Erasmus Darwin was a founding member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, the members of which were referred to as “Lunaticks.” He is here described as a polymath, an 18th-century “natural philosopher” who was a physician, scientist (with interests in botany, zoology, meteorology, chemistry, among others), inventor, and poet who also advanced quite profound evolutionary ideas two generations prior to those of his grandson, Charles Robert Darwin.
Less well known and recognized than his grandson Charles Robert Darwin, or the latter's cousin Francis Galton (father of eugenics), Erasmus Darwin deserves recognition as a leading figure of the 19th century with many fields of interest. My intent in this brief essay is to bring to the attention of biology teachers some of the contributions he made to the fields of medicine, agriculture, botany, and zoology and also to touch briefly on aspects of his wide-ranging inquiries in other fields. Because of the breadth of his interests, the contributions he made in a broad range of subjects, and his abilities as a poet, Erasmus Darwin must be recognized as a true Renaissance man – a polymath.
A Brief Biography
Erasmus Darwin, the seventh and last child of Robert, a barrister, and Elizabeth Darwin, was born 12 December 1731 in Elston, about 10 miles northeast of Nottingham in the heart of England. Throughout his life he bore a lock of white hair attributed to an accidental blow to his head from a maidservant. Starting at the age of 10, he pursued a classical education for 6 years while also indulging in mechanical experiments such as developing an alarm for his fob watch. At age 19, he began study at St. Johns College, Cambridge, to become a physician. This is where he first gained fame as a poet, for his flowery elegy on the death of Frederick, Prince of Wales. In 1853, he departed to London to attend anatomy lectures and courses on the then popular sweating cure for venereal diseases. Later that year, he went to Edinburgh to finish his study of medical theory and practice. Unlike today's invasive examination procedures, the practice then was a matter of deducing from a patient's face the nature of the disease, inasmuch as touching, let alone examining, any part of the body was forbidden.
In spite of his heavy drinking (he later became abstemious) and pursuit of women (always a weakness), he presented his thesis in 1756 and was Doctor Darwin at age 25. His first practice in Nottingham was a disaster, with only one patient – who died. In November 1756 he moved to Litchfield, where he gained almost immediate favor by curing a man whose own physician had predicted a speedy death. Over the years, he developed a reputation as a doctor with uncanny skills who treated the poor without charge and made house calls among the wealthy to pay his bills.
He married 17-year-old Mary (Polly) Howard on 30 December 1757, and they had five children, the last being Robert, father of Charles Robert Darwin; a son and daughter died in infancy. After Polly's death in 1770 from cirrhosis of the liver (she had become an alcoholic), he took his son Robert's governess, Mary Parker, as his mistress, and together they had two daughters. Subsequently, on 7 March 1781 he married a 33-year-old widow, Elizabeth Pole, who already had three children; together they had four boys, the last of whom died in infancy, and three girls. So the Darwin household had a total of 11 surviving children of assorted ages and of four different parentages, Erasmus having been responsible for 14 of them. Quite a man.
Erasmus died on 18 April 1802 at the age of 70, probably from pneumonia, for which he seems to have treated himself with digitalis and forced bleeding. He was buried at Breadsal Church next to his son Erasmus, the second son of his first marriage, who had died by drowning 3 years earlier at the age of 40. In his biography of his grandfather, Charles Darwin stated that his uncle's death had been an “act of suicide committed during temporary insanity” (King-Hele, 2003).
Also according to his grandson's biography, Erasmus
stammered greatly, and it is surprising that this defect did not spoil his powers of conversation. A young man once asked him in, as he thought, an offensive manner, whether he did not find stammering very inconvenient. He answered, ‘No, Sir, it gives me time for reflection, and saves me from asking impertinent questions’. (King-Hele, 2003)
And Charles gives us further insight into the character of Erasmus when he writes
Throughout his letters I have been struck with his indifference to fame, and the complete absence of all signs of any over-estimation of his own abilities or of the success of his works…he was remarkably free from vanity, conceit, or display; nor does he appear to have been ambitious for a higher position in society. (King-Hele, 2003)
Erasmus Darwin: Polymath
Erasmus Darwin was one of the founders of the Lunar Society of Birmingham (Bronowski & Mazlish, 1960; Hart-Davis, 2001; Uglow, 2002), a group that included, over time, Matthew Boulton, a manufacturer of toys and buckles (then a must for one's shoes and other accouterments); William Small, Boulton's doctor and a mentor of Thomas Jefferson; potter Josiah Wedgwood; chemist James Keir; steam-engine builder James Watt; discoverer of oxygen Joseph Priestly; and a number of others. The group would meet for wine and dinner, share experimental findings, and argue into the evening before mounting their horses for the ride home. They chose to meet regularly on the Sunday nearest the full moon, which is why they called themselves the Lunar Society of Birmingham, or “the Lunaticks”; the full moon enabled them to see their way home. Given their composition and contributions, it is little wonder that the Lunaticks and other groups like them, in substantial measure, kick-started the Industrial Revolution.
Darwin was an inveterate tinkerer and designer: he designed improvements to his carriage; conceptualized what he called a “fiery chariot” (a three-wheeled, two-cylinder steam engine with a single boiler); a horizontal windmill to grind color for Wedgwood's pottery; a speaking machine that produced the sounds of the letters a, b, m, and p and pronounced the words “mama,” “papa,” “map,” and “pam”; telescopic candlesticks; an artificial bird with wings that flapped up and down; a mechanical copying machine (similar to the pantograph); a melonometer to automatically open and close the windows of a greenhouse; and yet more. He even piloted his own hydrogen-filled balloon on 26 December 1783, thereby becoming the first Englishman to fly a large hydrogen balloon.
In his first scientific paper, published in the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions in 1757, he proposed that solar heat, cooling, and expansion determined cloud behavior and later that air cools as it expands, which explains how clouds form when air rises and expands in the higher reaches of the atmosphere. During a visit by Benjamin Franklin, the two tried unsuccessfully to collect marsh gas (i.e., methane) and ignite it as Franklin had demonstrated in the wetlands of New Jersey.
His interest in what was then called “fossiling” led him to explore caves and perform chemical experiments on minerals to see if they would fuse into glass or produce new gases. Surprisingly to me, in spite of being a physician, he had trouble identifying fossil bones. Darwin became convinced that warm springs were heated by deep volcanic fires and that the central parts of the Earth consist of a fluid mass that is partly iron. But most importantly, his cave explorations and fossil finds led him to believe that all species had descended from one common microscopic ancestor – the beginnings of a coherent theory of evolution that he would eventually develop. Finally, his interest in Hutton's theories and the uniformitarianism principle led him to believe that Earth had been formed millions of years ago – a heretical idea in those times.
In addition to his active participation in the Lunar Society, Darwin formed the Lichfield Botanical Society in 1779 and the Philosophical Society of Derby in 1783. The latter was a more formal group than the Lunar Society, which, as noted above, was made up of friends. It began with seven members, but languished during its first six or so months while Darwin was away. At its first full meeting on 7 August 1784, Darwin delivered a presidential address in which he urged the society to establish a library that “by their publications we may add something to the common Heap of knowledge.” The group decided to meet on the first Saturday of every month and established an entrance and subscription fee, as well as a fine for missing a meeting, to be used to buy books on natural history and philosophy. The Society endured for over 70 years and organized lectures and writings for the first 13 years, at which time it merged with the Derby Museum and Library.
Erasmus Darwin: Physician
As already noted, Darwin had attained an enviable reputation as a physician. Building on Withering's discovery of the effects of dried and ground foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) leaves and inspired by that scientist's experimental methodology and careful recording of data, Darwin began keeping notes on all his cases. In 1794 he published these notes and observations in the first volume of Zoonomia, in which he described such diseases as scarlet fever, smallpox, measles, mumps, scabies, and worms as well as conditions such as melancholia, anger, boredom (Taedium vitae), credulity (Credulitas), ambition, and even sentimental love. The second volume of Zoonomia, containing Parts II and III, appeared in 1796. With the aim of improving society through medicine rather than politics, Zoonomia made him Britain's leading medical writer.
Regarding Darwin's renown as a physician, his grandson relates an incident in which “a gentleman in the last stage of consumption came to Dr. Darwin at Derby.” After examining him, Darwin told him he had “perhaps a fortnight” to live. Curious, Darwin then said, “But as you come from London, why did you not consult Dr. Warren, so celebrated a physician?” “Alas! doctor, I am Dr. Warren.” Dr. Warren died a week or two later (King-Hele, 2003).
Darwin recognized the importance of the principle of inheritance in disease. He remarks in his 1803 The Temple of Nature; or, the Origins of Society: “As many families gradually extinct [sic] by hereditary diseases, as by scrofula, consumption, epilepsy, mania, it is often hazardous to marry an heiress, as she is not unfrequently the last of a diseased family.” This also shows his sense of humor.
In 1778, upon the death from an infected wound of his eldest son, Charles, who at 19 was in his second year as a medical student, Erasmus vowed to complete and publish his son's thesis. Charles had been awarded a gold medal for an essay that distinguished between pus and mucus and was writing his thesis on the lymphatic vessels. Two years after Charles's death, Erasmus indeed published Experiments Establishing a Criterion between Mucaginous and Purulent Matter, which included accounts of five cases treated with digitalis, the first publication of such a cure. It is likely these were Erasmus's own cases – there is doubt that his son ever treated anyone with digitalis.
Yet another dimension of his medical prowess was evidenced when he advocated what is now common practice, namely killing and burying cattle that had become infected with a virulent disease instead of bleeding and purging them as was typically done. Further, he encouraged extending this destruction to all cattle within a 5-mile radius, which is likewise now common practice.
Concerned that there was no public institution for the relief of the poor in sickness, he proposed that a society be formed, with members subscribing a guinea each, to retain a room as a dispensary where the medical men of town would give of their time gratuitously. He hoped that the dispensary would eventually become an infirmary.
Darwin spoke strongly on the “evil effects of intemperance,” chiefly on the grounds of ill-health. However, according to his grandson,
He himself during many years never touched alcohol under any form; but he was not a bigot on the subject, for in old age he informed my father that he had taken to drink daily two glasses of home-made wine with advantage. Why he chose home-made wine is not obvious; perhaps he fancied that he thus did not depart so widely from his long-continued rule. (King-Hele, 2003)
Erasmus Darwin: Botanist, Agriculturist & Zoologist
As was the case in his other work, Darwin collaborated by letters and inquiries among a number of botanists of the time, including Carolus Linnaeus (junior), with whom he undertook a translation of the elder Linnaeus's Systema Vegetabilium (System of Vegetables), published in 1783. While retaining much of Linnaeus's Latin terminology, such as stamina and pistil, Darwin developed a new botanical vernacular (e.g., “awl-pointed” for acuminatum). Two years later, he published an English translation of Linnaeus's Genera Plantarum (Families of Plants).
Darwin's Phytologia: or, the Philosophy of Agriculture and Gardening, published in 1800, was intended to systematize agriculture and gardening into a science. Among other components of the treatise, he urged that land be used for wheat, not cattle, and that grain be used for bread, not brewing. He proposed forestation of Britain's mountainous regions and the cultivation of timber. Throughout the book there is a strong inkling of what would later be the science of ecology as he advanced the notion that plants, animals, humans, and human knowledge were all interlinked parts of nature. Further to that ecological notion is his conception of the role of competition in nature, as noted by his grandson:
The stronger locomotive animals devour the weaker ones without mercy. Such is the condition of organic nature! Whose first law might be expressed in the words, ‘eat or be eaten’, and which would seem to be one great slaughterhouse, one universal scene of rapacity and injustice. (King-Hele, 2003)
Without question, Zoonomia; or, the Laws of Organic Life (vol. 1, 1794 and vol. 2, 1796), which he began writing in 1770, was Erasmus Darwin's crowning achievement, making him Britain's leading medical writer. Drawing on his own four decades of medical practice, Darwin described a number of diseases and other afflictions in great detail. Further, again presaging what his grandson would publish some 62 years later, he elaborated on Buffon's ideas about evolution and anticipated some of Lamarck's suggestions on the subject, arguing that evolutionary changes were brought about by the direct influence of the environment on the organism.
These early thoughts on evolution were developed more explicitly in his Temple of Nature; or, The Origin of Society, published in 1803, a year after his death. Here he proposed that the universe was formed by “chemic dissolution” and that, in the universal cycle of nature, organic matter could not be destroyed but only transformed (e.g., caterpillar into butterfly, tadpole into frog). Further, he proposed that organic life developed in the sea, that animals adapt to their environment, and that animal breeding showed how characters could be molded through generations. He also advanced the notion that scientists and industrialists were the deities of the modern age. The notion that life evolved from “microscopic filaments” in the sea was further conveyed in the motto added to his bookplate in 1771, E conchis omnia – everything from shells.
Erasmus Darwin: Poet
Darwin's bent toward poetry, demonstrated in his “Death of Prince Frederick” in 1751, came into full bloom in his epic The Botanic Garden: A Poem in Two Parts, written in heroic couplets. Part II of the poem, The Loves of Plants, published in 1789, preceded Part I, The Economy of Vegetation, by 3 years. An example of his use of rhyming couplets is the following from Canto I, lines 27–32:
Oh, lead destined steps to yonder glade,Whose arching cliffs depending alders shade;There, as meek Evening washes her temperate breeze,And moon beams glimmer through the trembling trees,The rills, that gurgle round, shall shoothe her ear,The weeping rocks shall number tear for tear;
In The Economy of Vegetation, Darwin emphasized the self-regulating economy of the natural world, another ecological notion, a position that led to accusations of his being atheistic and sympathetic to the French Revolution, for which he was ridiculed by the British government. In Loves of Plants, he related many observations on plant life and coined such new words as “bracts,” “anthers,” and “florets,” often with anthropomorphic sexual overtones. The intent of The Botanic Garden was to “induce ladies and other unemploy'd scholars to study Botany.” This said, the poem earned him recognition as England's leading poet, praised by no less than Lord Byron. The poem had a major influence on the Romantic poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, Keats), who were “both frightened and fascinated by Darwin” (Hassler, 1973).
Erasmus Darwin: Multifaceted Person
When the two Parker daughters started a girl's boarding school in 1794 in which their two Darwin stepsisters were enrolled, Erasmus wrote for them A Plan for the Conduct of Female Education in Boarding Schools (1797), in which he incorporated the then current thinking on education. As Charles Darwin notes in the biography, this plan
is strongly characterized throughout by plain common sense, with little theorising, and is everywhere benevolent. He insists that punishment should be avoided as much as possible, and that reproof should be given with kindness. (King-Hele, 2003)
The Plan was not only progressive, it was extremely supportive of women's rights to education.
There seems no more apt summary of, and tribute to, Erasmus Darwin's life than the inscription on his headstone, as quoted by Charles Darwin in the biography:
Of the rare union of Talents/ which so eminently distinguished him/ as a Physician, a Poet, and a Philosopher/ His writings remain/ a public and unfading testimony./ His Widow/ has erected this Monument/in memory of/ the zealous benevolence of his disposition,/ the active humanity of his conduct,/ and the many private virtues/ which adorn his character. (King-Hele 2003)
Now may Erasmus Darwin not be completely overshadowed by his illustrious grandson, who most certainly inherited some very powerfully creative genes.
I have been very fortunate to have access to the most substantial collection in North America of primary and secondary sources on Erasmus Darwin and evolution, namely the holdings in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. I am also indebted to the extensive writings about Erasmus Darwin by Desmond King-Hele and notably his major biography of him (King-Hele, 1999).