Sharing the Genius of Erasmus Darwin

Our speaker on May 22nd was the Rev. Canon Tony Barnard who is currently responsible for the Library, Education and Outreach at Lichfield Cathedral. More importantly for the subject of this talk he initiated the restoration of Darwin House in Lichfield and has made a study of the doctor's life and work.

Tony suggested that Erasmus Darwin could be described as one of Lichfield's forgotten sons and that there is a poor awareness of the life and work of this fascinating 18th century character - at least compared to that of his well known grandson Charles Darwin. Erasmus Darwin was born in 1731 in Nottinghamshire and educated at Chesterfield Grammar School and St John's College, Cambridge, before completing his medical training in Edinburgh. He was not a 'signed up' Anglican and made friends with a mix of non-conformist and radical thinkers throughout his life. His first medical practice in Nottingham, in 1756, was not successful and he moved to Lichfield where he soon established his reputation with a 'cure' for a young man whose death seemed inevitable.

Settling into his new home Darwin re-configured a house in The Close with a Palladian facade, enhancing it with lilacs. The medieval structure was later taken down and replaced with the Georgian Building we see today. He had five children with his first wife, Mary (Polly) Howard. Two children died soon after birth but his second son, Robert, survived to become a doctor in Shrewsbury and was subsequently the father of Charles Darwin. Polly died in 1770 and the restoration of Darwin House as a museum reflects that year. The young family were at first looked after by his sister but Erasmus later formed a liaison with his 17 year old housekeeper, Mary Parker, having two more daughters with her out of wedlock. They were later set up by him in a school at Ashbourne. In 1781 he married Elizabeth Pole, the widow of a former patient Col. Pole, and moved to her home in Derbyshire. Elizabeth already had four children, and Erasmus went on to increase his family by six - including a daughter, Frances Ann, who was later to become the mother of the scientist Francis Galton.

Tony Barnard gave a brief description of the layout of the Darwin House Museum in Lichfield where 18th century life is captured in talking portraits - for example between Anna Seward and John Saville who exchanged poems nominally authored by their cats! Anna was a resident in The Close and it is possible that Darwin was also fond of her. The central passage in the house reflects his medical life whilst the garden is divided between culinary and medical plants.

Erasmus Darwin was kept informed of the latest medical developments, particularly by his friends in Edinburgh, and is reputed to have earned a sum equivalent to 100,000 per annum today; but he often treated the poor for free. Amongst other medical advances he is known to have collaborated with William Withering on the use of digitalis - the correct dosage of which is critical! His other interests included the study of flora and fauna from other climates; corresponding with Joseph Banks, translating Linnaeus' famous classification of plants and establishing a botanic garden at nearby Maple Hayes Hall. The strata of Derbyshire's rocks had been studied by William Hutton and geology was discussed with John Whitehouse, a clockmaker from Congleton. These activities and influences seem to have nurtured a growing realisation that species had evolved over a much longer period of time than the generally accepted 4004 BC laid down by William Usher.

Fossils were also found in the excavation of Harecastle Tunnel on the Trent and Mersey canal that was being constructed for his friends Josiah Wedgwood and Matthew Bolton. "Perhaps the fossils of fish that were found on such hilltops may not have been put there by God to fool us?". Thus came his adoption of the motto "Everything from Shells" which shocked his friend and neighbour Canon Seward.

Some of Erasmus Darwin's inventions are also on show in the museum and his designs can be seen in his 'common place book'. These include a biographier (a model of this method of copying letters is in the house), a flying bird, a horizontal windmill, a speaking machine and a design to stabilise horse drawn coaches on the rough roads of the period. He claimed that the latter invention was used without mishap for 1,000 miles. His design for a barge lift was later used on the Grand Western Canal near Wellington, Somerset. His poetry was admired by Coleridge and other contemporary poets but it is his scientific work on pathology and propagation, principally 'Zoonomia', which marks him as the unacknowledged grandfather of the evolutionary theory.

Erasmus Darwin's promotion of Philosophy, Science and Education was very much ahead of his time. He died on 18th April 1802 and is buried in All Saints Church, Breadsall, just north of Derby.

Lorna Bushell
May 2014