7 September 2023.
  7. ^ "Darwin, Erasmus". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/7177. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  8. ^ "Darwin Correspondence Project".
  9. ^ "Lucy Swift (1771–1792) Lucy Hardcastle (1793–1834)". Epsilon - Cambridge University Library's Darwin correspondence project. Retrieved 7 October 2023.
  10. ^ Powers, Jonathan; Powers, Anne M. (2022). The rediscover of Lucy Hardcastle - botanist and breadwinner. Quandary Books. p. 65. ISBN 978-1-913253-05-9. Retrieved 7 October 2023.
  11. ^ "Erasmus Darwin". Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon. Retrieved 12 March 2021.
  12. ^ Uglow 2002a.
  13. ^ a b Uglow 2002b.
  14. ^ George 2014.
  15. ^ Allen, Richard C. 1999. David Hartley on human nature. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press. ISBN 0-7914-4233-0
  16. ^ a b c "Erasmus Darwin, Zoonomia: Project Gutenberg text XXXIX.4.8".
  17. ^ Zirkle, Conway (25 April 1941). "Natural Selection before the 'Origin of Species'". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 84 (1): 71–123. ISSN 0003-049X. JSTOR 984852.
  18. ^ Darwin, Erasmus (1798). A plan for the conduct of female education, in boarding schools, private families, and public seminaries. University of California Libraries. Philadelphia: : Printed by John Ormrod, no. 41, Chesnut-Street.
  19. ^ DNB entry for Erasmus Darwin. Oxford.
  20. ^ Darwin, Erasmus (1800). Phytologia, or the philosophy of agriculture and gardening (1st ed.). London: J. Johnson. p. 77.
  21. ^ "APS Member History". search.amphilsoc.org. Retrieved 5 April 2021.
  22. ^ Shelley, Mary. "Introduction" Frankenstein (1831 edition) 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." She confused vermicelli, pasta, for the actual word Darwin and Shelley used, which was vorticella, a miniscule [sic] wheel animal. This was a major mistake or flub. As she admitted, everything she knew about science she got from her husband Shelley. [underlining added]
  23. ^ Mackay, Charles, ed. (1896). A Thousand and One Gems of English Poetry. London: Routledge. p. 160.
  24. ^ a b c Smith 2005.
  25. ^ "Project Update: The Speaking Machine". Erasmus Darwin House. 9 January 2013. Archived from the original on 24 March 2015. Retrieved 23 February 2015.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  26. ^ "Erasmus Darwin's Artificial Bird – European Romanticisms in Association".
  27. ^ Rocket motor. P.82. (photograph of 1779 sketch) revolutionaryplayers.org.uk, accessed 14 November 2018
  28. ^ J.G.Crowther, New Scientist 12 Dec 1963 p.690 Book Reviews including Desmond King-Hele: 'Erasmus Darwin, 1731–1802' Archived 7 May 2023 at the Wayback Machine books.google.com, accessed 14 November 2018
  29. ^ "Guided tour of Clifton Campus" (PDF). Nottingham Trent University. September 2017. Retrieved 23 February 2023.


Biographies and criticism[edit]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]