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Darwin, Erasmusfree

  • Maureen McNeil

Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802)

by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1792–3

private collection; photograph National Portrait Gallery, London

Darwin, Erasmus (1731–1802), physician and natural philosopher, was born on 12 December 1731 at Elston Hall, near Nottingham, the seventh child of Robert Darwin (1682–1754), a lawyer of independent means who had retired early, and his wife, Elizabeth (formerly Hill; 1702–1797). Darwin had three brothers and three sisters. He was sent to the Chesterfield School in 1741 and in 1750 became a student at St John's College, Cambridge, where he studied classics and mathematics. He held the Exeter scholarship there and wrote a poem on the death of Frederick, prince of Wales, in 1751 (which was published in the European Magazine in 1795). While a student at Cambridge he travelled to London to attend the lectures of the surgeon William Hunter. From 1753 to 1756 Darwin studied medicine in Edinburgh which was, at that time, a major centre for medical education in Europe. He took his MB degree from Cambridge in 1755. There is no record of Erasmus Darwin's taking his BA at Cambridge (although Charles Darwin claimed that he did), nor of the award of an MD (although this appears on some of his books and papers).

Early career, marriages, and family

Darwin established his first medical practice in Nottingham in 1756, with little success. In November 1756 he moved to Lichfield, where his practice flourished. He married Mary Howard (b. 1740), the daughter of Penelope (née Foley) and Charles Howard, a Lichfield solicitor, in 1757. Mary died in 1770 leaving three surviving children: Charles (1758–1778), who died at the age of nineteen, from an infection sustained while dissecting, when he was a medical student; Erasmus (b. 1759), who became a lawyer and died in 1799; and Robert Waring (b. 1766) who became a successful physician and father of Charles Darwin, the author of Origin of Species (1859). In the early 1770s Darwin formed an attachment to Mary Parker (later Day; 1753–1820), with whom he had two illegitimate daughters, Susan and Mary Parker. In 1775 Darwin met Mrs Elizabeth Pole (1747–1832), wife of Colonel Edward Sacheverel Pole, and she brought her children to his home for treatment. Colonel Pole died in 1780 and Darwin married Elizabeth in 1781; she was the daughter of Elizabeth Collier and the earl of Portmore, Charles Colyear. Darwin and Elizabeth took up residence a few miles outside Derby at Radburn Hall, moved into Derby in 1783, and to Breadsall Priory, north of Derby, in 1802. They had six children who survived beyond infancy.

While establishing his medical practice Darwin also pursued his interests in natural philosophy and mechanical invention. In 1757 the first of his six papers in the Philosophical Transactions appeared. He presented an experiment which proved that electricity did not affect the mechanical properties of air, thereby disproving Henry Eeles's contention that vapours rise only if they are electrically charged. A second paper, on his treatment of a patient who was spitting up blood, was published in the Philosophical Transactions in 1760. In 1761 Darwin became a fellow of the Royal Society. During the 1760s to early 1770s he was not only treating patients but also experimenting on gases and studying chemistry, designing carriages and speaking machines, developing an interest in geology, and exploring the potential of steam engines. Between 1776 and 1786 Darwin kept a commonplace book which records medical case notes, reflections on meteorology, and mechanical designs such as spinning machines, water pumps, and canal locks. A keen inventor, among his many other mechanical contrivances were a new steering mechanism for carriages, a copying machine, and even a mechanical bird.

Botanical practice, theory, and poetry

Botany became an absorbing practical and theoretical interest for Darwin in the late 1770s. He constructed his own botanic garden outside Lichfield and undertook the translation of writings of the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778). These appeared as A System of Vegetables (1783, the thirteenth edition of Systema vegetabilium), and The Families of Plants (1787), comprising the Genera plantarum and Mantissae plantarum of the elder Linnaeus and the Supplementum plantarum of Carl Linnaeus the younger (1741–1783). Although Darwin was the main executor of these translations they were attributed to the Botanical Society at Lichfield, which included two further members who assisted him: Brooke Boothby and William Jackson. Darwin sought the advice of many contemporary botanists, as well as Samuel Johnson. He aimed for clear, frank language, taking issue with William Withering and others who favoured more euphemistic renderings of Linnaeus's sexual classificatory system. A System of Vegetables was dedicated to the president of the Royal Society, Joseph Banks, who supported this undertaking.

While cultivating his botanic garden and translating Linnaeus, Darwin began a poetic work designed to introduce a wider public to the Linnaean mode of plant classification. Anna Seward, Darwin's friend and fellow poet at Lichfield, encouraged his poetic venture and some of her verse was incorporated into the resulting volume without acknowledgement. Fearing that his reputation as a physician might suffer through identification with poetry Darwin delayed publication and The Loves of the Plants appeared anonymously in 1789. This lengthy didactic poem in heroic couplets has four cantos, narrated by the goddess of botany, and consists of dramatized representations of eighty-three species of plants, interspersed in the interludes with dialogues about the nature of poetry. The extensive footnotes and further notes display Darwin's knowledge of natural philosophy. He offers his first public speculation on the development of the natural world here: 'Perhaps all the products of nature are in their progress to greater perfection? an idea countenanced by the modern discoveries and deductions concerning the progressive formation of the solid parts of the terraqueous globe'. Poetry, Darwin contended, should be directed towards the visual sense. His pictorial representations and use of personification and pathetic fallacy intensified the Linnaean view of plant sexuality in which stamens are represented as men and pistils as women: lovers, brides, husbands, courtships, and pregnancies abound. The Loves of the Plants was Erasmus Darwin's first substantial exploration of what he considered to be key features of the natural world: the importance of reproduction and the continuities or analogies between the functioning of the vegetable and the animal worlds.

The Loves of the Plants was well received and was conceived of as a two-part project. Darwin brought this to completion with the publication of The Botanic Garden in 1791, including The Economy of Vegetation (part 1) and a reprint of The Loves of the Plants (part 2). He beckoned his readers in the advertisement:

The general design of the following sheets is to inlist Imagination under the banner of Science; and to lead her votaries from the looser analogies, which dress out the imagery of poetry, to the stricter ones which form the ratiocination of philosophy.

The Economy of Vegetation is a lengthy didactic poem in four cantos, one on each of the classical elements—fire, earth, water, and air. Footnotes accompany the verse and there are 115 pages of additional notes on natural history theories and experiments.

In The Economy of Vegetation Darwin celebrated the achievements of contemporary natural philosophers and industrialists, including Josiah Wedgwood, William Herschel, Henry Cavendish, Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestley, James Watt, Matthew Boulton, James Brindley, Thomas Savery, and John Whitehurst. Besides observing the introduction of steam power he welcomed new forms of mechanization, such as Boulton's coin production machinery. Vivid representations of industrial processes such as the manufacture of steel and the operations of steam engines and coining machinery are juxtaposed with poetic descriptions of the natural world. Supernatural agents such as nymphs, gnomes, sylphs, and salamanders, and men of industry and science (referred to as ‘immortal’ and ‘ingenious’) appear in equal measure. The products of new industrial processes, such as Wedgwood's cameos of the Slave and of Hope, are also on display, with an extensive additional note on the Portland vase, reproductions of which Wedgwood was producing. The Economy of Vegetation presented an integrated panorama of nature and industry across a broad temporal sweep. Darwin suggested that 'philosophers of all ages seem to have imagined, that the great world itself had likewise its infancy and its gradual progress to maturity' (canto 1, fn. 101), citing monstrous births as evidence of this progress.

The Lunar Society and industrialization

Darwin was a founder of provincial scientific societies in late eighteenth-century Britain: the Botanical Society at Lichfield, the Lunar Society of Birmingham, and the Derby Philosophical Society. The Lunar Society was the most important of these, incorporating Darwin into a network which included Boulton, Thomas Day, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Samuel Galton junior, Robert Augustus Johnson, James Keir, Priestley, William Small, Jonathan Stokes, Watt, Wedgwood, Whitehurst, and William Withering. These innovating men of science and industry were drawn together by their interest in natural philosophy, technological and industrial development, and social change appropriate to these concerns. The society acquired its name because of the practice of meeting once a month on the afternoon of the Monday nearest the time of the full moon, but informal contacts among members were also important. Launched around 1765 the Lunar Society was most active between 1781 and 1791.

The Lunar Society constituted a formidable force in the industrialization of provincial England and, as a leading member, Darwin was at the forefront of these changes. In 1763–4 he launched a venture with John Barker, a Lichfield draper, merchant, and banker, Samuel Garbett, a Birmingham merchant, and Robert Bage, a local paper manufacturer, for a mill for slitting and rolling iron at Wychnor. As a mechanical inventor of such devices as a horizontal windmill which was used to grind pigments for Wedgwood's pottery production at Etruria, Darwin was an expert on, and advocate of, technological innovation. Enthusiastic about steam power he encouraged Boulton and Watt to extend its uses. He recognized the need for good transport systems to facilitate industrialization and, as well as designing canal lifts, he campaigned for canals including the Grand Trunk Canal, built between 1766 and 1777, and the Birmingham Canal, which was completed in 1771. Darwin became embroiled in one of the many disputes about patenting during this period: he and James Watt appeared as witnesses on behalf of the cotton manufacturer Richard Arkwright in 1785. Darwin's poetry offers vivid, triumphal representations of the industrialization of Britain. He focused on industrialists and innovators and made no mention of manual labour.

Medical theory and practice

As a physician Darwin was highly regarded. Anna Seward attributed the launch of his successful career to his treatment of 'a young gentleman of family, fortune and consequence' (William Inge) (Seward, 8), and his patients included the countess of Northesk. George III reputedly sought Darwin's services. Seward and others commented on his 'professional generosity' (ibid., 5), and he tried unsuccessfully to establish a dispensary for the poor in Derby. Nevertheless, most of Darwin's medical practice was conducted within the middle ranks of midlands society, including industrialists and their families.

Darwin's medical practice dominated his life. He travelled extensively to treat patients and maintained a lively medical correspondence, providing advice and reflecting on specific cases. Innovative in his treatments, he experimented with drugs (including digitalis), gases, and exercise regimes, as well as unsuccessfully attempting inoculation of his own children. He was concerned with illnesses of both the body and mind, with heredity, and with broad public health issues, including improving nutrition and ventilation.

The first volume of what Darwin described as his medico-philosophical work, Zoonomia, appeared in 1794. As the preface explains, it is both a taxonomy, designed 'to reduce the facts belonging to animal life into classes, orders, genera and species' and a more ambitiously physiological synthesis of the 'laws of organic life' designed to establish a sound basis for medical practice. The key locus of the animal economy, for Darwin, was the sensorium which, he contended, was not concentrated in one location but distributed throughout the body (effectively including the sense organs, nervous structures, and muscles), processing the 'subtile fluid', which he called the 'spirit of animation'. He delineated the laws of animal motion which he categorized as: irritative (resulting from the stimulation of organs of sense and muscular fibres by external bodies), sensitive (caused by pleasure or pain), voluntary (caused by desire or aversion), or associative (caused by succession of fibrous contractions). For Darwin the power of contraction of the muscles and the stimulation of the organs of sense were equivalent to the mechanical principle of attraction, and the laws of animate beings could be similarly charted. He considered that there were three elements involved in any single animal function: the stimulus, the sensorial power, and the contractile fibre, and that this combination made organic motions distinctive.

Drawing on the work of John Locke, David Hartley, David Hume, and Priestley, Zoonomia offered a theory of biological learning which included both mind and body. Opposed to notions of innate ideas, Darwin showed that ideas resulted from mental development through habits, often based on imitation. Hence he attributed the link between the wavy line and the sense of beauty, proposed by William Hogarth, to the infant's experience of the mother's breast. Darwin's contribution to associationist psychology was to sketch a sequential development of the faculties, through animal interaction with their environment, that fully integrated body and mind: from simple irritative responses to those of volition and association.

Volume 2 of Zoonomia appeared in 1796, incorporating a catalogue of diseases, classified according to their proximate causes, together with a materia medica listing substances for use in medical treatment. Darwin regarded diseases as disorders in animal motion and the healthy body as self-regulating. Zoonomia presented a grid: the classes of diseases were irritative, sensitive, voluntary, and associative; the orders were identified as increased, decreased, or retrograde motions of each of these faculties. Common names of diseases appeared only as species of disease. Darwin felt he was offering a more natural classification than those hitherto available, facilitating a better understanding of the nature of diseases and appropriate treatment.

Darwin's nosological views were close to those of the influential Edinburgh physicians William Cullen and John Brown. Like Brown, Darwin tended to favour strong interventions, such as the use of bark, steel, and opium, as well as the use of mechanical devices, including swinging machines. He took issue with Sydenham and others who advocated that fevers were simply the 'healing hand of nature'. Often experimental in his treatments, late in his life Darwin became an advocate of the new ‘pneumatic medicine’, developed by Thomas Beddoes and James Watt, which involved the mechanical administration of gases. Darwin generally treated mind and body as a unit, and this has led to his reputation in the twentieth century as an early advocate of psychosomatic medicine.

Innovation in medical treatment was one strand in Darwin's disputes with William Withering. In 1780 Darwin edited and published an essay, referring to the medical use of digitalis (deriving from foxglove), which had been written by his son Charles. A paper by the elder Darwin, recounting the successful employment of digitalis in treating pulmonary consumption, appeared in Medical Transactions (1785). These publications undermined Withering's claim to be the initiator of the therapeutic use of this drug. The antagonism between these two doctors was further fuelled by Erasmus Darwin's support for his son Robert Waring in a dispute with Withering over a case in 1788–9.

Theory of reproduction and evolution

The first volume of Zoonomia contained a long section on reproduction, entitled 'Of generation'. Darwin rejected ideas of preformation, which had been supported by animalculists such as Boerhaave and by the ovists Bonnet, Haller, and Spallanzani. Instead, Darwin posited that generation involved a continuous development process: irritative, sensitive, voluntary, and associative capacities were passed on to the new living creature and subsequently developed. His account of embryological growth showed the sequential and interrelated development of organic properties, functions, and structures.

Initially Darwin regarded the new organism as primarily an extension of the male parent since the male secreted the ‘embryon’ in his blood. As the parental extension, the primordium inherited the habits and propensities its male parent had acquired during his lifetime. Darwin secularized David Hartley's theological view that habits of this life were carried into afterlife, contending that habits and characteristics developed during the organism's life were passed on in a natural extension, to the offspring. In parallel with Linnaeus's view of vegetable species, Darwin tentatively suggested that all the species of animals may have arisen from the mixture of a few natural orders: 'Would it be too bold to imagine, that in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist … that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which the great first cause endued with animality' (505). Although Darwin emphasized paternal lineage he contended that exposure to the environment of the maternal womb enabled the emergence of non-paternal traits.

Three editions of Zoonomia appeared in Darwin's lifetime and the third, four-volume edition of 1801 incorporated notable revisions to his theory of generation. In a new appendix Darwin distinguished various levels of organic reproduction. Unilinear development was identified with simple organisms, while complex animals were shown as developing through simultaneous transformations in several locations. He explained that paternal fibrils and maternal molecules, possessing propensities towards union, coalesced in the uterus. This revised theory was pangenetic, allotted equal roles to the paternal and maternal organisms, and differentiated between primary and secondary embryological development. Because he attributed ‘appetencies’ to matter and offered a vision of a self-sufficient, autonomous nature, Darwin was labelled a materialist by contemporary critics like William Paley, who strongly objected to what they saw as his denial of the role of a designing divine mind.

Educating young women

Darwin's concern with women's roles was expressed not only in his theories of reproduction, but also through his prescriptions for girls' education. He helped his illegitimate daughters, Susan and Mary Parker, to establish a boarding-school in Ashbourne in 1794. The Misses Parker also sought their father's advice on the education of young women and A Plan for the Conduct of Female Education, in Boarding Schools (1797) resulted from their urging him to make this advice publicly available. Regretting that a good education had not been generally available to women in Britain during his time Darwin drew on the theories of Locke, Rousseau, and Genlis in assembling his own educational precepts. Oriented to women in the middle ranks of the social order, the treatise reinforced contemporary conventions linking the female character to ‘the mild and retiring virtues’. Darwin argued that amorous romance novels were inappropriate for young women and that they should seek simplicity in dress. Nevertheless he also proposed some reforms of contemporary practices, contending that young women should be educated in schools rather than privately at home, learn physiognomy as a basic social skill, take vigorous exercise, cultivate some knowledge of botany, chemistry, mineralogy, and experimental philosophy, familiarize themselves with recent achievements of arts and manufactures through visits to sites like Coalbrookdale, and Wedgwood's potteries, learn how to handle money, and study modern languages. Darwin's educational philosophy amplified the view that men and women should have different, but complementary capabilities, skills, spheres, and interests. His educational innovations seemed designed to make middle-class women better wives, mothers, and companions to men of industry, commerce, and natural philosophy.

Agricultural theory: Phytologia

Darwin consolidated his interests in yet another field with the publication, in 1800, of a major treatise on agriculture, Phytologia, or, The Philosophy of Agriculture and Gardening. His intention was to systematize agricultural knowledge, informed by his conviction that plants were inferior animals, providing a theoretical framework that could sustain better agricultural and horticultural practices. Phytologia opens with a section on plant physiology, followed by one on the economy of vegetation, and then a final section on agriculture and horticulture, oriented around production of various plant parts (fruits, roots, barks, flowers, seeds, leaves, and woods). Darwin provided a confident overview of the prospects for improving agricultural production and an imaginative range of innovations, including methods for forwarding the production of seeds and their ripening, for perfecting and enlarging fruit, and for growing timber with appropriate flexibility for use in the shipbuilding industry. A strong interest in the chemical aspects of agriculture was obvious throughout the volume: he recognized the use of ammonia in vegetation, understood the importance of nitrate and phosphate in plant growth, and considered the possibility of a chemical insecticide (a lime–sulphur mixture). Like the contemporary chemist Richard Kirwan, Darwin emphasized the importance of manures in increasing agricultural productivity. In Phytologia Darwin also proposed what came to be regarded as ecological controls, such as the regulation of insects by increasing the numbers of their predators.

Darwin's agricultural theory was linked to eighteenth-century Scottish and English agricultural reform. Phytologia was dedicated to John Sinclair, president of the board of agriculture in the 1790s. It demonstrated Darwin's familiarity with technical innovations realized by Tull, Bakewell, Coke, and other key figures in eighteenth-century agriculture. He even proposed his own improvements on the drill plough in an appendix. Labelled by the Monthly Magazine as a 'philosophical agricultor' (1802, 13.460), Darwin, like his friend the geologist James Hutton, regarded scientific agriculture as a sign of human progress.

Appearance, character, and death

A large man inclined to corpulence Darwin was apparently awkward in stature and movement, but very energetic. He sported a large wig and, according to Anna Seward, his face had been marked by smallpox, although this is not evident in his portraits. As the result of an accident in 1768, while riding in one of the carriages he had designed, Darwin was lame thereafter. He had a wide circle of friends and correspondents. A man of wit and sociability, Darwin was a lauded conversationalist, despite his stammer. He displayed considerable sympathy and benevolence to patients and friends. Nevertheless, he had strong views and some found him domineering. Darwin became convinced that alcohol consumption was injurious to health and was a teetotaller for much of his life. Tending towards deism and scepticism in his religious views, he was dismissed by some contemporaries as a materialist or atheist.

In spring 1801 Darwin became seriously ill from pneumonia. After this he effectively retired from medical practice, although he continued work on another poetic volume and his correspondence. He and his family moved out of Derby in March 1802 to Breadsall Priory, which had been purchased by his son Erasmus. Darwin died there, apparently of a lung infection, on 18 April 1802 and was buried in Breadsall church.

The Temple of Nature

Darwin's final work, which he titled 'The origin of society', published posthumously in 1803 as The Temple of Nature, or, The Origin of Society, was his poetic paean to evolution. He sought to 'amuse by bringing distinctly to the imagination the beautiful and sublime images of operations of Nature in the order' in which, he believed, 'the progressive course of time presented them' (preface). Adorned with figures drawn from Eleusinian and Egyptian mysteries, The Temple presented a poetic panorama of the operations of the natural world. Ideas first aired in Phytologia, especially notions of spontaneous generation, the transmigration of matter, utilitarian calculations of organic happiness, and modifications of his theories of reproduction rehearsed in the revised edition of Zoonomia, were prominent. In The Temple of Nature Darwin explored the implications of and the evidence for his early vision that the entire natural world developed and progressed over time.

The Temple was a showcase for human achievements as the culmination of the progressive ways of nature. In the first canto, which some contemporary critics condemned as materialist, Darwin contended that life originated from the chemical operations of the forces of heat, repulsion, attraction, and contraction on brute matter. He followed with a sketch of the physiological faculties of irritation, sensation, volition, and association, as laid out in Zoonomia, showing organic forms developing from primitive forms in the sea, moving onto land, and ultimately evolving into human form. Reproduction, the theme of canto 2 and the subject of an additional note, was presented as facilitating not just the increase of organic life, but, through the inheritance of acquired characteristics and through the potential emergence of new traits in sexual reproduction, evolution in organic forms. In the third canto, Darwin showed how 'human science … builds on Nature's base' as he celebrated the triumph of human reason linked to the accomplishments of natural philosophers and technological innovators such as Newton, Herschel, Savery, and Arkwright. In the final canto he reflected on the moral dimensions of his vision: accounting for death and destruction, including natural checks on human population growth, as necessary components in nature's progressive ways.

Jacobin scares and the reception of Darwin's work

Darwin's ideas were forged in the cauldron of the British reaction to the French Revolution, and fears of Jacobinism were crucial in the response to his books. Like most members of the Lunar Society, Darwin applauded the challenging of the old order in France:

Long had the Giant-Form on Gallia's plainsInglorious slept, unconscious of his chains;

His poetic welcome to the revolution from The Economy of Vegetation (canto 2, lines 377–94) was reprinted in a popular radical pamphlet, Daniel Eaton's Politics for the People (1794).

As advocates of social and political change, members of the Lunar Society were linked to the revolutionary cause. Darwin also espoused support for the campaign against the slave trade, for religious toleration, and for freedom of the press. To many of their contemporaries the hallmarks of Jacobinism were evident in Lunar Society interests and activities. The presence of dissenters in their ranks and the support for dissenters' rights were further signs of this link. Darwin, like many supporters of the revolution, assumed that knowledge would lead automatically to power and morality: he set out to unveil nature and society in charts, portraits, or pictures of various facets of the natural world. The heady faith in reason and progress, which Burke and other critics of the French Revolution regarded as insidious and foreign, animated Darwin's writing.

The members of the Lunar Society paid a high price for their sympathy with the French revolutionary cause. This was exacted most obviously in the Birmingham riots of July 1791, sparked by a dinner held to celebrate the capture of the Bastille, in which the city establishment seems to have pitted a mob against members of the commercial and industrial (and largely dissenting) middle class. A main target for this attack was Joseph Priestley, who lost his home and scientific equipment and fled Birmingham, but other Lunar Society members were also threatened. Darwin suffered a related form of persecution. He was subjected to political satire in a publication by Pitt's under-secretary for foreign affairs, George Canning, in collaboration with Hookham Frere and George Ellis, titled 'The Loves of the Triangles: a Mathematical and Philosophical Poem, Inscribed to Dr. Darwin', which appeared in the Anti-Jacobin, or, Weekly Examiner in 1798. Darwin's Botanic Garden and Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) were the combined targets of this conservative attack. Despite the popularity of The Botanic Garden, Darwin's later work, especially The Temple of Nature, came under attack as reviewers condemned his theories as atheistic and materialistic.

Influence and reappraisals

Darwin's ideas and writing have been widely disseminated. His major poetic and scientific works were republished in other European languages during his lifetime or shortly after his death. Irish editions were issued of all of his books, except The Temple, as well as American editions of all volumes, except Phytologia. As late as 1954 a Russian translation of The Temple was published. Facsimile editions of Female Education, The Botanic Garden, and The Temple have appeared since 1968.

Darwin's literary legacy is ambiguous but crucial. His long, visually oriented didactic poems were designed to 'enlist the imagination under the banner of science'. In the 1790s many of the young Romantic poets, including Wordsworth and Coleridge, admired Darwin. However, his gaudy visual images, contrived imagery, personification, and Augustan heroic couplets quickly fell out of favour, as the Lyrical Ballads (1798) indicated. William Blake's struggle against the mythical figure of Urizen, who was portrayed as a tyrant threatening to destroy the universe and human imaginative capacities, indicated his sense of the dangers in trying to enlist the imagination under the banner of science. Nevertheless, traces of Darwin's ideas, language and imagery have been identified across the range of Romantic literature. So, for example, Wordsworth's story of 'Goody Blake and Harry Gill' in the Lyrical Ballads probably derived from Zoonomia. Darwin's theories and experiments have also been linked to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), since Shelley was exposed to Darwin's ideas about the time when she was composing her Gothic tale. Beyond his specific influence on Romantic literature, Darwin's poetic, epistemological, and aesthetic theories continued to cast a diffuse, but recurring, influence well into the twentieth century.

Since the late nineteenth century, Erasmus Darwin has been identified with J. B. Lamarck and a generalized notion of organic development through acquired characteristics. The assessment of his evolutionary theory has been overshadowed by the achievements of his grandson Charles. However, late twentieth-century research on Erasmus's writing and on Charles's biography has shaken previous adjudications. The complexity of Charles's relationship to his grandfather has been exposed. It is now known that Charles's draft 'Preliminary notice' for Krause's (1879) essay on Erasmus's scientific work was substantially edited by Charles's daughter Henrietta in such a way as to underplay Charles's admiration for, and intellectual debt to, his grandfather. Early exposure to the ideas of Zoonomia was crucial in Charles's formulation of his theory of evolution and the connections between these two evolutionary theorists may have been underestimated. His grandfather's reputation is likely to have provided Charles with some powerful lessons about the formulation of his theory of evolution: political and religious controversy should be avoided; materialism and speculation abhorred; human evolution was to be downplayed. Moreover, late twentieth-century scholars tried to move out of the shadow cast by Charles—focusing more intently on the elder Darwin's theories and observations of the natural world, particularly around reproduction, heredity, and breeding.

Exploration of the connections between Erasmus Darwin's views and his social and political context has been another direction of this research. Attention has been drawn to Darwin's role as a spokesman for the innovating bourgeois ‘men of ideas’ in late eighteenth-century provincial England: heralding their achievements as the manifestation of human progress, and expressing their new found influence as the universal expansion of human powers. Likewise, Darwin's fascination with sexual reproduction, his popularizing of Linnaean sexual taxonomy, and his vivid erotic representations of plant life have been situated in the gender politics of his period. His endorsement of a mode of botanical classification which prioritized male parts, his stereotypical representations of masculine and feminine characteristics, and his pictures of a feminine nature seen through masculine eyes comprise a view typical of gentlemen of his era. Yet he did break with the Linnaean convention of portraying plants exclusively within marriage, provide images of extramarital sexual liaison, and propose some reforms in education for young women. Darwin endorsed notions of complementary gender differences associated with Rousseau and other Enlightenment thinkers, but he also demonstrated an interest in assuring that his professional and industrial peers would have appropriately educated wives and daughters.

While interpretations have varied, Erasmus Darwin continues to be a figure to be reckoned with across a wide range of fields, including the history of literature, biology, botany, psychology, education, mechanization, transportation, meteorology, agriculture, and medicine.


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  • FM Cam., corresp. and papers
  • priv. coll., commonplace book of poems
  • RS, essays read at the Royal Society
  • UCL, corresp. and papers
  • Wellcome L., medical notes
  • Library of Birmingham, corresp. with Matthew Bolton
  • Library of Birmingham, letters to James Watt
  • BL, letters to Charles Francis Greville, Add. MS 42071, fols. 48–64b
  • NHM, letters to Dryander and Banks
  • Royal Society of Medicine, London, letter to Withering


  • J. Wright of Derby, group portrait, 1768 (An experiment on a bird in the air pump), National Gallery, London
  • J. Wright of Derby, oils, 1770, Darwin College, Cambridge
  • J. Wright of Derby, portrait, 1770, NPG
  • W. Hackwood, medallion plaque, 1780 (of Darwin?; after oil painting by J. Wright of Derby, 1770), Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston; copy, Down House, Downe, Kent
  • attrib. F. Torond, silhouette, 1785, RCS Eng.
  • J. Wright of Derby, portrait, 1792–3, priv. coll. [see illus.]
  • J. Wright of Derby, oils, 1792–3, Wolverhampton Art Gallery
  • J. R. Smith, mezzotint, 1797 (after J. Wright of Derby, 1792–3), Wellcome L.; two copies, Down House, Downe, Kent
  • B. Pym, mezzotint, pubd 1801 (after S. J. Arnold), BM, Wellcome L.
  • J. Rawlinson, oils, 1802, Derby Corporation
  • J. Rawlinson, oils, 1802, High View community school, Breadsall, Derby
  • attrib. W. Coffee, alabaster bust, 1804, Darwin College, Cambridge
  • J. Heath, stipple, 1804 (after J. Rawlinson), Wellcome L.
  • M. Haughton, stipple, pubd 1807 (after J. Rawlinson), NPG
  • M. Alpin, stipple, 1825 (after oil painting by J. Wright of Derby, 1770), Wellcome L.
  • bronze bust, 1967 (after bust attrib. W. Coffee), Down House, Downe, Kent
  • attrib. W. Coffee, plaster bust, Derby Museum and Art Gallery
  • H. Meyer, stipple, Wellcome L.
  • J. Rawlinson, portrait, RCS Eng.
  • J. Sharples, pastel drawing, Bristol City Art Gallery
  • A. Tardien, stipple (after Moll), Wellcome L.

Wealth at Death

£33,930: Pearson papers (576), UCL