Erasmus Darwin (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, 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 also a founding member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, a discussion group of pioneering industrialists and natural philosophers. He turned down George III’s invitation to be a physician to the King.
Erasmus Darwin House, his home in Lichfield, is now a museum dedicated to Erasmus Darwin and his life’s work. A school in nearby Chasetown recently converted to Academy status and is now known as Erasmus Darwin Academy.
Darwin was 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 (1702–97). 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. His siblings were:
Robert 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)
Charles 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 the University of 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 practice 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, a carriage steering mechanism, a manuscript copier and a speaking machine.
Darwin married twice and had 14 children, including two illegitimate daughters by an employee, 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, 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.
Darwin may have 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, but there is reason to believe the father was really Darwin. 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.
When Edward Pole died, Darwin married Elizabeth 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:
Edward Darwin (1782–1829)
Frances Ann Violetta Darwin (1783–1874), married Samuel Tertius Galton, was the mother of Francis Galton
Emma Georgina Elizabeth Darwin (1784–1818)
Sir Francis Sacheverel Darwin (1786–1859)
John Darwin (1787–1818)
Henry Darwin (1789–1790), died in infancy.
Harriet Darwin (1790–1825), married Admiral Thomas James Maling
Darwin died suddenly on 18 April 1802, weeks after having moved to Breadsall Priory, just north of Derby. His body is buried in All Saints Church, Breadsall. Erasmus Darwin is commemorated on one of the Moonstones, a series of monuments in Birmingham.