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rasmus Darwin, the son of a successful barrister, entered St. John's College Cambridge (image) in 1750 to read medicine but three years later he transferred to Edinburgh, which then had the best medical school in Britain. After he left Edinburgh in 1756 he started a medical practice in Nottingham but moved to Lichfield later in the same year where he had great success and continued to practice for the next 28 years. He married twice, (his first wife died), and fathered fourteen children of whom three survived into adulthood.

Erasmus Darwin was a medical doctor and earned his living through this profession. His methods were typical of their time and it is doubtful whether he saved any more lives than any other contemporary doctor, but he gained a reputation that meant that he treated some of the wealthiest individuals in the land, including the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. He was offered the post of Physician to king George III but he turned down this offer as he did not want to leave his home and friends in the English midlands. If his methods and prescriptions were not very different from his contemporaries, his manner towards his patients may have been an advantage, because he seems to have been cheerful and sympathetic but at the same time honest and forthright. Whatever the reasons for his success he became a wealthy man and was able to leave a substantial bequest to his surviving children when he died.

He was a gregarious individual who greatly enjoyed intellectual stimulation but also acted as a tremendous stimulus to others. He collected together a group of friends who met informally once a month and later became known as the Lunar Society . Most of these men were, like Darwin, free thinking individuals who were ready and willing to challenge the dominant ideas of their day: ten of them became members of the Royal Society (Darwin was one of them). Collectively they formed an intellectual power house at the heart of one of the centres of the industrial revolution.

In 1783 he published his two volume translation of Linnaeus' Systema Vegetabilium and in 1787 another two volume translation of Linnaeus' Genera Plantarum. His contribution to evolutionary thinking was revolutionary in England and his name was closely associated with transformism in Britain and Europe in the early decades of the 19th century. In the 1790's he was Britain's most popular poet, having written two long poems on botany which were combined to form The Botanic Garden. Later he wrote Phytologia and The Temple of Nature or The Origin of Society. He had a significant influence on other poets including Blake, Wordsworth, Shelly and Coleridge, He first described his evolutionary ideas in his poetry, starting with many solar systems in the universe which had come into existence at the time of Creation, and continued via the chemical origins of life through to changes caused by natural selection. He wrote a two-volume medical treatise Zoonomia published between 1793 and 1796 in which he also described and expanded his ideas on the origin of life and natural selection, together with many other ideas which were to be re-presented and made better known by his grandson Charles. He was a founder member and president of the Derby Society for Political Information which was part of a wider movement of societies which were campaigning for political and social reform in the late eighteenth century. When he died in 1802 his status as a poet had been badly damaged in part by changes in taste, but also because of his association with radical political views at a time when Britain was fighting in the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. His views on evolution were attacked and denigrated by an intellectual elite that associated them with radical, even revolutionary politics, and his reputation suffered badly, so much so that it affected the attitudes of his son Robert, who refused to discuss evolution, and his grandson Charles when he later took on and expanded his grandfather's ideas.

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Darwin made many original contributions to science and technology, including the first steerable front wheels on a carriage (his basic design is still in use today), a horizontal windmill, biological pest control, Lamarkian inheritance (epigenetics), electro-chemistry, fertilisers, geology, sewage farms, a speaking and copying machine, photosynthesis in plants, adiabatic cooling and cloud formation, cold and warm fronts, seed travel and dispersal, and much else. (For a full list of his inventions and discoveries see D. King-Hele 1999, p. 399). There are few people in history who have made as many original contributions to human knowledge and understanding in so many different and diverse fields of study as he did.

He has been described as a genius in a recent volume by Smith and Arnott and as "the greatest of all the Darwins" by D. King-Hele, his most authoritative recent biographer. He was certainly regarded with great respect both in his lifetime and in the 19th century by those who knew of the scope of his work and ideas.

References

Darwin E. A System of Vegetables, According to Their Classes, Orders, Geners, Species, with Their Characters and Differences, J. Johnson Lichfield, 1783.

Darwin E. The Families of Plants, with Their Natural Characters, According to the Number, Figure, Sitution, and Proportion of All the Parts of Fructification, J. Johnson, London 1789.

Darwin E. The Botanic Garden, part 1 The Economy of Vegetation, J. Johnson, London 1792. http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/10671/pg10671.html accessed 4. 11. 16

Darwin E. The Botanic Garden Part 2 The Loves of the Plants, J. Jackson, Lichfield for J. Johnson, London 1789. http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/10671/pg10671.html accessed 4. 11. 16

Darwin E Zoonomia ; or The Laws of Organic Life Part I J. Johnson 1794. https://archive.org/stream/zoonomiaorlawsof1794darw#page/500/mode/2up accessed 4. 11. 16

Darwin E. Zoonomia; or The Laws of Organic Life Parts II and III 1796 J. Johnson 1798, https://archive.org/stream/zoonomiaorlawsof1794darw#page/500/mode/2up accessed 4. 11. 16

Darwin E Phytologia: or the Philosophy of Agriculture and Gardening, J. Johnson, London 1800. http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/bibliography/50674#/summaryaccessed 4. 11. 16

Darwin E. The Temple of Nature, or The Origins of Society, J. Johnson London 1803. http://knarf.english.upenn.edu/Darwin/templetp.htmlaccessed 4. 11. 16

Fara P, Erasmus Darwin: Sex, Science and Serendipity, Oxford University Press, 2012.

King-Hele D. Doctor of Revolution, The Life and Genuis of Erasmus Darwin, Faber and Faber, London, 1977.

King-Hele D. Erasmus Darwin: A Life of Unparalleled Achievement, Giles de la Mare Publishers, London 1999.

King-Hele D. Erasmus Darwin and Evolution, Stuart Harris, Sheffield, 2014.

Krause E. Erasmus Darwin with a Preliminary Notice by Charles Darwin, Murray, 1879.

Lovtrup S. Darwinism: The Refutation of a Myth, Croom Helm, 1987.

Paley W. Natural Theology; or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearances of Nature. http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?itemID=A142&pageseq=1&viewtype=text accessed 4. 11. 16

Powers, J. Evolution Evolving, "The First 'Darwinian Revolution," iOpening Books, Derby, 2013.

Smith C.U.M. and R Arnott eds, The Genuis of Erasmus Darwin, Ashgate, 2005.

Uglow J. The Lunar Men,: The Friends who made the Future, Faber and Faber, London, 2002.


Last modified 5 November 2016